by Dommie Darko.
I’m 8 years old and standing in front of a mirror, obsessing about which side to part my hair on. I’m slightly ashamed of how much time I put into my appearance. I feel like it’s weird: how much time I spend thinking about the clothes I want to wear, and how I want to look. I know it’s not something that other boys do, at least I’d never observed them fussing in this manner. Somewhere deep inside, I know that little boys like me aren’t supposed to deliberate about their outfits.
So I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed just because I know that I’m different than other boys. And I’m mostly I’m ashamed because, when I look in the mirror, I have this thought: “I want to be pretty.”
I didn’t want to be a girl. I knew that. I didn’t even want to be pretty like a girl. No, I definitely wanted to be pretty like a man. I knew this is how I felt, but I had no idea what it meant. And I definitely did not know how to pull it off.
And that’s why I was so excited the first time I saw David Bowie. Or maybe it was Robert Smith from The Cure, in the video for “Just Like Heaven,” where he gyrates around in white concealer, black eye shadow, and red lipstick—looking very much like a frumpy vampire who had just rolled out of bed. They were pretty men. And I wanted to be like that.
To make matters worse, my father was a man’s man, and a bit of a homophobe. I noticed, even as a young child, the way he derisively mocked effeminate men. And, at 10 years old, I yearned desperately for his approval. So when the hyper-self-conscious 10-year-old me noticed that my default leg-crossing style was effeminate—with one leg draped over the other, thighs together and calves touching—I felt that this problem must be immediately addressed.
My solution was that, for the next 6 years, I explicitly and self-consciously placed my ankle on my opposite knee whenever I sat down. This, I decided, was the right (read: *masculine*) way to cross one’s legs. I hoped that, as long as I paid close attention to suppress all my instinctual inclinations towards effeminacy, and cultivated masculine affectations, no one—especially not my father—would ever find out the horrible truth that I was actually instantiated a defective version of manhood.
Now, I loved girls. And I admired them. I spend most of my time with women—and I still do. But I’ve never felt the desire to be a woman, or live my life as one. One thing I ought to clarify though, as flawed and inadequate as I felt in my role as a man, I still felt like a man.
About a week ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table, sharing a glass of very expensive scotch with my wife’s partner, The Masseuse (her legal name is suppressed)—who is a transwoman. Eventually the conversation turned to a discussion of gender, and the question of how we knew and understood our gender when we were young. We agreed that we both had major confusion surrounding our gender when we were young. Still, The Masseuse knew that, although she was a boy when she was a child, she wanted to be a woman eventually. Either that, or (according to her) she was going to be dead because she would take her own life. Then in high school The Masseuse took acid for the first time and, apparently, became a woman—at least according to the friends she had taken acid with. This goes to show, LSD has done more good than harm in western culture—but I digress.
Matters weren’t as simple for me. As a kid, I was severely confused. And my carefully concealed and suppressed bisexuality also played a part in my confusion. Because I knew that the way I wanted to look (like a a pretty man) was also what I found attractive in other men.
In high school, and even now, I “presented” … ever so slightly queerly. I didn’t prance around with a limp wrist. I skateboarded and got into fights. However, even amidst these stereotypical markers of young-male delinquency, some (including my parents) looked at my behavior and guessed that would “end up” gay. In high school, my parents were so convinced I was gay that they let me have sleepovers with girls—many of whom I was fucking. By then, I’d developed a penchant for wearing eyeliner and black nail polish. I liked the way it made me look. And although it was the nineties, the tacit assumption was that I must be gay, or just a freak, because I wanted to look like a girl. Further, in the nineties in Los Angeles, there wasn’t much discussion about gender in the social discourse. And the notion of a transgender person was still very new, and most people were unfamiliar with it. I certainly was.
So, up through college, I struggled to comprehend how my internal gender identity related to both my sexuality and how I wanted to be seen by the world. Now, at some point in college I learned that gender doesn’t fucking exist. But did learning that gender was a social construct really make my problematic relationship with manhood?
It would be nice to think that this byzantine system of social norms and expectations that constitute “gender” is something external to me. And that I can declaratively reject it with a sweep of my hand, and thereby free myself from the shame and disappointment I feel because I’m not able to conform to the various strictures it has placed upon me. But this isn’t the truth. The platonic form of ideal manhood isn’t just something that exists in superhero movies and country songs; it’s also written into the social software I use to navigate the world around me, which is filled with human beings of all shapes, sizes and gender presentations.
But when I feel overwhelmed and hopeless, I always remember one very simple fact: David Bowie was a very pretty man. And if he can be pretty, then so can I.
Gender be damned.
I try to laugh about it
Cover it all up with lies
I try and laugh about it
Hiding the tears in my eyes
Because boys don’t cry
Boys don’t cry
– The Cure, “Boys Don’t Cry”