A few years ago, I tried seeing a therapist. He asked me to explain/describe what masculinity/maleness is/means to me. I’m fairly certain he regretted insisting after I tried getting out of it.
When I was younger, I had an answer that meant half of something to me and satisfied mental health professionals. Then I got into alternatively parroting some version of a narrative that they couldn’t reasonably find fault with and calling out their ciscentrict/(hetero)sexist shit. I’ve wondered if any of them questions the honesty of the narrative portion of what I shared but reconsidered the wisdom in investigating after I was done invalidating bullshit pathology.
Along the way I read bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men Masculinity, and Love, Nicolas Riou’s Un Homme, un Vrai, y’a Quoi Dedans?, and others along similar lines. I agree with debunking patriarchal understanding of maleness and masculinity but not with any of the answers proposed towards grappling with “what makes a man”. Anything that includes reproductive ability as a factor falls apart vis-à-vis my congenital infertility. Anything that alludes to physiological strength, however located outside of patriarchy, is meaningless IMO. I’ll still be male when age has rendered me frail (if something else doesn’t before then). Men with particular dis/abilities are still male.
[Picture by Chester Wade from Unsplash. Description: man wearing glasses and holding his left hand near his heard looking into the glow of neon lights from a store front.]
Left with unsatisfying scraps, I interrogated the moments I felt male. Those are few and far between. I hated “are you a boy or a girl” as a child, I hate “what are your pronouns” as an adult. My gender is neither made or destroyed by pronouns.
One example to help illustrate why I think this way are possessive pronouns. In French, possessive pronouns reflect the gender of common nouns, which are decided mostly by their spelling (there are always exceptions in French!) but definitely not based on who typically owns/uses X thing. (e.g. the French words for breast (sein), and vagina (vagin), are masculine and the French words for cock (queue, bite) are feminine.) In English, possessive pronouns reflect the gender of the person interacting with and/or owning a(n) thing/object (Eric picked up his book, Erica picked up her book). I was baffled as a kid that I’d have to remember the gender of whom owned a book before I could say his/her book, because as far as I was concerned, the book had it’s own grammatical gender, so who cared what the gender of its owner was? Had I known about their as an alternative back then might have resolved that confusion for me but I’ll never know about that hypothetical.
At any rate, to me pronouns are grammar, and I’m not grammar. They are one of a language’s tool to help convey communication. They have purpose, but the choice you make, in say English, where your choice projects a gender unto me will let me know something about how you consider me. I’d rather know more about how you consider me, my ability to assess my safety may depend on it. I know how I consider myself and it isn’t dependent on your validation.
Standard disclaimer that just because this is how my language and culture interacted with other languages and gender doesn’t mean other francophones necessarily relate. We are not a monolithic group with the same relationship to all facets of our language, language acquisition, etc. I’m a single francophone, whose learning of other languages was framed by the age at which I started learning them, and the who, when, where and how of it all, possibly my emerging dysphoria but I couldn’t tell you for sure.
[Picture by Pexel. Description: Mind the gap written on the edge of a London underground platform.]
That aside, I need people who ask to explain why and how they’re invested in the answer they seek. As the person asking, as far as I’m concerned, this is more about them than me. If you believe gender expression is a thing, that I’m expressing some iteration or another of this gender thing, then you should thus be able to ascertain an answer base on it. If you can’t discern what my expression might be intended to convey, reflect on whether it matters or not whether you know the answer. If you don’t need it, proceed accordingly. I’m bi, so if the context is romantic/sexual, bring on whatever you have going on. Pity if you can’t say the same about me.
Or you don’t think gender expression is a thing. In which case, what part of gender matters to you (what makes it up?) and why? Identity? Physiological sex? (Because you’re almost certainly blurring that line between gender and sex.) If none of it matters to you, retract your question and we’ll be fine.
[Picture by Brunel Johnson on Unsplash. Description: black and white portrait of a person with a backpack and jack standing in thick fog.]
I came to the conclusion that I don’t know what makes me male in the moments I feel male. I just know I am, and most of the rest of the time I feel disconnected by notions of gender, and that’s how I like to be in those moments. I have a feminine side too, it does its thing like the rest of me does.
I tried to figure out what felt masculine to me. This lent itself to a more interesting line of thought (opinions may differ). For everything I came up with, I could imagine that same thing making someone else feel feminine/womanly. At best it became clear it was subjective and more than anything this dismantled a bit of internalised femmephobia I didn’t realise I had until then. One of the things I listed for myself in particular did it for me. My sense of confidence felt masculine to me. There’s no rhyme or reason to that, the more I thought about it, the more absurd it seemed as something from which I derived a sense of masculinity. I already knew confidence could make others feel feminine (and that’s every bit as empowering as my sense of confidence was to this rapidly crumbling notion of masculinity I had for myself.)
I could think of nothing about myself that felt masculine that I considered inherently masculine upon inspection, including the abstractly rooted conviction that “I just know” I’m male as a justification for my maleness, when I even feel a sex/gender. Nothing about body parts, gender expression, behaviour, so on ultimately made the cut.
I like a bunch of things that are traditionally considered masculine such as men’s formal wear (I feel confident, sometimes to a fault, in a suit/business rain jacket, so on). But those can be just as much appreciated, enjoyed and worn by people of other genders. I love a lot of women’s empowerment songs too. They make up a good chunk of my playlists. I can’t think of a single man singing about celebrating maleness song that I like. Most make my skin crawl (cause they’re steeped in patriarchy/heteronormativity/cis-fertility-essentialism), the rest leave me indifferent.
[Picture by Pexels. Description: black and white o a hand touching its reflection in a mirror.]
On some level I think it odd I transitioned, especially as my dysphoria melts away because that’s why I transitioned: to manage my dysphoria. But in its near total absence, it’s easy to think “before I didn’t have all this scar tissue, I didn’t have all this surgery related debt, blah, blah, blah” and wonder what this was all about. I hope I never forget all of the horrible ways dysphoria made me feel because it’s mostly what I had left to remind myself why I transitioned. I wasn’t trying to become male. I was trying not to crawl out of my skin. And the things that worked got me living as a guy, so that’s what I’m doing.
I try to own that living as such comes with male privilege but those “deer caught in headlight” confused looked when someone says “you’re such a guy” aren’t rehearsed. They often come as unexpected reminders of how often others are invested in gendering everything and everyone. And they probably are the result in part of male privilege, that within whiteness in particular, gets left unnamed/unlocated so often you can fool yourself into thinking it doesn’t need to be done. I’m still figuring this stuff out.
But the truth is I don’t have an answer to any version of questions such as “what makes me male?” or “what is masculinity?” I could take an awkward try at answering what it’s like to live as such, or the ways in which masculinity is socially constructed, enforced and regulated. But beyond that, I don’t have much to contribute.