Guest post by Josh Spokes.
I have some thoughts on femininity, women, and my relationship to these as a gay man. For months I’ve stewed on this topic wondering how to express it. This may or may not be an elegant exposition. It’s also full of “I” statements, which is tedious and unfortunate. I know no other way to make it clear my subject is my own impressions, not generalizing statements about what other people ought to do or be motivated by.
1. As a man I’m never going to grok what it is to live as a woman. Please know that nothing I write is meant to suggest or imply that.
2. This is not a cookie-seeking project; I’m not going for Best Man Feminist merit badges.
Violence against and denigration of women has always been viscerally emotional for me. It affects me in nearly the same way that my horror of homophobia and anti-gay violence does. Misogyny so upsets me that I worry I sometimes look like that guy who’s SUPER INTO FEMINISM in a way that’s annoying or invites skepticism.
Conversely, I trust women and feel emotional connections to them far more easily than I ever will with most men. (Those of you men who are my friends or lovers don’t need to get anxious about this, ‘kay? I love you and trust you, but you are an exception). Given a choice during an end of the world scenario, I’d choose to survive the apocalypse with all women before I’d even think of wanting men around. I’m completely serious about that. It has been that way since I can remember being a person with thoughts. Men have always been a danger to be carefully watched, tiptoed around, and never to be behind one’s back. Yes, one of the obvious roots of this was growing up in a house with a wife/child beater and rapist.
But that is not nearly all of it. From the point of sentience I gravitated toward things “for girls.” Girls’ games. Fashion. Jewelry, make-up. Female-driven literature. Girl heroines in stories were far more likely to make me think, “I get that, I so understand that” than the boy heroes I was supposed to like. Grumpy, cynical Harriet the Spy? When I say I identified with her, it’s not strong enough. I really got her.
My fantasy game-playing always had me as a female character. I was Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. Or Malificent from Sleeping Beauty. Or a witch. Or a genie. Yes, there was a decided bias toward villainous and magical characters. At the time I thought it was just because they were so obviously fabulous and had better clothes, which is true. Looking back I suspect it was an unconscious identification with a character who was smart, passionate, but constricted by a society that characterized everything interesting about her as a threat to be neutralized.
I was tormented with the idea that I was born a mistake. That I was “supposed to be a girl.” There was literally no framework for me to understand gender in any other way. I didn’t think I wanted to be a girl (although I still don’t know exactly what that meant), but I was sure I wasn’t right and something was seriously broken.
Though I came out as a gay man at a very young age and used bravado as an effective tactic, I was haunted for a long time by the belief that there was something ontologically wrong with me.
This is the toxicity of gender.
As you guessed, I was read as an effeminate boy, starting before I went to kindergarten. You can fill in the many instances of gender policing and attempts to circumscribe my activities.
The price was ostracization, vicious bullying, beatings, whisper campaigns, teachers with barely a passing interest in sticking up for me because what did I expect being such a little queen. Almost all of it from men and boys. The sexual threats implied in the violence were clear, even if they were never spoken. I knew from the beginning that men had slotted me into the category of bitch, that which is slapped around, used, degraded, and raped if too uppity. In short, I read as “girl/woman” in this misogynistic system. In some ways, even a bit worse, because I willingly liked “girl things.” Didn’t even have the sense to be ashamed of it.
Girls and women were usually safe havens for me. With rare exceptions, I wasn’t afraid of girls. I didn’t fear they’d hold me down and laugh while beating the shit out of me. I didn’t fear they’d drag me into a public space to mock and degrade me, confident that their peers would support them or say nothing. Which EVERY macho boy got away with EVERY time with NO consequences. They were right to be utterly confident. They were usually socially rewarded for their bullying, including by teachers.
All this is not an exercise in “working out demons” or any navel-gazing bullshit like that. It’s meant to explain the conclusion I came to recently about my motivations. While I’m not and never will be a woman, I do think I have a closer grasp of what that experience can be like than the average man. Certainly more so than the average straight man. Does this seem reasonable?
This is why feminism matters so much to me. This is why I get shouty and screamy and angry and over the top at the ceaseless misogyny and degradation of women that goes on everywhere, all the time. Because I feel it. Not the way women do, but closer to that than most men will grasp. It’s also me, my kind—-anyone not working overtime to disavow any feminine-coded interests—who is meant to be frightened and put in place by this behavior.
When the women I know and love describe what they go through, it hits me in the gut in a way ordinary empathetic identification doesn’t explain.