Most of my life, I’ve had no idea what it means to “be a man”. I mean, I’m heterosexual, I have a penis, I can open jars, like to tinker with electronics or recently woodworking, and I exhibit a number of traits that might be stereotypically intrinsic to males (f’r instance, I suck at navigation, especially if I’ve never been someplace before). But when you hear exhortations from just about everyone from your father to kids on the playground to (of all things) girlfriends, to “be a man”, and you just can’t parse the suggestion much less actively try to change yourself for it, it makes life, and navigating gender roles in today’s society, a little difficult.
I grew up an ostracised geek — far too intelligent, and far too incapable of interacting at a “normal” level with the other kids. Looking back now, I suspect that I may be a touch on the Asperger’s scale, as I had an insatiable desire for learning through school, never meaning to flaunt it but always giving the other kids that impression, and I had a total inability to understand what social norms I was breaking while I was breaking them. Even now I often miss obvious social cues in conversation, or get too excited about something and make people back away.
As a result of my being the outcast that I was, I had a very difficult time with the opposite sex. Having never had much chance to practice social interaction, much less the flirty kind of interaction that might attract a lady, I was often put into social situations I was wholly unprepared for, and oftentimes my reactions would lead only to further teasing to the point where I hardly had any self-esteem to speak of. I never really had very many guy friends, having only really one throughout all of grade school, and I tended to befriend girls much easier than guys for any number of reasons — I wasn’t into many kinds of music, didn’t really watch TV much, I wasn’t into sports (on a class ski trip I once spent three quarters of the allotted time in the chalet sitting by the fire with my favorite book, a gigantic “Complete Works of William Shakespeare” – it seems to me that I read The Tempest, if memory serves), I was a video gamer before video games got cool, and I knew my way around a computer like nobody’s business. All that adds up to having zero common interests with the other kids. That I even managed to make friends with girls was a feat unto itself, though I think it helped that I was pretty willing to subsume parts or most of my personality for theirs. I was an excellent ear for them to pour all their boyfriend concerns on — I recall vividly having a huge crush on someone who had friend-zoned me for pretty well our entire friendship, and my heart breaking repeatedly as she explained all the reasons why she was upset with her boyfriend but never coming to the conclusion that he was poison for her.
My first girlfriend was when I had just turned 16, and a friend had done the fixing-up, though I have to admit it wasn’t a “mutual friend” situation — it was a friend of mine who found out about a socially awkward girl in another class and fixed us up. The relationship lasted about a year, though it wasn’t really built on much of anything except for teenage hormones and being in love with the idea of having a girl/boyfriend. Yes, hormones, and we had a good deal of consentual sex throughout the relationship, making me feel at least a little bit manly for the first time in my life — I mean, that’s what manly men are about, right? Sex all the time? Even though I really wasn’t feeling any particular draw toward having sex, any more than I was feeling any particular draw toward jacking off all the time, the very idea that I was capable of getting sex suggested to me that I was better than the bullies had convinced me that I was.
Throughout our relationship, that first girlfriend had been a compulsive liar. I covered for her — I became extremely adept at explaining why what she had said wasn’t so much a lie as it was a misinterpretation of facts, or a misspeaking of the truth, even to the point where I was lying to cover for her lies, and I didn’t honestly realize I was doing it until the whole relationship came to a crashing screeching halt. You see, after about a year of us seeing one another, having sex, breaking up over the phone then (usually mostly me) crying until we got back together, she slept with another guy, then worried that I’d find out, preemptively broke up with me, then set about tarnishing my reputation as hard as she possibly could. She accused me of raping her, though she never brought the charges directly to me — she had passed this execrable lie around to all her friends instead.
The day we had broken up for good, I was pretty numb all day long. Everyone was staring at me, and I thought it was to watch the freakshow to see if he cried over the breakup. I didn’t realize there was hatred in any of those eyes, and couldn’t concentrate on just about anything — not school, which ordinarily I loved, not the angry eyes, not even my own situation. I felt like I was far removed from the whole thing and time was merely passing.
Getting off the bus that day, I was jumped by one of the kids that got off at my stop. I didn’t know why it had happened, but I fought back for every pound of my scrawny frame and battled the asshole to a stalemate (with the help of another, older kid, who kept the inevitable pile-ons from joining in while we wrestled). A car approached and the event broke up when the driver stopped and threatened to get out and drag us all to the cops or worse, our parents — as though this random guy actually knew who any of us was. At least, he didn’t know me.
This wasn’t terribly manly of me, managing only barely to fight off an attacker and only because of two intercedents. But it snapped me back out of my daze. I didn’t know what was going on until the next day, when I discovered that the rumor was spreading that I had raped my then-ex girlfriend. I also discovered that same day that she and another boy had been liaising for at least a week before she dumped me, and betrayed as I was, I don’t think I fully grasped the severity of the situation — in the other kids eyes, I was guilty at the merest accusation. Worse, I had to lie to my parents about us ever having sex, out of some twisted sense that admitting we’d been hiding that fact would just compound the situation, and I kept lying about it to everyone for years afterward.
This came just two days before a school dance. Under normal circumstances I would have gone with the girlfriend, or stayed home if I was still single. But that exhortation to “be a man” floated back to me from over the years from one of the many times my father had tried to get me to stop crying, or stop being so pacifist (I had joined, then quit boxing when I was 14 after just four months, when I won my first sparring match against another boy, and felt horrible that I had to hit him to win). So, the gender role was successfully instilled in me despite my own nature, and I decided to go to the dance that night despite all the previous events, despite my own nature, and despite every shred of good judgement I had. My father even gave me his faux-leather jacket to wear so I would look “sharp”, in his words. And, I did. For a gangly, scrawny, nearly-six-foot-tall 16 year old, I cut a pretty fine figure in that jacket.
While I was at the dance, definitely not getting to dance with anyone (not that the rumor mill had anything to do with THAT — that’s a pre-existing condition), apparently a small lynch mob, led by the boyfriend of my ex’s best friend, came to my house and demanded that I come out to have a chat with them. My father, with a frame like mine only with ropy muscles barely affixed to it from years of rock-bolting at the Mines, and with a fiery Acadian temper, apparently chased them all away, despite at least two of them being built like the kinds of kids that get into university on football scholarships. They had gambled that I’d be home, and I wasn’t. I was off being a man. And so was my dad.
By which I mean, we were both exhibiting stupidity or blindness to obvious danger, and posturing to prove our manhood despite every reason to retreat.
About a month later, more details about the rumor itself started to surface once people actually started speaking to me any — and in fact, the ultimate flaw in the lie was revealed to me by none other than my ex’s best friend, when I was informed that apparently during the “attack”, she had tried to fight me off with a screwdriver and had stabbed me (non-fatally of course) in the chest. And the kids had believed that part of the lie as much as they believed every other. So, me, shy, gawkish geek that I was, with as little body confidence as I had, took off my t-shirt in a crowded hallway and declared “look at my goddamn chest, do you see a scar? Do you see a wound? It never fucking happened, okay!?”
Albeit, probably not as forceful, vulgar, or logical as I remembered, but it did in fact have exactly the effect I intended. Things changed, and I wasn’t bullied, treated like an outcast, or teased any more. I even regained some friends that had stopped talking to me during the whole event. I still wasn’t good at social situations, but people weren’t doing everything they could to compound that fact. It was a watershed moment.
I don’t think any of my actions, taken in the name of “being a man”, have anything to do with men in general. They do have everything to do with standing up for yourself, with doing the stupid thing now and then out of spite, and with living your life with a measure of pride even when everyone’s spitting on you.
And now nearly 15 years later, I have both male and female friends. I have a steady girlfriend. I have learned to stop being a teetotaler, and I have a small coterie of “drinking buddies” now (hai guyz). I even have a local band I hang out with frequently. And I have found an outlet on the intertubes, where I have found a voice, and people read me as though I have interesting or insightful things to say. I still don’t really know what it means to be a man, but I know what it means to be a human being, and to appreciate the blessings I have.
Oh, as a footnote to all this, about six months after accusing me of rape, the ex girlfriend called me while she was in the hospital having her appendix taken out (or something). She wanted to know if I had gotten the note she had written me earlier that week, which I had thrown out. I told her yes. She asked if I wanted to give it another try. I told her no, then said goodbye and hung up despite her protests. Not hearing her out, not letting her convince me it’s worth another try — that was a pretty man-like thing to do in retrospect. Out of all of the above, it’s the part that feels most “manly”. And I’m not proud of it, even though it was the right decision.