By Chris Dixon, May 1998
As a man, I have rarely thought about how I came to understand “masculinity.” In fact, dominant images of masculinity have only helped me to ignore how I have been conditioned to accept certain ideas about “manhood.” A while ago, though, I read an article in a class that I was taking that made me think more critically about how my understanding of my gender identity has been shaped. The article was about school as a place where boys learn about what it is to be “male.” It made me think about my experiences in school.
As I searched my history as a student, I realized that, for as long as I can remember, I have been uncomfortable with traditional ideas of “normal” masculinity. For example, I vividly recall that in the game that many of us know as “boys chase girls” at recess in elementary school, I frequently ran with the girls. I also remember that most of the competitive games at school scared me more than attracting my interest. I dreaded the physical education classes that we had twice a week from first to sixth grade. I simply never “measured up” to the physical prowess of most of the other boys. I see now that the P.E. ritual, in many ways, set and reinforced how we thought of masculinity.
Furthermore, I can grasp in retrospect how my seven-year-old understanding of masculinity came to be tied to heterosexism and homophobia. I remember walking with my best friend Clark at recess, both of us often with our arms around each other in mutual affection, until one day his older brother called us “faggots.” Though I had no idea what exactly that label meant, I knew it was bad. There is truly no better example in my mind of the point that heterosexist silencing affects everyone. I was just a child, but my ways of showing affection to other boys (and, later, men) were severely limited for years before I was able to critically examine my early conditioning.
In elementary school, I was, by no means, a “gender bender.” Simply put, like many other boys, I was uncomfortable with many of the norms I was expected to fulfill. I didn’t really think of challenging them, though. Fortunately, by eighth grade, still uncomfortable with prevailing ideas of masculinity and hardly “popular,” I found a group of older, eleventh- and twelfth-grade friends that accepted me. Tellingly, they were predominantly queer–lesbians and one gay man. To them, gender roles were games to play, not fixed norms. Likewise, sexuality was something to enjoy, not to repress or confine. I remember at this same time, filling out surveys for sex education class and others, marking the sexual orientation box “undecided.” That became one of the most liberating ways that I could think of myself.
I think it was my lesbian friends who taught me best that I could be male, non-traditional, and anti-sexist. In a very concrete way, they showed me that women are not passive sexual objects, but subjects capable of self-determination. And they helped me see that I could be a man, yet not feel threatened by their strength, their assertiveness. To this day, most of my best friends are still strong, assertive women.
Even as my supportive group of queer friends graduated, I didn’t forget the lessons that they taught me about my ability to consciously shape my gender and sexual identity. I certainly don’t think that I’ve escaped “masculine” norms–my friends still tell me that I’m being sexist when I am–but I have been and continue to be critical. And I feel more free for it.
This essay, originally a journal entry, was published in On the Road to Healing: A Booklet for Men Against Sexism.