Genderiffic

I’m going to riff on something which is only peripherally related to the “mission” of this blog, but I’m sure no one minds.  Right?  Right.

One of the major topics of conversation last night was gender and the expression thereof, and the ways that both of us have dealt with that. For my part, I’ve been mulling these things over a lot lately, in particular since a recent Mass Effect playthrough as a female character (FemShep, in the parlance) pulled front-and-center certain internal assumptions I had about my own gender expression which I was previously not consciously aware of.

We don’t need to have a debate about the value of video games for cultural expression and self-examination, right?  Right.

I’m not a man who is comfortable with traditional masculinity.  This surprises no one, least of all myself.  But I’m still a fairly masculine-presenting, cis man, male.  For a long time, I hadn’t thought about that at all, largely because I don’t need to.  The world is built on the assumption that someone is male, and it’s easy to miss the ways in which one is “default”.  Instead, the focus tends to be on the differences from expectation, but, ultimately, for me, the differences aren’t as great as the similarities.

This isn’t something I’m terribly comfortable with, though.  I have always associated “masculinity” with negative traits–violence, bullying,gender policing, homophobia, tribalism, jingoism, etc.  I was a small boy, and boys are awful to other boys–myself included. I’m still not nearly as comfortable with men as women, and most of my friends remain women.

But the fact of the matter is that I am, and am obviously, male and masculine.  I don’t have to address it, because the world is designed not to throw it in my face, unlike other folks, but it’s there.  I’m making a choice in how to present even if I am merely accepting the default options.  And I’m not doing it because I feel pushed into it; I rapidly and vehemently rebel against those bits that don’t fit right into my identity.  I am this way because I want to be, because it feels right.

What there isn’t, for masculinity, is any sense of choice.  Any way to do it consciously (as opposed to self-consciously), and in an examined manner.  Any way to accept what works while ejecting what’s toxic.  Almost any other gender expression can be done in a subversive way, as an announcement of both the gender itself and also one’s politics associated with it.

I used to follow The Good Man project (no, no link), hoping that it would be, or lead to, a discussion of how to be masculine in the world as it changes.  It didn’t, and (like all of these sorts of discussions) it was quickly co-opted by men who wanted to whinge about their “emasculation” in today’s society, or complain that feminism has “gone too far”, or to lionize those things that are most awful about what’s expected of men. Business as usual.

Guys, dudes, my brothers, look: we are not being left behind. We started out so far ahead.  Other people may be moving faster than we are, but that’s because they have to to catch up.  And it’s no one else’s responsibility to make space for us.  If we want to be allies, or even relevant, we need to be willing to give up a privileged position.  It’s not “emasculating”; no one else can emasculate you.

I like this identity.  I don’t like some of the things that I associate with it, but I don’t have to do those things.  But unlike other possible identities, there isn’t anything to reclaim here, except from my own negative image of masculinity.  So it’s been unnecessary to do it consciously, and in an examined manner.  I haven’t had to decide how to identify, I just have an identity.  I’m starting to think, though, that it doesn’t have to be that way, that maybe there’s a value in the performance.

There are certainly things that are “masculine” that are worth preserving.  Not bullshit about chivalry, or refusing to cry.  Not simple virtues, like “courage” or “steadfastness”, because to claim those belong to masculinity is to claim that they can’t belong to the immasculine (for that matter, I think it’s essentially false to ascribe things like “being nurturing” and “talking about feelings” to femininity).  Not merely biologically male tendencies, like height and musculature.  Not sexuality.  Not even sex or gender, because there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a reason that anyone can’t take on this image.  But the outward presentation of masculinity, things like:

  • Suits
  • Facial hair
  • Swagger
  • Rolled-up, long sleeve, button-down shirts
  • Leading in social dance
  • Ties
  • Big watches

Anyway, these elements of outward presentation, which I think still have great value that it took me a long time to cotton to.  Take ties, for example: I’ve long claimed to hate them.  Partly, this is because I have a huge neck and the shirts that otherwise fit me don’t easily button to the top.  Mostly, though, in honesty, it’s because I’ve associated them with a bullshit corporate culture that I hate.  But I don’t have to do that. And if I don’t, it’ll be rapidly obvious, and I don’t need outward signals to demonstrate that.

A corollary to the conscious choice here is that all other choices are equally valid.  It’s important, in being both masculine and enlightened, to have looked at all the other choices.  It’s important to recognize the value of those choices, and it’s important to make the decision for oneself without making a value judgment on people who make a different choice.

Done right, I think this belongs in a similar category with various sorts of gender bending.  Pi radians, 180 degrees, is still an angle, and mathematics doesn’t distinguish it in any special way; it’s just one angle of infinitely many.  The phrase that keeps rolling around in my head to describe this is “hard dapper”, and I think a couple of people out there already close to epitomize what I’m going for.  Check out Nick Wooster:

Or Phillip Crangi:

However, I don’t know anything about these guys’ personal philosophies.  I think the key elements here for me, for this “hard dapper” thing, are:

  • Masculinity as a conscious choice of outward presentation, as opposed to a default
  • A recognition that this is not the same as “manliness” or “maleness”. These are not the things that a man “should be” or “should wear”.  These aren’t things that anyone of another gender shouldn’t wear.  In fact, folks of other genders make this sort of conscious choice all the time.  It’s just an understanding that so can I.
  • A recognition that this is a selection from a spectrum, and not only is it only one choice of many, it is many separate choices.  I can mix and match whatever I want, even if I settle on one theme.
  • A recognition that I can jettison the things that I don’t want.  A tie isn’t homophobia.  A suit jacket isn’t bullying men who are smaller than me. Leading my partner in a tango isn’t gender oppression.

I’m not sure where this is going, but it’s a new era of self-examination and I’m looking forward to the journey.  I think I’m going to have some of my shirts tailored and buy some ties.

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Oglingology

One of the little oddities about being in an open relationship is relearning how to deal with the urge to look.  It’s no longer entirely forbidden, and I’m with someone who won’t mind–provided I don’t constantly drop out of conversation to ogle.  It’s no less rude than it was before, though, and to some extent having lost the taboo makes it more ambiguous as to when it’s okay.

I don’t know how other people experience the urge to stare at folks they find attractive.  To me the sense is almost like a physical force, like something has grabbed me by the back of the head and is directing where I look.  It isn’t a thing that I’m doing on purpose much as a thing that I have to resist consciously.  And I do, because I find it problematic–for all the high-minded reasons, of course, but also just a sort of personal resentment of my own lizard brain’s attempts to usurp control, damn it.  I also do it for the people I’m with, because there is little I find more annoying about having conversations in a group of straight men than that point when an attractive woman walks by and all discussion ceases until she’s out of view jesus christ can you not control yourselves we were having a really interesting epistemological debate no stop elbowing each other why do you think this is something you should congratulate you should not lose all ability to articulate just because someone in short shorts is stretching nearby.

Anyway. I mean, I do get it, because I know how it feels for me on the back end of those eyes, but it’s still frustrating.  It’s something I associate with straight (or straightish) men because that’s when I see it the most; if I’m with a group of mixed genders or orientations, no one feels comfortable letting loose like that.  I have no doubt that other homogeneous groups have similar tendencies on their own.  And as annoying as it is, when I’m by myself and not publicly visible, in my car or behind a pair of sunglasses, it’s a bit like finally standing on solid ground after treading water for hours.  I don’t have to resist that force any more.

So, on two ends, I know what to do: in company, do not ogle (to the extent that is possible); while alone, ogle freely if you won’t get caught.  Being out with someone I’m seeing used to have such a clearly defined line, which made it–not easy, but simple.  Now, when the lizard grabs my neck while I’m out with someone I’m seeing, there’s a moment of confusion.  What do I do here? Okay, keep talking and don’t look away if she’s talking but right now we’re just looking at the menu but I’m kind of in public and also I’m sure the waitstaff is sick of being stared at because holy crap they’re all really attractive in here and okay let’s just keep looking at the menu until the words resolve again.

Rule of thumb: if you are moving from a monogamous relationship into a nonmonogamous one, the skillset you need is the same but everything is going to be about five times as complicated.  It’s worth it, but only if it’s really important to you.

This is one of a list of things that I’m a little uncomfortable with about myself, most of which are in some way traditionally “masculine”. I try to be conscious about gender and performance, and especially those things that people consider “men’s things” but I know are in fact either socialization or just tendencies.  It just bothers me to be so traditional in these ways.  But oh my asses are awesome.

Edited to add: this post is awfully gazey of me, I know, and I apologize for that.  I’d love it to be as neutral as possible, but the fact of the matter is that it’s mostly about a mostly straight guy looking at mostly women.  Although it is in fact about a mostly straight guy mostly not looking at mostly women, and the fact that that’s physically difficult.  I don’t know a way of addressing this with more delicacy that I’ve used here, and it’s something I want to talk about, but I know it has the potential to be discomfiting.