I use the word “masculinity” to designate those behaviors, attitudes, mannerisms, personality traits, interests and so forth, that are assumed to naturally be associated with being male. Some of these traits are neutral or positive depending on the context, some mostly negative. Some are about maintaining dominance in a hierarchal society. I put “masculinity” in quotation marks because I want to call into question that certain qualities naturally manifest as a result of being male or that having them makes one more male or like a man. I also need some term to refer to the specific behaviors that male people are expected and trained to perform that help to maintain a patriarchal society.
I find it helpful to dissociate myself from this concept. Trying to be “masculine” fucked me up. I still have a lot of the characteristics that are considered “masculine” in this culture but I don’t feel like I have to call them or myself “masculine”. I know that’s not the only way to use that word but that’s how I use it.
Growing up a very gender atypical girl, I developed the ability to cross-identify to relate better to people and my culture. I didn’t think of myself as a boy before my mid-teens but I saw men and boys as more like me than most women and girls so I used them as my guides for how to behave. I learned to look up to men as role models, play as male characters and see boys as my peers rather than most girls. I tuned out most messages aimed at girls and took the attitude that they weren’t talking about me. Being able to take a culturally male point of view helped me feel less alienated. It also lead me to internalize a lot of “masculinity” throughout the course of my life. This is not the same as being raised as a boy but it did give me some qualities in common with people raised to be men. For a lot of my life, I came at “masculinity” as an outsider. Even though a lot of “masculine” traits felt natural to me, when I manifested them it seen as atypical or unnatural.
My parents were generally supportive, though sometimes mystified, and my behavior wasn’t a big deal when I lived close to the city but I got virtually no support or positive feedback from the world around me once I’d moved out to the country. I went from being a unremarkable tomboy to freak and felt like I belonged nowhere. When I stumbled across butchness, with the understanding that it meant I could be a “masculine” female, I was still an outcast but now I had a way to define myself. I felt like I had more control and having a place in some sort of order made me feel more secure. Eventually I became too attached to fitting into categories.
Something shifted in my consciousness when I started to consciously identify with “masculinity”. In some ways it expanded my range of possibilities in terms of expression. Before, I felt uncomfortable in “feminine” clothes and dressed as andorgynously as I could but I hadn’t considered that I could actually shop in the dude’s section. Learning about other women who did lead me to try it out and I discovered that wearing “men’s” clothes felt right in a way that “girl’s” clothes never had before. I don’t think wearing “men’s clothes” makes one “masculine” now but I did at the time. I found ways to alter my appearance that made me feel more comfortable but I also started following more rules because I wanted to be recognizably “masculine” or butch to other people.
This got pretty toxic as time went on both in terms of how I ended up treating other people and in how I ended up losing my sense of self to these standards. I got to the point where I couldn’t tell if I was acting certain ways because that’s how I wanted to act or because I felt like I had to act that way to be “real”. I became really uncertain of myself and felt like I was performing a lot of the time but that I had to keep up this performance at all costs. I wasted a lot of energy.
During my teen years I started buying into a lot of macho bullshit, “masculinity” as being “tough”, meaning never feeling emotions or pain, being aggressive, competitive and dominating. I could be all of those things anyways but buying into “masculinity” encouraged me to express those qualities more. I learned a lot of this crap from movies I liked to watch. I tried to be a bad ass like the dudes I saw on the screen but mostly I just ended up making a fool of myself.
I got into “out-butching” other butch dykes. I saw butch as being “like a dude” so that meant being more “like a man” and less “like a girl”. A lot of it was really stupid and shallow, like feeling I was “more butch” than one of my butch girlfriends cuz I wore boxers and she wore “girl underwear.” I was really proud of how often I passed as a boy.
I felt like I had to be really aggro to be sufficiently “masculine”. I was pretty scrawny, so I stayed out of physical altercations knowing that I won’t fare well in a fight. I wanted to fight though because I had all this rage inside of me. Mostly I expressed my aggression through my speech. I liked to argue and debate and I apparently intimidated some people, enough that one of my college profs had to tell me to cool it down some because I was unintentionally scaring other students into silence. My argumentative behavior read as male to my peers at college. They seemed to think I was too angry and territorial to be a woman.
I took a lot of my anger out on my mom. My relationship with her was an expression of “masculinity” built on misogyny, a “masculine” person hurting and putting down a “feminine” person in order to feel more powerful and strong. It was sick and parasitic and anything but strong. I fucking feed off of my mom and also took in the support that she voluntarily gave me but refused to see it. I refused to acknowledge her importance to me, how she sustained me both by caring for me and by being my punching bag. That’s one of the reasons I ended up falling apart when she died. In addition to the trauma of her suicide itself, I also lost someone who was both actively nurturing me and who I was using to prop up my rather fragile sense of self.
Abusive behavior can be really addictive. I would get high off of saying all sorts of fucked up shit to my mom, enjoying when she became obvious hurt and distraught. I got off trying to control her actions, getting her to drive me places or buy me things. She called me a bully but that didn’t bother me, it made me proud. Being mean to her inflated my ego in a sick way. It made me feel better about being so low among kids my age. My actions were partially a consequence of being put down for years at school and not having my “masculine” traits recognized and respected by other kids, boys in particular. I think a lot of the sexism I faced, not being taken seriously by dudes and fear of being seen as “just a girl” intensified and fueled my macho act. I don’t think I would’ve been such a dick if I hadn’t lived in an environment that made me feel incredibly insecure.
I don’t in any way excuse my behavior. It was fucked up, I was a fucked up person. I was also a very entitled person. Part of why I’d harass my mom to get her to do things for me was because I felt entitled to have my way. I remember my mom took me to a small women’s music festival about an hour away and I ended up screaming at her because she was only willing to buy one CD for me and I wanted her to buy two. This older dyke scolded me for being such a brat and not being able to appreciate having a mother willing to take me to such an event in the first place. She was right, I was being a little shit.
I know from talking to other people that I’m not alone in looking back on my teen years and realizing what an obnoxious spoiled brat I was. I think I feel guiltier than average because my mom killed herself when I was twenty, before I had any chance of establishing a healthier adult relationship with her. I know that my actions hurt her and made her life harder and that she felt like she was a shitty mother because of how I treated her. I have a hard time remembering a lot of my past with mom. Different times are painful to recall for different reasons. My teen years are hard because of what a thoughtless, cruel person I often was to her.
Not all the “masculinity” I idealized was totally traditional or macho. In my teens and early twenties, I discovered a lot of queer male writers whose work spoke to me. I found plenty of fags whose words I adored but very few female writers of any sexuality whose work I really liked. I wonder if this was a minor factor in my decision to transition, trying to become more like the writers I admire since I wanted to be a writer myself. It would fit in with a trend I see looking back, how unsatisfied I was with myself and how I was looking for things I’d rather be and then trying to become them.
I still deal with some consequences of internalizing “masculinity” though I started growing disillusioned with the concept in my early twenties after I realized how it contributed to my destructive relationship with my mom and others. I stopped trying to act a certain way, stopped getting so uptight about being seen as “feminine” or “faggy”.
I think I still have some problems accessing my emotions because of how much time I spent trying to block them out when I was younger. This may have been a coping technique I was inclined to use anyways but I was also encouraged to use this strategy because I believed that “masculine” people don’t let anything get to them, that it’s better to feel nothing than be overly sensitive. The thing is, I’ve found that repressing my feeling can lead to them suddenly erupting later and causing more damage than they would’ve in the first place if I’d just found a way to express them. I’ve also noticed that sometimes I have to feel something deeply and intensely in order to move beyond it or understand it and so if I can’t access my feelings I can become stuck. I don’t feel the pain but it’s still keeping me down. I don’t consciously try to numb myself out anymore, it’s become a automatic process, along with some forms of dissociation. I’m still learning how to unblock myself. Like I said, I think I may be predisposed to this type of defense mechanism but I think I also reinforced this tendency in myself, giving myself more work to do now to overcome it.
Overall, I’ve gotten a lot more laid back about about coming off a certain way and I’m not so concerned about what sort of image I’m projecting. I’m more into working to make sure I’m treating people well and expressing myself as honestly as possible. I’m not worried about coming off as a specific gender though I’m still getting over my issues with being seen as a woman.
I feel like a fool now for wasting so much time trying to be “masculine”. For one, I didn’t have to try so hard. I don’t try to be “masculine” now and people will occasionally tell me how “manly” I seem to them. I’m not trying to pass but a lot of people still see me as male. I probably pass better now than when I was really concerned with passing because now I’m trying to do what comes naturally and my behavior is far less contrived. But mainly I regret believing that I had to try to be something at all, feeling like who I was wasn’t good enough and that I had to change myself and conform to be something better.
I know that “masculinity” isn’t going away anytime soon but I find it helpful to distance myself from it and not identify with it. I still need to refer to it to explain my reality because that idea has a lot of power and impacts how others perceive me and treat me. Some people may treat me with more respect because they take people they see as “masculine” more seriously. Other people may feel threatened because they think my “masculinity” is perverted or that I’m usurping their territory. My perceived “masculinity” leads many people to group me with men instead of women, either as a man or as a woman who’s “male-like” or wants to be a man. In the past, this reinforced my own male-identification.
Now I’m teaching myself that I can be a woman, a butch dyke and not rely on any standards of “masculinity” or maleness in order to exist or be real or respected. I’m going back to some old ideas I had when I was younger and questioning what a woman was but going further because in the past I still used “masculinity” to expand the range of womanhood. Now I see that I don’t need that concept to be what I am.