This piece was previously published and recorded for Scout & Birdie as part of their At First Sight issue. Anna and Jen are wonderful people running a wonderful magazine that covers lit, music, and so much more. Subscribe to their podcast and click through their latest edition.
Thanks for taking the time to open your mail. Very untoxic of you! I’ve been thinking about you.
Two weeks ago, I’m leaving the Speedway in Alsip and approaching one of the side-by-side double doors, and I see a man approaching the other double door. He’s still a few steps away and I prepare to hold the door open for the man by standing a little off to the right. At the same moment, he sees me a few steps away and prepares to hold his door open for me by standing a little off to the left. For a breath we stand still, too close to our own doors in a deadlock of mechanical courtesy. In this stopped second, I don’t look up at him, and he doesn’t look up at me. Time resumes. Our doors swing in unison, and slowly close without a squeak.
So like, was that you, Masculinity?
You: Carhartt jacket, pants with a lot of pockets, grey wraparound sunglasses.
Me: floral print shirt, burnt orange infinity scarf, too dandy.
Us: acting in kindness, failing at our own kindness, bearing witness to ourselves, changing nothing, then silently walking away as if this wasn’t goofy, as if we hadn’t stumbled upon an ancient social dance of mankind.
I hope this was you, Masculinity, because that would mean you have at least one endearing part of you, in the gruff way I’ve come to endure you. If I had to list my grievances of you, I’m not sure where I’d start. Globally? Nationally? Microcosms? Present day or year one?
The first game I played with the kids from the neighborhood was Stick Fight. A quick walkthrough:
- Search your backyard for sticks suitable for hitting each other.
- Join the group of boys under the greenery of my backyard neighbor’s peartree in Summer.
- Hit the shit out of each other.
- Place the icepack your mother gives you so it covers your whole left eye socket.
- After a few days pass, hang out with the same people again.
Was that you, then, masculinity? Boys being boys, copying men, who are, in turn, puppets of other men, neighborhood dads telling their sons to beat each other up? Heirloom emotional withholding passed down for generations out of tradition: you must have been there.
With masculinity, Stick Fight is “learning!” and can be added to the list headed “Things I learned,” a wily thread of lessons in deferred pain and emotions for short-term gains. Over time, the name of the list changes. “Things I learned” became “My strengths” then became “What makes me me.”
Accumulating pain and maturing, the “what makes me me,” turned to “things that suck,” then “reasons I don’t like me,” into “things to blockout” into “reasons to blackout,” and a long period of no edits before changing to “I guess as I’m saying it out loud right now it sounds like trauma but like, no,” to “sure, trauma, to “trauma,” to “Captial T Trauma,” back to “trauma” to the current “oh, yep, that’s… that’s what I call trauma.”
I’m nervous joking around you. You are in all the jokes I used to laugh at, and the jokes I would yell loud over others. You’re the high school me who tried desperately to fit in the boys club. I tried to conform to your comedy as “The Way” and it’s left me with years living in parody. Each set, each show, each “as a dude,” each set up clarifying, “I’m actually quite woke” with the same punchlines risking none of my own skin. From the stage, I’d see you hanging in the back near the bar, fist in your hand. I don’t know if it was a voice in my head or you from the back, but I always heard it.
“You don’t belong. You don’t belong here.”
Even writing this letter, a fear lingers. In a silence, I’ll hear a guy’s voice yell, “Get ‘em!” and be swarmed by fists. Any questioning of you exists with an imagined mob of toxic ideology incarnate waiting around a corner with baseball bats and other sports items.
When I started flirting with my femininity, I knew you’d be angry. Challenging your arbitrary rules is a liberation. Necklaces, bracelets, pearls, floral patterns, emotions “worth” sharing, practicing arts without trying to “win” at art.
Remembering you sitting in the back of my head back in college, tsking “skinny jeans? that’s the gateway drug to girl pants.”
“You’re going out dancing? And not to flirt, but just to ‘Dance it Out?”
“Mike, I know you just discovered an article about androgyny in modeling, but you will never ever be androgynous.”
It took me some years to build up the courage, but I ran through that gateway to girl pants. Did you see me? You definitely noticed the scarves, getting longer, blossoming with color. Cardigans to sweaters to longer sweaters to longer cardigans to full-on sweater dresses. Coworkers noticed. Family noticed. Did you?
The world showed me no shortage of amazing people who accepted me for who I am, while I still couldn’t accept me. To me, it was all still about you, how much you saw me as “not okay,” how much you wouldn’t stand the “it” that was “me.” In each of those moments, burying myself was quicker than standing.
I could have written this sooner, but I still held on to embodying a face of yours: The connection-starved funny man. The nerdy stoic. The best-dressed mystery dandy. The aggressive know-it-all. You taught me well to just keep adapting. By no means am I absolved from hurting others. I’ve been horrible boyfriends, distant friends, ghosts, a shusher. I hate that the worst parts of you rattle inside me like a spray can building pressure. I am non-binary, but I hear you tink catink catink along. I have a privilege that came from “passing,” and I absolutely benefitted from this in jobs interviews and everyday interactions. But “passing” in itself is not full privilege. Passing in itself is a prison and a loss. I grew up a boy, fit in my best with who was around me and what I figured I had to do, under the fear that I wouldn’t be accepted otherwise. There are things that were made easier for me, but there was a day to day degradation that I breathed in and accepted as a pain I must become cozy with. To “keep moving.” Now I’m in the non-man’s land: an imposter to you, masculinity, an imposter to femininity, an impostor in queerness.
For all these reasons and more I would love to sign this letter “eat shit and burn,” —you are preposterous— but I think you detest compassion more. You’re more than just long unruly beards groomed for character or cosmetic automobile genitalia. You’re more than the male pattern baldness my gut links to emotional repression. You’re more than the group of guys talking at length with their arms folded tight. You’re the conversation we’re not having. You’re terrifying.
I write this letter to demand this: give them back. Give everyone back. Give back the time before we learned to withhold emotions. Give my brother back. Give my father back. Wash my brother, father, mother, and sister of every unnurturing male role enacted on them. Give me what everyone would become if we had purified You. I want to see who we are without this poison stopping us.
Masculinity, I do not know what the point of you is or if you even have an “upside” that can in anyway outweigh your toxicity. You are weird and strange and dumb and terrifying and beautiful. I don’t know what makes you “beautiful,” but I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. I will find your buttons, discover what makes you uncomfortable, and will not stop mashing those buttons until you’ll let go of me and the people I love.
Until the next time we almost see each other,