I don’t understand men.
I don’t even understand what I don’t understand about them.
They’re a most inscrutable bunch, really.
Maureen Dowd – Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide
I don’t have any brothers.
I had limited contact with my uncles growing up (most of whom are now dead).
My father was never around (always at “work”).
Admittedly I think I got into critical masculinity studies because (to a certain extent) men are foreign creatures to me.
That scene in commercials where the (white) father is playing catch with his son in the front yard? Yeah, wasn’t really my experience growing up.
My first real experience with “manhood” was actually in first grade English class. You see, I have small hands.
When you’re a boy, small hands mean you have “really nice handwriting for a boy.”
When you’re a black boy, small hands mean social suicide.
photo by Nathan Bolster
My script was perfect…I even did calligraphy for a while; but I couldn’t palm a basketball.
I aced art every year, but I couldn’t throw a football (properly).
It didn’t really bother me, but it seemed to freak out everyone else. The girls in my class were upset my handwriting was “prettier” than theirs (already encroaching on female territory at six) and other boys didn’t know what to do with me because I didn’t know the cues of being a stereotypical boy. For example, my next door neighbor was cool, but he liked eating bugs so that relationship didn’t last too long. I spent a lot of time alone as a child.
In fifth grade the weirdest thing happened: I randomly became popular for a good two months.
“Tony you got the Barkleys?!”
They were so excited. Of course I knew who Charles Barkley was, but I didn’t know I bought his sneakers and they were the “it” shoe of 1994. I bought them because they were black (I always liked darker shoes as a child). Womp.
In junior high I would excel at sports that didn’t require big hands: tennis, track and wrestling. But the gold standards in boyhood are team sports, so I eventually took to my creative side (which was championed more by teachers and adults in general). In seventh grade I would begin my “career” in journalism working for the school paper.
In high school I was more asexual than anything. The “gay” boys were all flamboyant and that wasn’t me. Besides, in the black community, nerd trumps fag in the put-down department so they focused on my intelligence. No one really cared what I was doing with my penis. I was now editor-in-chief of the high school paper and we were best in New York state two years in a row. I was one of the most powerful non athletes in my grade. You don’t mess with the press.
Freshmen year of college (in Pennsylvania) several women tried to get the business, but I’m proud to say I still have my gold star. I liked women, but not in the same way I liked other men. I lost my virginity at 21 when I returned to New York which started another “crisis” of masculinity (what does this whole top/bottom thing mean anyway?!)
I can’t remember when people started coming to me for sex advice, but it’s always funny when one of my straight identified male friends come to me like “Yo Tony, I’m having problems with my girl BLAH BLAH BLAH…” I listen, then usually give a five sentence explanation complete with action plan to remedy the situation. You can see the light bulb go off in their head.
I was socialized by women; women make sense to me.
But those silly boys…
That probably explains why I don’t have a lot of gay male friends. Gay men are still men and they confuse me. At least straight boys care about girls…and I know stuff about them.
Finishing undergrad in NY was fun. I was dressing differently, carrying myself differently, but didn’t self identify as masculine. During that time I would joke 60% of my masculinity was being black, 30% my voice and the rest other traits. It wasn’t until people discovered my choice in music that people would suspect I was gay.
It wasn’t until a particular psychology teacher introduced me to the BEM Sex Role Inventory in 2004 that I started to make sense of it all. Psychologist Sandra Lipsitz Bem theorized masculinity and femininity weren’t in opposition to one another, but that every human has the capacity for both traits based on cultural expectations. Today, I still score high on both traits (which makes me androgynous).
In grad school one could argue I was the most masculine of the bunch. I was the only male who wasn’t officially out to his family. One day the “when did you come out” conversation happened and the other four guys had silly stories of getting caught messing around at thirteen and such. I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation.
Today, I’ve embraced the fact many people read me as masculine (it makes dating more interesting to say the least). But if you asked me, I’ll tell you the truth: I prefer Mandy Moore over Jay-Z any day.