Content Warning: Quotation of f-slur
Leaving my last “History of Sexuality” lecture, I pondered:
What attaches me to this label of a “man?” Does it serve what I want from my life?
I had never thought deeply about my gender before, but with a newfound awareness of the gender system I lived in, I realized I might have always been more conscious of its weight on me than my other cis male peers. Didn’t we all question why we have to deepen our voices when talking on the phone? Did no one else consider how the paleness of their skin allows their lips, a light but notable pink, to appear as if they were wearing lipstick and think about the sex appeal of their narrow hips? Did more than a few of us occasionally adopt hyperfeminine behaviors when drunk? Hips swaying as I walk, thinking “I’m gentle. I’m fluid.” Surely we all must? Right?
I never thought that others might not. But suddenly, my education forced me to think about the above considerations. For the last few weeks that semester, as I studied the history of sexuality, my gender and I were in a tug of war. I came to realize then that I’m not particularly interested in the expectations that come with being a “man,” spanning from closing off segments of my emotional range to not being allowed to sit with my legs crossed. Following these expectations makes me less happy. Yet, it’s difficult not to observe them.
On most days, I feel like a man. That makes some sense, given I was socialized as one. I’ve often associated my manhood with soccer, a sport I’ve played since preschool. I loved the rhythm of the ball and foot, the hive mind of a team. I was always told that I was a fun player to watch, moving gracefully with the ball, like a dancer weaving through a crowd and discovering space. For most of my life, soccer ate up at least two hours of my day, five days a week. As the field dominated my time, so did its gender norms.
The spirit of a sports team is mostly one of hypermasculine comradery. These were boys I won state titles with. How could we not cling to a sense of fraternity? Many of us did. But in eighth grade, this macho environment also enabled one teammate to repeatedly tell me that I was a “faggot.” I remember how ostracized I felt, how quickly I had been degraded from being recognized as a teammate to being targeted with a slur. I also remember that that teammate was one of my first queer fantasies. Then, I was jumping mental hurdles to deny the legitimacy of thoughts outside my control.
Though the homophobic comments toward me fizzled out as high school began, I never played as well as I once did on that team. I never trusted that I was fully accepted by these boys, my hometown teammates. Being called the f-slur was emasculating, and it pushed me to seek out masculinity in forced ways. In high school, I wanted to own the other boys in most rooms. I adopted an effort to be subtly domineering.
In 11th grade, I was junior varsity captain of the soccer team. The group of boys I led, most of them a year younger than me, dubbed me “Capitán.” In the way of masculine comradery, they adored me. They also adored the f-slur — even more than my eighth-grade teammates. And bluntly, I enjoyed hearing them say it, in casual reference and to others, because this time I was a part of the in-group; even better, a leader of the in-group. One day, a teammate confided in me, saying the word made him uncomfortable. I ignored him.
Another teammate and I would shamelessly flirt with one another. I might’ve been prone to sit against his leg or invent innuendos from the Queen song “Bicycle Race.” No one questioned me. I thought I held enough power that I could get away with that stuff. Yet when he asked me out, I freaked, too afraid to look my sexuality in the eye. I stopped talking to that teammate until the spring. Unlike in eighth grade, the version of manhood established by this team — equal measures homoerotic, homophobic and unfiltered — suited me at the time. But it hurt others, and I ignored it. Now I regret it.
My experience playing soccer was shaped by strict definitions of categorizing gender, which can create oppressive systems. Broad historical examples range from the expectations of passive femininity placed on Roman Patrician women to how an imperialist Britain hyper-masculinized Iranian male culture, to 19th-century Western anti-crossdressing laws. And to my own experiences in sport, one must be angry, dominant and heterosexual to qualify as a man. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the performances of those definitions is effectively ostracized, even verbally abused.
The purpose of a label is to categorize, identify and ensure conformity to varying extents depending on the culture. With that knowledge, “traditional” Western labels of manhood and womanhood as we currently understand them are not concepts I want to endorse. So, if I reject the societal expectations of “man,” what use is the label to me at all?
A sense of conflict about my gender is not new to me. When I wasn’t on the sports field, I explored theater and music. I loved the flamboyance of the stage. Theater possesses a quality of creativity that feels limitless. In high school, I wrote and directed student plays and attended drama club, exposing myself to an entirely different set of gender norms, in which androgyny was the new masculinity and fluidity was expected.
My senior year of high school, I attended Walnut Hill School for the Arts as a Writing, Film and Media Arts major. The Hill felt like its own world; nothing was familiar. Everyone owned artistic opinions and dressed creatively, or at least abstained from highly-gendered basketball shorts and leggings. The straight boys painted their nails black, and many of the gay boys strode with more grace than I’d seen any boy stride with before. I thought of myself as bisexual. I never explicitly told anyone my sexual orientation, but the many queer eyes on me figured it out and accepted me as I was.
I felt like I understood neither the handful of somewhat narcissistic, metrosexual straight boys, nor most of the gay boys, many of them carrying themselves in a way that caught my lustful eye. I befriended girls: I had a clue as to how to talk to them.
At Walnut Hill, my gender expression oscillated wildly between masculine and feminine, often depending on my level of comfort with a group or space. For example, the theater majors in their abundance of enthusiasm, anxiety and all else often overwhelmed me and I found myself feeling more masculine when with them. The music majors, on the other hand, reminded me of those I met during my years playing violin and viola and, due to this familiarity, I found myself feeling more androgynous or feminine around them. At Walnut Hill, my sense of manhood became something I could experiment with rather than the all-encompassing expectation it was throughout my adolescent years.
I arrived at the University of Michigan as a sophomore theater major. Buzzing around North Campus, I began to sorely miss the familiarity and camaraderie of a masculine sports environment without being entirely sure why. Like these systems of gender and sexuality I’m studying, I feel as if some aspect of my gender is subject to the whims of the weather.
Perhaps labeling in itself causes ideological restriction. Gender and sexuality are incredibly malleable concepts, as different cultures create different systems of identification. And my expression of gender has been incredibly malleable, based on my environment. With that known, a label no longer feels necessary or, to some extent, even an option.
I exited my “History of Sexuality” class to a startlingly chilly day, despite the calendar reading April. The sky was that pale blue shade that allows all of the sun’s rays to thin into nothing while an inexplicable wind caught under the sleeves of my REI quarter button-down. I wondered if it’s possible for me to wholly reject manhood, a concept that I know to have been detrimental to myself and others, as well as to how I treat others.
I’m aware of efforts to redefine what a man can be and what healthy masculinity looks like. While reframing manhood may be the best path for some, I’m not sure if I want the limitation of a label at all — as a cisgender man, or even nonbinary or genderfluid, which themselves can fall prey to their expectations and aesthetics.
Thus, I’m curious about a world in which gender becomes more centered around expression. Say instead of two gender options, or even 50, we each are given a textbox in which we define ourselves. Perhaps this would encourage much needed gender reflection from cis and cishet individuals. Expression is fun after all. Exploration is fun, too, without the pressure of a destination.
I’m a collection of masculine, feminine and androgenous traits that shift. If I’m perceived as a man, I’m okay with that. I currently feel like one. However, while recognizing the privileges that come with being male and appearing as such, I lack any private reason to attach myself to the label. Like the limitless quality of exceptional theater or the flow of play on the soccer field, I don’t think I want my gender to be defined or fixed.
As one of my housemates exclaimed the other day responding to a friend’s outfit with a bit of queer tongue-in-cheek, “Gender is DEAD!”
What is a man, anyway? What is a woman? That’s something that each one of us needs to decide for ourselves.
Statement Columnist Nate Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.