An essay by New York Times reporter Judith Warner caught my eye this morning. Titled “Dude, You’ve Got Problems“, it focuses on the harassment young men who are branded “gay” or “faggot” face growing up in America. Specifically she talks about young men who have committed suicide because of shaming by their peers. Judith rightly points out that these insults have little to do with sexuality and everything to do with gender identity. The more feminine you are as a young man, the more harassment you typically endure. I should know, I was a Tom-Girl.
Growing up I had some significant Tom-Girl traits:
- As a pre-pubecent boy I was often mistaken for a girl because of my delicate features and long hair. The coordinated hat and 70’s active jumpsuit I loved to wear didn’t help either.
- My older sister was a Tom-Boy. This left my Mom with only me to help with the cooking and to serve as her fashion guru when she was shopping for new clothes. To this day my sister can barely toast bread while I make dinner for my family every night. I’m pretty good with a sewing needle too.
- I voluntarily took home economics classes because I actually liked to cook.
- I was heavily into theater. ‘Nuff said.
- The nail in the coffin – I was a dancer from age 10 on all the way through high school – mostly Ballet and Modern Dance. That is pretty much a huge “faggot” target permanently attached to your high school back. By the way did I mention I grew up in Salt Lake City Utah? The Mormons are not big on Tom-Girls.
Imagine being the only guy in your High School Modern Dance class in Utah. You have to wear the dance garb of the day, in this case tight fitting bell-bottomed polyester “Jazz Pants.” Trust me, they do not make one feel “jazzey.” Luckily there were no windows on the dance studio. Inevitably the fire alarm goes off and you find yourself huddling on the front lawn of the school in front of a thousand or so kids – none of whom are wearing Jazz Pants. I’m sure many of you have had similar nightmares, except you were naked in class and a test was about to start. Believe me, naked is preferable to Jazz Pants.
I laugh now, but then it was a living hell. Walking home felt like taking my life into my own hands. I never went to any school event for fear of being attacked. In my Junior and Senior years not a day at school passed without my being verbally or physically assaulted. Those who think this is all about a bunch of name calling really have no idea how bad it can get.
When reflecting upon the recent suicides of several young men taunted for being too feminine, Judith wrote: “We should do something to get this insanity under control.” I don’t think this is the kind of thing that can be gotten under control. It really has to come from within a culture. We have to turn away from adoring the macho bully and come to respect the sensitive man again. We seem to want it both ways: to create a safe world for all of our sons while still idolizing “Real Men.”
One important lesson from her article is that terms like “sissy” and “faggot” can be assigned almost arbitrarily. Indeed it is their disconnectedness from any real meaning that makes it impossible to defend against them. Even so they can cause lasting harm. I omitted the decade I spent healing from this and other childhood traumas. It took that many years for me to stop jumping out of my skin when a car passed by and honked its horn. It was only after I left Utah that people would honk at me as a friendly greeting instead of as a prelude to violence.
Today I count myself as lucky to have been a Tom Girl. My life has always felt full of endless possibilities. When you’re not limited by an identity that doesn’t quite fit, you’re free to explore every other way of being in the world. Thats a gift that keeps on giving. Of course I still have bruises and scars – even being playfully hit by my wife puts me in a very uncomfortable state of high alert. I have little tolerance for homophobia or the bullies of the world. I’d like to learn more patience for those who hated me. I’d like to say I’ve gained all the possible wisdom from my experiences as a Tom Girl, I’m sure I haven’t though.
I am a father now. I see in my son both feminine and masculine qualities. I’m amazed by how early his boyness comes forward – at 15 months he could have spent all day playing in our new pickup truck. I create safety for him by taking pride in my own feminine and masculine qualities and in his. We’ve cooked together since he was about 4 months old, and boy do we love to cuddle. I hope that he will be patient enough to discover what a man is by looking back on his own life, taking pride in how he’s lived each day.
At its root all of this harassment is of course misogyny. You cannot truly love women and hate the feminine within yourself or another man. The deeper wisdom we have to teach all our children is that when we embrace the opposite it completes us. The “otherness” of Tom Girls frightens some men because they fear those feminine qualities within themselves. They mistakenly believe that by destroying it in another man, they conquer it in themselves. All they’re destroying is their own ability to relate to a precious part of themselves.
My son and his Mother and I dance together almost every day. We each immediately light up as soon as one of us starts to move to the music. Its sad to think there are so many men out there that can’t share the same joy with their families. If given the choice I wouldn’t change a thing about my life as a Tom-Girl, and yes that includes Jazz Pants.