There isn’t much wiggle room on the spectrum of masculinity when growing up in the sticks of east Texas. As I collect the childhood stories from other flowery men, I realize that my location bore no difference. The John Wayne knock-’em-out-while grabbing-your-dick image of a man was a relentless standard enforced in the classrooms, households, and hunting grounds of the U.S. (save for a few ultraliberal hidey-holes scattered along the East and West coasts). Now that the LGBT population has amassed a healthy standing ground in mainstream society, we still lead with the most brawny and curtly spoken as our spokesmen.
“Tomboy” was a commonly used term when I was growing up in a neighborhood where riding illegal go-karts, lighting Black Cats, and playing with BB guns was just a Tuesday. Girls were allowed to play in the mud, wear their brothers’ clothes. and be the first to throw a punch. They were accepted, even sometimes praised, by their fathers. Naturally, I associated my innately feminine slant with the opposite but equal side of the “tomboy” scale. I had yet to realize the gross disparity of weight between the masculine and the feminine. There is a reason why there is no such thing as a “tomgirl.”
I remember having a conversation with my father on the concrete slab we called a patio, siting in woven lawn chairs amid the woods. I must have been 7, and the not-so-subtle nuances and awkward tendencies that made my personality were starting to come into focus. The neighborhood kids (and their parents) had started commenting on my feminine characteristics. Some were just casual remarks on my natural dancing ability; others were the beginnings of gay bashing from my peers and the excoriating remarks of judgment from parents. (“You should know that your son is quite girly.”)
During our backyard twilight conversation, I simply addressed the apparent alarm over my girlish tendencies by saying that I was simply a “tomgirl.” Satisfied with my explanation, I thought nothing more of it. Until that moment, I reveled in my interests, as any child does, without noticing that my position on the masculinity scale had dropped near the bottom. But as my father scoffed at my reply and glared with disappointment through his whiskey eyes, I noticed just how low I had slid. With even the tomboys laughing from on high, the second-class status of femininity rang loud and clear.
Masculinity has always held the top rankin America, and it is no different in the gay community. I remember the hellacious internal struggle that plagued me through my youth. I liked to draw pretty girls in ball gowns instead of army boys holding guns. I was a gymnast, not a football player. I couldn’t throw a baseball for the life of me, but no one in the neighborhood could touch my cartwheel. As I matured, my bright pink problem only got worse. My internal struggle grew in my teens, and I continued to try to speak lower, act tougher, and blend in. It was about as successful as putting sugar on a turnip and calling it dessert.
As I stumbled out of the closet in high school after my poor attempt at passing for a hetero, most would think that accepting my sexuality would go in tandem with embracing my sparkly disposition. But the gay community doesn’t exist in a vacuum and has not been spared the idea that femininity is second-class. It still astounds me that the gay culture continues to perpetuate the values that have kept women and gay men oppressed.
A man who possesses any vestige of the feminine understands exactly how these qualities are regarded. The masculine is associated with strong, therefore feminine is weak. If a man is weak, he must possess female qualities. If a woman is strong, she has learned to adopt the masculine.
If masculine qualities were all it took to become powerful and important, women would still be restricted to the kitchens and laundry rooms across America. Yet I don’t need to illustrate how women have cast off their dish gloves and aprons and infiltrated all but the most powerful office in the country. This isn’t because they have embraced the masculine; it is because they have emboldened the feminine. With grace, patience, and a quiet will that can outlast even the most fiery tantrums of male-dominated power, women have not shed but harnessed their feminine qualities to thrive in a “man’s world.” Future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was narrowly beaten by President Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman to lead the majority party in U.S Congress. Marissa Mayer is the youngest president and CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, Yahoo! Yes, women have been able to shed their feminine stigma without shedding femininity and rise to the ranks of greatness. We nelly boys have some new role models.
These women, along with many others, have learned to craft a particularly effective blend of the masculine and feminine to create a new position on the playing field. It seems no different for men such as myself to do the same. As I approach my 30s, I realize that the feminist movement fervently applies to my saucy self and the other teen-movie-quoting, To Wong Fu-loving, cake-eating, strawberry-flavored queers out there. As a gay man, I am allowed to embody the best of both genders, and in fact, it is what makes our culture so damn “fabulous.” Sure, for gay men, our journey may be different from that of the women who burned those pretty brassieres, but our reasons are the same. We do not have to conform to be one type of man and we certainly aren’t weak for being a few shades of woman.
No offense, John Wayne, but I want to be Christiane Amanpour when I grow up.
TYLER CURRY created the Needle Prick Project, photographed by David Leggett, as an editorial campaign to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV-positive today. To learn more about the Needle Prick Project, visit Facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on Twitter at @iamtylercurry.