Are you afraid of the things that make you different?
Prior to my birth my parents were sure I was going to be a girl. They had done some kind of tests (Don’t know whether they were medical or swinging a needle in front of my mother’s pregnant belly) that convinced them to begin picking out girl’s names and get lots of dolls ready for me. When I finally arrived they were surprised to see a baby boy. It took them weeks to figure out a name. My Dad finally named me Elliott after his recently deceased nephew. My mother hated the name and cried until he agreed to change it to John, after my mother’s deceased father. No one asked me what name I thought was appropriate.
My first memories were playing with the dolls that were meant for the girl who hadn’t been born and snuggling up at night, or whenever it was cold, with my mother’s big fur coat. I loved the feel of soft fur on my skin. I loved music and listened to my parent’s recording of Manhattan Tower, a story of love for the city where I was born. I think I was a born romantic and am still brought to tears by love songs.
I can still recall the words of Frankie Laine’s The Moon Light Gambler. “You can gamble for matchsticks. You can gamble for gold. The stakes may be heavy or small. But if you haven’t gambled for love and lost, then you haven’t gambled at all.” I was also hooked on romantic movies and would spend afternoons in a darkened theater watching Love is a Many Splendored Thing and Three Coins in a Fountain. I still cry at love stories.
It soon became apparent that I was different from the other boys and in some ways more similar to the girls. But I never felt “girly.” I just felt what I felt, liked what I liked, cried easily, and longed for love.
My first encounter with the gender stereotypes of what it means to be male or female came when I went to the shoe store for my first pair of “real boy shoes” when I was four years old. Up until then I had worn white baby shoes. I was entranced by all the shoes in the store in various colors. I spied the perfect pair for me. I can still picture them in my mind: Red Keds. I pointed them out to the salesman who smiled and told me and my mom. “You want the blue Keds. Red are for girls.” Off he went to the backroom to bring out a few to try on. I was shocked that there were certain colors reserved for boys and red wasn’t one of them.
When the salesman returned with the shoes, I insisted, “I want the Red Keds, not the blue ones.” He looked at my mother who shrugged as if to say, “Hey, what can I do. He likes the red shoes.” I walked out with my red Keds. I also became very defiant. No one was going to tell me what it meant to be a man. I liked red, still do, and proceeded to wear red.
When we went to pick out my first two-wheel bicycle, I was shown the “boys bikes” with the bar across the front. I wanted the bike with the scooped front. Even as a kid it was clear to me that going over bumps might bounce me off the seat. Landing with my balls on a bar was a risk it seemed silly to take. I got my scooped front bike. The kids teased me for riding a girl’s bike. But, though I wanted to fit in with the group, I stuck to my guns. “It’s not a girl’s bike,” I told them. “I’m a boy, so whatever I choose to ride is obviously a boy’s bike.”
I do remember getting into a fight when I was 11 or 12 when I came to school wearing jeans with elastic in the waistband. I was told that these were girl’s jeans and I was a sissy for wearing them. They were comfortable and I like them, but I was tired of being ridiculed so I fought back. I found that fighting was clearly a “guy thing” and getting or giving a bloody nose got extra points on the manliness scale. Turned out I quite liked fighting, as long as no one really got hurt. Tussling and roughhousing with other boys brought us closer together and some of my best friends were the boys I regularly got in fights with. Teachers thought I might have Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My mother said, “He’s just being a boy.”
Sports was another area that I enjoyed and was associated with manly endeavor. Although I was small, I loved playing football. Catching a long pass was a joy like nothing else I had ever felt. I also loved throwing a long pass to one of my buddies. If there weren’t other kids to play with I would play both quarterback and receiver and pass the fall ahead and run and catch it. I would listen to radio broadcasts of college games and have fantasies of far-away places with exotic names like The Citadel, Holy Cross, Tulane, Duke, UConn, and Wake Forrest (next to Sherwood Forrest?)
Finding an identity that fits us includes coming to peace with what it means to be a man or a woman. Given that my sense of maleness has been at odds with what the larger society believes, I’m fascinated reading and learning about sex and gender issues. One of the most interesting is Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male & Female Brain. Dr. Baron-Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University and doesn’t waste time giving the core message of the book. In the first paragraph he says, “The subject of essential sex differences in the mind is clearly very delicate. I could tiptoe around it, but my guess is that you would like the theory of the book stated plainly. So here it is:
The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy.
The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.
He indicates that for the most part men have male-type brains and females have female-type brains. But that isn’t always the case. He developed a questionnaire that shows the degree to which you express the male-type brain or the female type brain. When I took the questionnaire and got my score, it indicated that I have an extreme “female-type brain.”
That didn’t surprise me. It did surprise me that I scored so high on the Empathy scale (female brain type) that I was not only much higher than most men, but higher than most women. Further I scored so low on the systematizing scale (male type brain) that I was not only lower than most men. I was lower than most women. As a result, among other things, I’m a great therapist and my wife knows way more about how a car works than I do.
My conclusion is that I’m just me, with all my variations and complexities. I have the same attitude about my brain that I did about my bicycle choice. I see myself as 100% male. Since my brain is inside me, it too must be 100% male. Rather than call my brain “female” I’d rather expand what it means to be a man. Seems I’ve been doing that all my life. I’ll enjoy hearing about your own experiences with manhood, womanhood, sex, gender, XX, XY, and all the wonderful variations. Come visit me at www.MenAlive.com and learn more.
This article was originally published on Men Alive.
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