The Gendrification of the Inner Suburbs

I’ve been talking to a couple of people and it’s made me think about posting something about my reaction to my own gender. It’s been such a topic of conversation (gender, not me), and something I haven’t really unpacked to many people.

It’s tricky to know where to start. In some ways it’s a chronological thought process but in other ways it’s only something I have become aware of backward. 

I don’t think I thought a lot about gender roles, growing up. I never really saw myself as a boy, I just saw myself as me. I think in early high school I started to feel like I didn’t fit, I started to absorb the fact that I wasn’t really an ideal male, but I never really thought of it in terms of gender norms or anything. I just thought it was me not fitting in because of who I was. Looking back I can see that I didn’t enjoy boys’ games that much; I would often not want to play sport at lunchtime, I hated a lot of contact sports especially. I was bullied a little bit, at times. 

I thought I was just a shit boy. I gravitated toward other alternate kids. I was happiest talking to girls. I was closer to girls, and I felt like I could be more open around them. Like I didn’t have to put on a front. But at the same time, teenagers are teenagers and I recognised pretty quickly that I wasn’t what girls looked for in somebody to love. It’s a pretty common nerd-boy story I guess. Again, I never really looked at it in gendered terms, but looking back I think high school was very highly gendered, and non-conformity made you fairly quickly on the outer. But I didn’t see it that way, then. I just thought there was something wrong with me.

I never really identified with my own gender. I didn’t identify with another gender, either. I just felt like something alien, maybe.

I guess a lot of those themes carried into adult life. To be honest, I rarely if ever felt comfortable around other men. I had male friends, even some good ones, despite that. But it was hard work. It is still hard work for me to socialise or converse with men. I don’t know why. If you really want to torture me, take me to one of those parties where the men go into one room and women in the other, and force me to hang with the men. I don’t mean for it to sound like I hate men, or aren’t interested in their thoughts. I just find it really really hard work to relate or communicate with them. If that sounds lacking in insight it’s because I still don’t fully understand why I feel it so strongly.

My relationships with women were a lot more complicated because I was kind of both identifying with them and attracted to (some of) them. I formed some really strong friendships but sometimes found it hard to separate love from friendship. I think I was really seeking some kind of closeness, more than anything else. I was so often told “You’re not a boy, you’re one of the girls”. Which was both wonderful and heartbreaking. Because I wanted to belong with someone, somewhere, but I also recognised that it was a sign of failure, too. Failure at being a man, failing to play the role I was supposed to be able to do innately.

I don’t think a lot of those things are uncommon. I think a lot of non-conforming men probably feel that way.

I learned to be quite afraid of other men. I learned that not conforming to masculinity isn’t a good thing. That it gets you punished. It was especially hard for me when I was younger, because I didn’t really recognise my own physicality that much. I wasn’t aware of what the signs were, the signals that told other men that I wasn’t male enough. I just know that other men would hassle me, would tell me I was gay. I became pretty anxious and developed a degree of social phobia and agoraphobia. I was pretty scared to leave the house, I wouldn’t go anywhere at night, ever. At one point I was afraid to take the bin to the curb. I know other people have had much more frightening and horrific experiences; mine were pretty mild I guess. I learned to drink mostly because of that fear. Alcohol was the main thing that got me through those years. It was the only time I could be around other guys and not be scared and could talk to them. (That fear has decreased a bit over the years, largely after moving to a bigger city where gender is slightly less rigidly policed. I still feel it around strongly masculine guys.)

Again, it’s not an all-encompassing thing; I had a few exceptions, some good guy friends. And eventually I learned the things about me that I needed to change to pass more successfully among men. I learned to talk deeper. I learned to restrain my feelings. I learned I could have long hair, but only if I grew a beard. Oh and the most important one; I learned never, ever, to sit with my legs crossed. When I see all those memes or comments about man-spreading, I have to laugh, a little, because it always makes me think of how hard I had to work to learn how to do that. How unnatural it felt, how stupid and boyish. I wonder how many guys that sit with their legs apart do it for the same reason I did, because someone made them afraid, made them learn to change the way their body moved and sat so they wouldn’t look so “wrong”. (for the record I have since “taken back” cross-leggedness. It’s comfier)

I felt like I was trapped in this world of non-belonging. I could never be a guy. And while I had some great female friends, there was always a barrier there too. Because so often they identified so strongly with their girl-ness that it excluded me. No matter how much I was one of the girls, I wouldn’t be invited on girls nights. At weddings, I would stand with the groom, not the bride. When me and my then-girlfriends went out to dinner with other couples, no matter how much I wanted to chat to the girl, I would always somehow get squeezed into an awkward uncomfortable conversation with the guy. And feminism, I had a weird mixed relationship with. Because I wanted so badly to improve the world, to make life better for women. And I recognised the importance of challenging masculinity, obviously. But I hated the way it divided me from women. I hated when my feminist friends would cast me as a man, I felt like I was being pushed into some horrible caricature role-play that I didn’t even know how to do. It was like a reminder, a reinforcement of those binaries that I hated so much. You belong over here, this is what men are, what men do. And it was a reminder of you-don’t-belong-with-us. For obvious reasons, I was really fond of deconstructive feminisms.

And I didn’t know, didn’t think that it was okay to *not be* one of those two things. I knew I wasn’t gay; I was only attracted to women, and if anything I wanted to get away from men totally. I identified more with women, but I never felt like I was trans. I never felt like I was a woman in a man’s body or anything like that (which is lucky, because I am too much of a coward to ever be as brave as trans people). I remember reading stories, though, of trans people, and I found myself crying. I cried because I didn’t know, until then, how alone I felt. How I felt like I was the only one that didn’t feel like my own gender. But like I said, I didn’t want to become another gender. To me that entailed a kind of amazing certainty, a different kind of identification. I couldn’t imagine feeling anything so strongly. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like, even, to feel like a gender. How does gender feel? I just felt nothing, just a void, just a lack, a wrongness, a not-belongingness.

I guess that brings us up to date, more or less. I guess now I have a bit more idea of other senses of identity that exist. As I have read more about non-traditional gender positions, I realise you don’t need to necessarily see yourself as male or female, that you can not be a man and not be a woman, that you can be made up of aspects of both. That really, it all exists on a spectrum, not like a light switch. I discovered concepts like gender-fluidity and non-binary identities make a kind of sense to me. Even though most people in the world don’t talk about them, or think about them at all. But it makes me feel a bit less lonely, to think there are a few other people who feel like they exist in that void, that there might be other kinds of belonging. And if I read someone’s story, who identifies as non-binary, it overwhelms me a little, to have those experiences of non-belonging portrayed. Even though the story might not be the same as mine, it’s nice to feel that identification. And it makes me realise just how rare those stories are in our popular culture. Maybe that’s why I wanted to talk about it.

I wouldn’t have been able to write this post without the unconditional love of two or three people who accept me for who I am, be it manly man, unmanly man, or non-binary. If you’ve managed to wade through all this without hitting the tl;dr button, thank you. And if there are things I’ve written that you don’t agree with, that’s okay. This is just one person’s experience. It’s not meant to speak for anyone else.

I hope maybe it’s okay, sometimes, not to be either gender. To just be you.

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3 Responses to The Gendrification of the Inner Suburbs

  1. glendalarke says:

    This is a very brave post, Ben. Good on you for writing it — I hope it will help others trying to come to terms with their own similar issues. It ought to.

  2. Experimental Error says:

    I was brought up in a family environment that was not strongly gendered. This was a deliberate choice on my parents’ part. As children, my sisters and I played with matchbox cars and baby dolls, bug farms and flower presses, pint-sized carpentry sets and baking sets, “slime with worms” and glitter pens. My parents shared the housework fairly evenly, and both held professional roles outside the home. In primary school, I played with both boys and girls, but in high school and undergraduate uni, complied with the norm of hanging out mainly with other girls. I cried when I hit puberty, passionately hated having periods and did my best to hide my emerging breasts, but it wasn’t about gender for me, but what I’d been taught about the fecklessness and valuelessness of teenagers, whose ranks I was joining.

    I have always been comfortable with geek men and STEM women (neither of whom tend to pay too much attention to gender norms), but find strongly gendered environments very uncomfortable: baby showers, Tupperware parties, traditional gender-segregated barbeques. I don’t fit in with girly women and I don’t fit in with blokey men… but of the two, the company of blokey men is preferable, because I am not expected to fit in with them.

    It has been suggested to me before that my gender profile is somewhere between the two norms, but to me, it just seems that gender is irrelevant. I don’t feel that my life or sense of self would have been significantly different if I had been born a boy. But perhaps that’s my privilege speaking: in educated Western society, girls can get away with being “tomboys” with much less pressure to change than boys who risk being labelled “sissy”.

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