There isn't much wiggle room on the spectrum of masculinity when growing up in the sticks of East Texas. However, as I collect the childhood stories from other flowery men, I realize that my location made no difference. The John-Wayne-esque, knock-'em-out-while-grabbing-your-dick image of a man was a relentless standard enforced in classrooms, households and hunting grounds across the U.S. (save for a few ultraliberal hidey-holes scattered along the East and West Coasts). And even now that the LGBT population has amassed a healthy standing ground in mainstream society, we still trot out our brawniest and brusquest as our spokesmen.
The phrase "tomboy" was a common term when growing up in a neighborhood where riding illegal go-karts, lighting Black Cats and playing with BB guns was just a normal Tuesday. Girls were allowed to play in the mud, wear their brothers' clothes and be the first to throw a punch. Tomboys were accepted, even sometimes praised, by their fathers. Naturally, I assumed that my innately feminine slant to doing things was the opposite but equal side of the coin. I had yet to realize the gross weight disparity 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 that we called a patio, sitting in woven lawn chairs amongst the woods. I must have been 7, and the not-so-subtle femininity and awkward tendencies that made up my person 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 excoriating judgments from parents ("You should know that your son is quite girly").
During that backyard conversation in the twilight, 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 had taken relish in my interests, as any child does, without noticing that my position on the masculinity meter was near the bottom. But as my father scoffed at my "tomgirl" identity and glared with disappointment in his whiskey eyes, I noticed just how low I was. With even the tomboys laughing from on high, the second-class status inherent in femininity rang loud and clear.
Masculinity in America has always held top rank, 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 burgeoned through my teens, and I continued to try to speak lower, act tougher and blend in. I was about as successful as I'd be if I tried putting sugar on a turnip and calling it dessert.
Most would think that once I stumbled out of the closet in high school after my poor attempt at passing for a hetero, accepting my sexuality would go in tandem with embracing my sparkly disposition. But the gay community doesn't exist in a vacuum and is not immune to the idea that femininity is second-class. It still astounds me that 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 strength; therefore the 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 reside in the kitchens and laundry rooms of 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." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was narrowly beaten by President Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries for the presidential nomination. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman to lead the majority party in the U.S Congress. Marissa Mayer is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Yahoo! Inc. Yes, women have been able to shed the stigma of femininity without shedding femininity itself 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 the feminine to create a new position on the playing field. It seems no different for men such as me 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 Foo-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 that is what makes our culture so damn "fabulous." Sure, as gay men, our journey may be different from the women who trashed those pretty braziers, but our reasons are the same. We do not have 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.