I have, as a friend put so well, a self-indulgent guilt about having grown up a boy. It isn’t productive, I can no more control my upbringing than one can choose the name they were given at or before birth, but it is very, very hard to shake and redirect.
These are hard thoughts that I don’t see asked enough. Am I a girl born in a boys body or am I a girl who was a boy? Does it matter? I am a woman regardless of the answer to this question and just as valid irrespective of how others feel about it, but the answer matters to me: in the uniqueness that is my life, am I responsible?
Just what am I responsible for? What good can I do with my experience of lived and learned manhood, regardless of if it was real or faked, and how can I use it productively instead of indulging myself with guilt?
My father taught me a lot of things about how not to be a man. From cheating on his wives and girlfriends, to doing anything and everything in the pursuit of revenge against some apparent slight, he wasn’t my strong male role model that too few boys are lucky enough to ever have. He has money and power and all the privilege afforded to people with money and power, yet, not once can I look back on my life and see where he used it to help others.
No, when I think of my dad, I think of regret. I think about loving someone who, when he knows who I really am, will do as much as possible to keep me from happiness. I wish I could look back on him and think about all of the times he was a force for good in my life, but all I can do is think back to being choked for calling him a liar, or when my little sister was cutting herself, he remind her that she probably felt bad because she was getting too fat.
I think about a girlfriend of his, of which there were many, coming into my room to tell me that she’d always be there for me. She wouldn’t, she had talked to me maybe three times, but I think about her breaking down in my bedroom when she realized he wouldn’t be back for her tonight, just like he wasn’t back for her the night before, and the night before that. I can still see her making strange promises to me while she was trying to process a breakup that he hadn’t told her about while talking to a thirteen year old who had seen this happen too many times before.
I can envision going to work with him every day and passing Planned Parenthood, where he’d, like clockwork, talk about evil, irresponsible women killing their kids. I can remember thinking about how many women he’d deliberately lied to and fucked without a condom, too, and the hypocrisy of him.
For all of this, the worst was the ridicule I was subjected to when I tried on my older sisters clothes. I can remember hearing her lock me out of my own room when she’d found out, getting out her Nokia 3310, and laughing to him about how much of a pervert I am. I can remember begging her at the door to not call Dad. I can remember waking up to a furious beating on my locked door once I’d regained entry and he’d come home about how I’d “better never go into her room again” the next morning.
Men are often so afraid of what women can do alone that they will do almost anything to diminish their ability to live without them. In my own life, I wasn’t just denied the ability to live without men, I was made my own jailer. Shame from my father, family, and self did nothing to keep Evelyn from wearing the clothing she knew she should wear, but it did everything to keep Berkson from understanding who Evelyn was when he’d look into the mirror. Evelyn, the girl that I always had the power to be, really became quite powerless with no one to advocate and defend her… when it was easier to make a part of myself a fetish. To call her a whore. To be a pervert.
I am responsible for my actions and I’ve contributed to my own oppression against the women inside of me. I could have been brave and listened to my heart, but I didn’t. I could have asked myself why dressing in women’s clothing made me feel so good, but I didn’t want to know the answer. I could have understood that dreams about being born a girl weren’t just thoughts that everyone has, and when confronted with the suggestion that I could have been a women this entire time, I’ve always told myself – and others – that it could never be true. I am responsible for being a coward and hiding behind a fragile masculinity that I could have always rejected.
And I remain responsible ever since making a decision to be afraid and embrace something that shouldn’t have been me. Not being in complete control of how one was raised does not excuse their behaviour because of it, and finally understanding Evelyn does not erase Berkson.
I could have always been a better ally to women, to my little sister, to even boys. Embracing masculinity, especially when your only examples of masculinity is by it’s very nature toxic and wrong, doesn’t make good men. Being taught how not to be a man is not the same thing as being taught what not to do and just because one might understand that they’re being taught the wrong things does not at all make them immune to similar behaviours. I have snapped bras and insulted women. I have let things go that I shouldn’t have in the interest of being a part of the pack, like an animal. I have belittled men in the same way that I was ridiculed by family.
I have made comments, what I would have called jokes, at the expense of the sense of security a girlfriend had with me and was surprised and bitter that she didn’t see it that way, too. If I had known… if I had not been such a cowardly boy, maybe I could have been a brave girl instead? If Evelyn had been there, I hope that she would have beat the shit out of me. But, I didn’t know, I didn’t want to know, and I’m responsible for not knowing.
I learned how to be a man, a good man, on my own. I learned because adulthood has no room for useless men, and a man who doesn’t completely respect, learn from, and advocate for women isn’t worth anything. I learned because I grew up and was able to decompartmentalize many parts of me that shouldn’t belong and recognize why they were bad without having to be taught. It was mine, and I did it, and I am responsible for that.
I’m responsible for turning out an acceptable and even sometimes an exceptional human being despite having odds stacked against me, yet, I remain responsible for doubling down on my own denial of Evelyn’s existence. Surely, I’m a good husband, a good male submissive, a good man… So how could I ever be a woman?
At the very heart of toxic masculinity is an unwillingness to see that traditionally feminine qualities are only traditional because of misogyny. A boy, a man, a person should be allowed to cry without fear of being judged by any of their peers. Being free to explore themselves and not reject the parts that society has urged particular qualities within the spectrum of gender be placed.
I have found her, and have apologized to her, and am doing everything that I can to become her, but there will always be damage that I’ve done to myself and experiences that I missed out on from an upbringing of fear that I can’t ever restore. I lost out on a childhood that I might have had. I missed out on growing up a girl and learning how to be a woman, but the fact is that there’s nothing I can do about any of that now. The best that I can do now is recognize that there were good parts of Berkson, too.
Life could have been different for me. It certainly wasn’t good for me to live a lie, but I still managed to become someone worth being, and I won’t make the same mistake by suppressing him. Berkson wasn’t Evelyn, but Evelyn isn’t going to be someone completely new: she’s going to be me, and me is a combination of experiences, mistakes, lessons, and difficulties that I respect for what they are.
That’s what it comes down to for me. In the uniqueness that is my life, I am responsible. I am responsible for what I’ve lived, but I will remain responsible for how I live: Don’t make the same mistakes twice, Evelyn. I can teach people who will listen, and I call out those who don’t. I get to experience tribulations that I would never be otherwise privy to as a man while simultaneously knowing what it’d be like if I were one, too. Part of being a good man is, unsurprisingly, the same for good woman: owning up to your mistakes and doing better.
Almost as if this were just a human thing, and not a matter of gender at all.