I’m flipping through a photo album of baby pictures. In the earliest photos I’m dressed in onesies, genderless and cute. But quickly the photos change to Easter dresses and hats, bathing suits with bonnets on the beach, long hair and dolls. There are the juxtapositions: overalls and work boots with a Cabbage Patch doll in my arms.
When we move into junior high the juxtapositions are even louder: a boyish haircut with me looking awkward in a dress. A pony tail pulled through a baseball cap with a baggy t-shirt and jeans. A shirt and tie and hat with a girlish face.
Sometimes when I talk about my past I translate. I talk about playing little league instead of softball. I evade when referencing my gender. I try to never lie, but I sometimes talk around it. I’m not ashamed of my history. Most days I’m even thankful for it. Thankful for the ways in which it shaped me and made me the man I am today. I am thankful for the way I was socialized, thankful for the things that I experienced (even when those experiences were traumatic). But I also know that the second I mention something about my girlhood the conversation will change. People will look at me differently. My past and my gender will become A Thing instead of simply my past and my gender.
I don’t mind people seeing my childhood photos, except when I can tell that seeing those photos are changing how they see me now. Truth be told, I sometimes don’t recognize myself in those old photos. Or I do, but almost as if I am on the outside looking in? It’s hard to explain. I haven’t felt the need to destroy my own photos (though I understand and support the people who do), but I sometimes don’t know what to do with them either.
The reality is I don’t always know what to do with my girlhood. I wish that my girlhood and my manhood could co-exist. I wish that I could talk about playing softball and my love of Barbies without having someone make assumptions about what that means about my masculinity. I wish people wouldn’t use my girlhood to negate my manhood.
I want to be seen and part of that seeing means being able to be all of me. My past as well as my present and even living in to my future. One does not erase the others. All of them flow together, in and through me, to create this person that I am right now. This complicated, complex, ever growing, ever changing person.
Yes. I had a girlhood. It was awkward and messy and I usually felt out of place and wrong. It definitely wasn’t typical. I don’t really know what it means to be a woman, because even when I was seen as one I was gender non conforming which meant that people saw and treated me differently. But I was socialized mostly around women. I internalized their concerns (even as I sometimes didn’t share them). I internalized their ways of speaking and being.
I didn’t have a boyhood. I wasn’t socialized with other boys. I didn’t learn what they learned, my body didn’t develop like their bodies did. I wasn’t taught to speak my mind or take up space. I wasn’t taught to assert my dominance. I wasn’t taught that I mattered.
Am I still a man? Absolutely and without question. But I have had to define and grow into that word on my own. There was no father, no community of men, raising me up. Instead I raised myself. I learned what masculinity means to me. I learned (and continue to learn) how I want to embody that masculinity so that it is both authentic to me and helpful and healing to the world.
But that internally grown masculinity will sometimes make me move through the world in ways that are different from other men who had boyhoods. It will mean that I speak differently and socialize differently. I will carry my body differently. It is both my joy and my confusion that my manhood continues to mark me out as separate and different even as I strive to claim it and to blend in.
I don’t know what to do with my girlhood. I sometimes don’t know what to do with my manhood. But both exist in me. Both are real. Neither one negates the other.
I will continue to fight to be seen as all of who I am. I will continue to mold and shape myself into the best version of myself; one that honors my history and continues to evolve into my future.