Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I Identify as Male (the prequel)

            I thought that my initial post would clear away some issues and clarify the nature of my male gender identity, enabling me to write the second half of this series. Not a chance. Gender is indeed a curious (and curiouser) thing. So I thought instead it may be helpful to write out a brief gender history, which will explain how I came to my (expanded, limited) notion of masculinity, and why I have not asked this gender question until today.

            As a child and teenager, I had a love for reading, writing poetry, running, talking, music, comedy, and philosophy. I felt supported in these endeavors by my parents. They supported and challenged me, and continue to, so that I become more of a mensch and less of a nudnik. However, at no point have I ever felt like they were policing my gender, or that the state of my masculinity was something to be praised, questioned, or discussed. I was never told to “be a man.” Even when I “became a man,” at my Bar Mitzvah, it always felt like the pressure was to be more mature, to be more adult—not to be more manly.
            I have an older brother who shared some of my interests, but who also may be considered more masculine since he is taller, was never a vegetarian (unlike me, 2002-2008) and more into sports spectating (My fandom ended in 1994 when my favorite player was traded to the Jets, and I didn’t understand if loyalty dictated that I root for the Jets or the Redskins). But I was never made to feel that he was more of a ‘guy’ than I was—I think in my head I simply figured that we were different kinds of people, different kinds of guys.
            I was clearly not a jock, but I do think that my love (and former talent!) for running shielded me from feeling called to prove my masculinity. As a varsity runner in high school, I could express and demonstrate physical prowess, and thus not feel totally alienated from the competitive physicality often associated with maleness. But since running teams always have girls’ and boys’ sides, my athleticism never really felt gendered.
            Moreover, being a Jew meant that I had available diverse images of masculinity: I could be intellectual (like Maimonides), zany (like the Marx Brothers), serious (like Moses), confident (like my brother), and insecure (like Woody Allen), all without ever feeling like I was stepping outside of masculinity.
            Finally, I was in a Jewish high school fraternity, and while I was certainly exposed to (and perpetuated) a fair amount of misogyny and homophobia, my experience there allowed for enough male gender diversity that there was no thought given to what made us men.

            Do you see how all of these factors converged, such that I never once needed to wonder what “masculinity” meant? Without gender as a problem or a challenge, it never came up as a question. That’s a unique privilege that even cismales in more conservative (or religious, or other more hyper-masculine) regions of the world don’t have. But since gender has been so invisible in my life until now, it renders me particularly tone-deaf to many of the identity and political issues surrounding gender.

            Ok, I think I can get away with one more preparatory post before having to write part two. Next up: Why am I asking this question now?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why I Identify as Male, part one*

I’m writing this post because I’m struggling with understanding gender from my own position as a straight, white, cisgender male… so there’s a lot of blindness I’m working through.

            The fact that I am male-bodied seems like a solid way to begin my explanation, and yet the fact that there are people born male-bodied who do not identify as male means that this explanation is not sufficient. My male genitals, testosterone levels, and secondary sex characteristics—a person could have all of these things and yet not identify as male. So, why do I identify as male?
For those readers who feel personally comfortable with the gender binary, I put it to you: Isn’t it weird that something can be so utterly socially conditioned AND simultaneously feel completely natural? My gender identity resides so close to my overall identity that it feels too obvious to explain. It’s instinctual; it’s gut-level. And yet, every time I try to explain why I feel like a male, I end up spouting off a bunch of socially-conditioned descriptors, like:

  • I look terrible in a dress.
  • I’m not entirely in touch with my emotions.
  • I’m not too concerned with my appearance (yes, I see how this contradicts my first bullet-point).
These reasons are pathetic, especially since there are women for whom they hold true, and men for whom they are inaccurate.
I can also supply a bunch of reasons that conflate maleness with heterosexuality, cisgender identity, whiteness, American-ness or even just privilege in general:

  • I’m attracted to women.
  • I feel like society is weighted towards my advantage.
  • I enjoy much of what’s considered “male humor.”
No reason listed so far is unique to identifying as male.

            So… why do I identify as male??? If I say “because I don’t feel like a woman,” I’m (A) reiterating all my crappy reasons from above; (B) taking the gender binary as absolute. Still, I don’t feel like a woman, and I also don’t feel gender queer. (Well, I guess if my family/social environment were more hyper-gendered, then I would feel gender queer. My white, liberal, Jewish, middle-class, east coast upbringing allowed me to have a somewhat broader sense of masculinity than if I were from other regions.)

            Do I identify as male? I mean, I pass as male, and I feel fine being treated as male (except when male is equated with some hyper-gender stereotype). I’m comfortable in my own skin (from within, and how others treat me). In general, I feel too privileged to call myself “queer”—the best I can aim for is “ally.”

            Sometimes I prefer simply to identify as a “dude.” For me, “dude” means I’m chill (of course, I’m not always chill), friendly, playful… and whatever else positive you associate with dudes. At the same time, “dude” is usually posed opposite to “chick,” and I have no aversion to many things usually labeled “chick stuff” (for example, quiche or romantic comedies).

            Ok, I’m getting nowhere, but I’ll end with my real complaint: Being a white, straight, cisgender (etc., etc.) person means that I’ve never had to defend or explain my identity as a male. And yet, I am currently trying to understand what a transman might mean when he identifies as male. That’s patently unfair—I can’t explain myself, yet I demand an explanation from him.

But I’m seeking this out because I want to understand in order to be an ally. It’s one thing to say “OK, you call yourself a male, so I’ll call you a male,” and it’s another thing to expand my notion of male identity when faced by a person who violates my learned ideas. I want to expand my understanding of masculinity, and yet my entire experience and understanding of masculinity is ingrained and (so it seems) irrational. If I don’t understand my own act of identifying as male, how do I go about understanding anyone else’s?

*I’ll write part two if I ever figure out Why I Identify as Male.

Friday, July 13, 2012


            Did you know that you are very limited? I’m not saying this to get you down. I’m sure you are aware, even more than I am, of your limitations. I want to talk about the wisdom of owning your limitations. The best way to do this is to point out a number of mine, and hopefully you will find some of my confessions true for yourself, or they will inspire you to own your unique limitations.
            I’m only one person. I have one body, one mind, one location, and one life. That means that I can try to have an effect on the world as a whole, but I can’t save it alone. That means I can try to serve my life-partner, but I can’t be their only person. It’s hard to be only one person, but since that’s not going to change, I need to re-shape my hopes and plans in order to work with this ‘solo’ reality.
            I have a particular perspective. Given my particular class, gender, race, orientation, religious heritage, ethnicities, geographical origin, parental upbringing, opportunities, experiences, and interests, I have a unique perspective—but I lack every other perspective. With the exception of my narrow outlook, I am surrounded by blind spots, and all of my worldly observations and values are shaped by these blind spots. If I am to gain any wider perspective on human life on earth, I have to learn to listen, and to put my perspective aside occasionally (not permanently though!).
            I have particular strengths and weaknesses. Many of these strengths I developed at the expense of the weaknesses. Other weaknesses played a key role in my strengths. A few examples: When I was studying philosophy and theology, I was failing to make a lawyer, doctor, businessman, or handyman of myself. I think that being short played a formative role in my desire to be intelligent/witty. The mistakes I made, including the ones that hurt myself and others extensively—even those have strengthened me as a person, cultivating my sense of selfhood, relationship, responsibility, and a myriad of other existential themes.
            I’m in process. Due to my own bad habits and reluctance to face my limitations, I feel like I got a slow start to seeking enlightenment/maturity. And due to my persistent blind spots and prejudices, it continues to be slow-going. It’s hard to grow, and there are so many forms of health to pursue, all at the same time: physical, intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, cultural, professional, social, societal, political, and ecological, to name a few. I can try each day to improve, but for the most part I will continue to lag in a number of dimensions. And I will even take steps backwards at points. My growth as a person is slow, uneven, and often ambiguous. I will continue to make mistakes.
            Nu, so I’m limited. It happens. By owning these limitations, I can accept them humbly, and try to flourish despite them strategically. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Grace for Humanists

            As a formerly religious person, I still have a great romance with religious language and tropes, and am often tempted to try to reclaim religious language for secular purposes. In previous posts, I have explored the secular potential for words like spirit and sacred. In this post, I want to make the case for a secular engagement with grace and gratitude.
            As much as I find him to be a smug so-and-so, I think it was C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity who turned me on to the concept of grace. In my understanding, “grace” signifies the fact that the incarnation and sacrificial death of God-in-Christ was a “free gift” from God—something that humans could never have earned or effected for themselves. One who truly appreciates the freeness of God’s gift cannot but respond with love and reverence.
            Of course, the general concept of gratitude is evident throughout Jewish prayer and ritual life. The practice of saying berachot (blessings) in daily prayer and life (eating food, using the bathroom, seeing beautiful sights) reflects the Jewish awareness that God, not people, is the ultimate Creator.
            Unfortunately, when God is removed from the picture (leaving an empty throne), secular/humanist folk often lose any structured relationship with grace and gratitude. OK, there are still secular holidays like Thanksgiving that could conceivably be used for reflection and literal thanks-giving. We can thank our family, our friends, our government (if you’re into that), our industries (if you’re into that), etc. But in general I’d guess that a secular individual is unlikely to think much about grace or gratitude in a ‘cosmic’ sense.

            So here’s my case: This world, and this life, are gifts, even if there is no giver. Even if there is no God as Creator, that does not make us self-made people. We cannot take credit for the fact of human life, or any of its blessings. We are recipients of something beyond us. And, if we see our lives as good things, then it seems like we should be grateful. We should be thankful.
            But whom to thank? Yes, you can and should still thank the various people that may be more immediately responsible for the goodness in your life. And, on an ecological level, I think we can and should show gratitude towards the Earth (not like it intended to create or dole out blessings or anything), especially since we may need to reciprocate that goodness for our own sakes/survival. Gratitude towards the Earth could be shown through words, although without caring actions/policies those words are empty/pointless.
            On a cosmic level, there is no one to thank; yet, I think cultivating the feeling of grace and gratitude makes us more sensitive—to the joy in life, to our luck, and to a sense of obligation to pass on the blessings. For myself, feeling grateful makes me feel good, and makes me feel magnanimous.
            So, humanists, you don’t need to thank God. But still, be thankful.

I know the title of this post is misleading, since I didn’t actually write a liturgical “Grace for Humanists.” Feel free to write one yourself in the comments section.