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?