Monday, July 29, 2013

On Being A Sissy: Part 1 - What It Meant To Be Called (And Call Others) "Gay"

Late last year I was a member of a wedding party. They had decided to rent a limo and take us around downtown Chicago to take pictures. Being in a wedding party is a unique experience when people who know the bride and groom and sometimes don’t know each other, put their lives aside to honor the bride and groom by doing everything possible to make the day go smoothly.

Part of this is making a concerted effort to get a long with the other people in the wedding party regardless of what they say or do. That’s why I didn’t really respond when one the bridesmaids commented to me “you have very feminine hand gestures with the way that your wrist moves when you talk."

I’ve heard these comments all my life. Last school year a third grader commented to me “men, don’t cross their legs, why are you sitting that way?” In college someone asked if I was gay and then in high school there was the constant gay jokes that were directed at me that I also directed at other people.

Recently I heard an episode of This American Life titled “Sissies.” This episode took the perspective of different people dealing with the issues of being a sissy and the ways that they felt about this issue. It really made me think about my own life and how much I really was a sissy and also how I’m okay with that part of myself, now more than ever.

When I’m talking in front of my students, I don’t try to hide the way that I sit, which is often with crossed legs or with one leg folded under me or the way that my hands move when I talk. It’s not uncommon for me to make a “feminine,” gesture with my hands. And I do have remnants from a speech impediment that I grew up with that doesn’t exactly contribute to my manliness.

I feel it’s so important that I’m myself in front of my students and genuine, so I let myself be me, and let my voice modulate to higher pitches if it’s what comes natural. I do this because it feels natural and also because I want the “sissies” in my class to not feel afraid or ashamed to be themselves.

We’re not talking about homosexuality here. I’ve never doubted my attraction to woman. We are talking about the small things that people do that do not conform to our definitions of masculinity. For many people it’s not the homosexuality itself that makes people uncomfortable but the fact that many homosexual exhibit mannerism that don’t conform to gender stereotypes.

When The Little Mermaid came out I was visiting my cousins in New York. I remember going to a bookstore after watching the movie and being excited to see a The Little Mermaid songbook on a display. This was the last copy of this book that the store had and it was beaten up. My mom does not like to buy products that are not pristine in stores but after some arguing, I convinced my mom to buy this book.

For the next three months, I studied this book, memorized the lyrics and sang the songs to my hearts delight. Through all of this time my mom or dad didn’t stop me or discourage me from singing these songs and act out being a red-haired mermaid.

They didn’t stop me when I became obsessed with The Phantom Of The Opera and I got on a Broadway kick. My parents even encouraged this obsession by buying me Broadway CDs and taking me to see musicals.

I was never told at home that something I did was “girly” or that I shouldn’t make a certain gesture. They loved me for whom I was and never shamed me for what came naturally.

School was a different story. Some boys in elementary school thought it was weird that I didn’t play sports and that I played violin, but things didn’t really get mean until middle school.

Now, I wasn’t made fun of to the point of tears or bullied to the point that I was truly hurt. Part of the reason I dealt so well with the gay jokes was the fact that I could spit them back right out to other people with just as much venom.

I’m not proud of this fact but it got me through those times. In high school, the comments continued but I didn’t really care as I made similar comments about other people.

While these insults sometimes went beyond implying sexual activity to sometimes explicitly telling someone they did something to another person or family member, it wasn’t really about homosexual sex. These comments were more in reactions to being a sissy, to not being a true “man.”

My friends and I didn’t really care so much about the sexual activity or interests people had, we just knew that if someone acted even slightly feminine, they deserved scorn.

As I was mocked for defending my love of the Backstreet Boys, I started building a chip on my shoulder. While I could play the gay insult game, I knew deep inside that what my peers were saying about me was true and that was scary. They saw a part of me that I didn’t necessarily want them to know but that I couldn’t hide.

I couldn’t name any players on the Seattle Mariners except for Ken Griffey Jr., but I could name every member of ‘N Sync. I loved reading; singing music, Broadway musicals, and the idea of playing football in the mud appalled me. They were right, I was a sissy, but I refused to feel bad about this fact. I told myself that I was better than them for being who I was and this thought process continues to unfairly put a shadow over the way I view many of my high school peers.

Not everyone in high school made me feel bad for being a sissy. There was the various female friends who accepted and loved me for my interests and insights (that’s another thing that made me a sissy, I had many female friends who weren’t girlfriends.).

As much as I wish that I didn’t contribute to the gay jokes, I did, and I’m appalled at some of the comments I made in high school. In some ways I’m still paying penance for the people that I aimed to hurt so that I could look cool and not be the focus of attention. I wish I was brave enough as a high school student to take the punishment and not redirect it at others. I am strong enough now to take the comments and that’s something I’m proud of as much as I’m ashamed for my past transgressions.

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