Further reflections on gender identity

It’s been quite a few months since I started thinking deeply about my own gender identity and not a week has gone by where I haven’t found myself pondering on it.

Recently I started reading bell hooks’ “The Will to Change” and the first chapter has been eye-opening. I see the phrase “I feel seen” jokingly thrown around a lot, but having heard the first chapter I genuinely do feel seen. The discussion of patriarchy and patriarchal masculinity spoke to me so deeply. Her discussion of the socialisation of patriarchal masculinity, how from birth we are socialised - overtly and covertly - on what behaviours are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for boys, cut deep. It brought up such an incredibly vivid memory for me, of being in my early teens, maybe year 8 or 9 at school, and making the decision that I wasn’t going to cry any more. I’d always been a sensitive child and crying felt like a somewhat regular occurrence. At some point though I internalised the idea that boys don’t cry, so when I did cry there was this additional distress of violating this gender norm. Ultimately I decided that crying was not a thing for me any more. And I didn’t, I suppressed the urge and found myself less connected to my own emotions. That’s not to say I didn’t cry once in the last ~20 years, but the action indeed is a rarity and I find myself suppressing the urge to cry even today. It’s become such a default response, to suppress tears, that I often don’t realise I’m doing it.

Anyway, the point about crying was just one thing out of many in the book that I really connected with. The notion though, that alternative forms of masculinity exist, has been a great thinking point for me. Annoyingly, it’s one of those bits of knowledge that when you hear for the first time you go “OF COURSE! HOW DID I NOT THINK OF THIS BEFORE!”, but I’m not going to beat myself up for not questioning decades of socialisation. Considering this new knowledge then, the next question is…

What does masculinity mean to me?

The answer to this question is complicated and not fully formed yet, but it at least starts with disentangling masculinity from toxic masculinity. I need to spend some time thinking about what else masculinity means to me, aside from the stereotypical emotional coldness, physicality, aggression and dominance, or being ‘thick-skinned’. These are all the characteristics that I feel have been imprinted but never reflected who I actually was. So my goal for the next little while is to read up on alternative forms of masculinity. Realising that alternative forms of masculinity exist then got me wondering…

Am I actually non-binary/agender?

Or was this the only logical option at the time given I don’t relate at all to patriarchal imaginings of masculinity? As I said in the last post about gender identity, I was non-binary for the time being. Maybe I still am? I’m questioning whether I want a gender at all, or if gender is just a construct which we use to understand ourselves and relate to other people. For the time being, separating myself from what I originally understood masculinity to be is helping me to reflect on what else masculinity could be, at which point I’ll hopefully have a better understanding of whether I do indeed consider myself to be male, or just accept the masculine parts of myself as an agender person.

Part of the struggle I have is that I feel like I have a poor imagination for what alternative masculinities could look like, that I want someone to give me a handbook of masculinities for me to pick from. This feeling is an odd one because I’ve always wanted to reject categorising people into boxes, so this desire to place my gender identity into a box is uncharacteristic. Does this feeling come from a desire to ‘fit in’ to a box? Is it just laziness and wanting to be told who I am instead of engaging in serious introspective thought? I’m not sure, but I definitely do need to engage in further introspection.

At the moment I’m seeking out more writing on the concept of masculinity, so if you have any suggestions on texts you think might be relevant please send me a link on Twitter. I’m currently reading work by Karla Elliott and Sam de Boise and Jeff Hearn, so I’ll see where this literature takes me.

Ben Harrap
Ben Harrap

Researcher in linked data, Indigenous health, and child removals. Amateur gardener and brewer.