Performance of Masculinity

I was six years old, in a red brick schoolhouse, starting first grade. I’d been assigned a desk in a row of desks near the windows of our classroom.

Bad idea, lady. Too many distractions.

The boy in front of me was perfect, in every way. It could be said that, at six, I had a crush on him. Not a romantic one, certainly not a sexual one, but the kind of crush I would have many times in my life.

I wanted to be him.

He was thin, with perfectly tufted hair, and every day, he wore a shirt and pants that looked like they were made for him. Perhaps they were.

I would sit near Rob, the boy in question, all throughout grade school. His collared shirts would have pens in them, and yet no one so much as snarked in Rob’s direction. He was performing the role expected of him, and doing so beautifully.

Contrasted with me, of course.

I was smart, but sheltered as a kid. I’d failed a psychological test the year before, one that would have allowed me to enter school early, because (according to my mother) when I was asked to draw a body, I drew a head only and told the school official: “Well, if you have a good head on your shoulders, you don’t need a body.”

Undoubtedly snarky even at five.

In first grade I entered a power of wills with the teacher. I was often daydreaming, constantly sketching things and writing on my desktop. My teacher figured she’d nip it all in the bud by taking away the desk.

I wrote on the floor.

I didn’t look like the other boys, me, in my ill-fitting shirts and pants. I certainly didn’t act like them, me, inside clapping the erasers while all the little boys ran around the playground.

I did not perform the role expected of me. I didn’t then, and I feel that on most days, I haven’t come much closer to a convincing performance of it now.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, wedged between two steel towns. Our fathers and their fathers went to work, came home in darkness and grunted once for “good night” and twice for “good morning.”

They were smart men, but emotional IQ wasn’t a priority for us guys.

It may sound like a stereotype from a bad pulp novel, but the men around me seemed so similar: gruff, blue collar guys who watched football, drank beer and occasionally bet on the horses.

I don’t think “Free To Be You And Me” reached my hometown, or at least not the men in my inner circle.

And I failed at every test of masculinity that I was asked to perform.

I had (and still have) no interest in sports, either as a spectator or a player. I failed at nearly every sport I tried, though I was able to passably play golf.

Looking back, I feel really bad for my father, who tried to reach out to me, and really tried to a very long time to make some connection via sports.

I remember him trying baseball, softball, tennis, fishing and golf with me. He really wanted me to succeed in my efforts, but I just couldn’t connect. It was like asking me to walk on a broken leg — painful and not even remotely graceful.

Wood shop, and the projects I tried to help him with in the garage, didn’t fare much better. My dad could MacGyver the shit out of almost anything and make it work or fix it, but aside from maybe putting a plate on a light switch, I missed those genes.

(I was no better at cooking; to this day, I burn water.)

At a few different points in my life, I wondered if perhaps I was transgender. I seriously considered this possibility for a time.

I know gender is complex, and I don’t want to reduce it to binaries, or assign any gender a specific meaning or behavior (e.g., women are more emotional, etc.)

I also know that for transgender people, their journeys to realization and becoming trans are also complex. But for me, the question was: Do I feel like I’m in the wrong body? That answer, when I’ve asked myself, is ‘no.’

I expected this conundrum to go away as I got older, or at least recede into the shadows. But I don’t know that it has.

When I turned 30, I discovered a community of men who liked bigger, stockier men like me. It was their THING. Finally, there was a place to meet new friends (and maybe a boyfriend!) that wasn’t a nightclub filled with really skinny guys looking for other really skinny guys.

But I didn’t quite fit into that template, either. Those guys were hoping for a big, burly lumberjack type, a guy with a big beard or a flannel shirt or a slew of tattoos, a big “bubba” that would be the strong guy, take the lead, be in charge.

They would meet me, excitedly, only to be totally disappointed. Bookish, nerdy, obtuse me. They wanted flannel shirts, and instead got a guy who wrote about soap operas and had all the seasons of Maude and Mary Tyler Moore on DVD. They found a guy who had a framed picture of Dawn Davenport from Female Trouble on the mantle.

Reply hazy, try again later.

Hazy is what it still feels like, sometimes.

For many years, I thought I had a profound lack of esteem when it came to competition. I am one of the least competitive people who ever lived; it’s just not in my nature.

I thought it was low self-esteem, but I’m beginning to reconsider that idea. I think it’s really more that it’s unclear who my peer group should be. Am I being compared apples to apples? Oranges to oranges?

I don’t know if being gay has anything to do with my perception of all of this. I’ve had an adult “crush” on a guy that didn’t really have much to do with sex, or sexual attraction. It was just swooning, of sorts, at how brilliant they seemed to be, how well their whole performance of masculinity was executed.

Nine point nine from the Russian judges!

When I’m compared to other men, perhaps it goes back to the boy with the cleanly pressed shirt and pens. I still can’t really express it, but I don’t know that I belong in his bracket.

I have my own approach, and my own gifts, and they need to be measured for their own merit, need to be taken at their own face value.

Musically, the best way I can illustrate this post is with one artist: Boy George.

The arrival of Culture Club was refreshing to me. Seeing the genderqueer Boy George (as well as an androgynous Annie Lennox) was validation for a young teenager that there were others who didn’t fit into the mainstream.

It was also a very early lesson about the true cost of difference, and the ultimate toll that publicly acknowledging difference would have on me.

It may be just a few pop songs we’re talking about here, but it’s all currency and oxygen to a teenager.

A few years earlier, I’d received the proper albums for a young man: AC/DC. Ozzy Osbourne. Those who were about to rock saluted me.

I remember the day that I said, out loud, to the kids that I was hanging out with that I liked Culture Club.

I remember the feel of the duct tape that my ‘friends’ put in my hair, while I sat, staring stonefaced. That was the last moment I acknowledged them for years, and in a day, I lost an entire social group.

And of course they, in turn, shunned me. A complete Arctic tundra kind of thing.

Colour By Numbers was my favorite album for many of those teenage years. I had to buy a second copy after wearing out the first. (At some point, my poor mother – who loved George, too – offered me $20 to not play it for a week.)

And I remember a hellish bus ride back from a field trip. The bus driver had the radio blaring, and it was a two-fer Thursday (yes, I remember this). On the way back, the “twofer” was two Culture Club songs. It was a sociological exercise to see how many times forty kids could call me “faggot,” scream obscenities and throw things at me in eight minutes’ time.

I survived it all. And I still have the music — which has come with me from vinyl to cassette to CD to MP3 and now, back to vinyl.

I’ve loved Boy George’s body of work, with and without the band. And I think his work, particularly with Culture Club, is under-appreciated.

It’s often dismissed as lightweight pop music but I think it’s due some reconsideration. Like the best of ABBA and the Carpenters, many of the best Culture Club and Boy George songs have heartbreak and melancholy wrapped in big candy wrappers.

As much as I love all his work, Colour By Numbers has something that really touched me, touched my heart. It is every bit as classic, in my eyes, as Dusty In Memphis, as Court and Spark.

(And I say this as a fan who isn’t terribly enamored of That Chameleon Song.)

I wasn’t completely sure at the time what I was about or what George was on about, but I knew he was, in some way, singing about a very essential truth, something I recognized.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when it became clear years later that Colour By Numbers was essentially a huge love letter from George to Jon Moss, it made sense. I think I’d understood that on some level.

The high energy highs, and the ache for love, was in every note, especially in “Victims,” the breathtakingly beautiful ballad that closes the album.

Boy George didn’t have an easy time of it after Culture Club became famous. His life imploded in a rather public way, more than once.

But he has survived and thrived, renewing and reinventing himself, finding his spiritual center, and remaining as relevant as ever.

I’m happy to see George looking well, doing well.  His life and his talents are in clearer focus these days.

It’s all any of us can really hope for, isn’t it?

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