When I was six years old, my father bought me a Strawberry Shortcake bike with a pink banana seat and tassels hanging from the handle bars. My parents beamed with pride at my first ride without training wheels and were ready to watch their youngest daughter take off on her new “big kid” bicycle. I, on the other hand, was mortified. There was no way I was gonna ride that girly bike in front of the boys in the neighborhood. The boys who respected me as a tough, athletic kid but marginalized me because I was a girl.
I threw a small tantrum and refused my dad’s gift. Being the supportive father he was, he exchanged Strawberry Shortcake a few days later for a white and orange Huffy boy’s bike with a hard plastic seat and a lightning bolt across the frame. There were pegs on the back tire and noisemakers in the spokes. For a few weeks, I was the coolest kid on the block — but more importantly, I was affirmed and supported by my family. At that age, I didn’t have the language or the wherewithal to verbalize that I was transgender. I just knew that I was different from the the girls in my neighborhood and the ones in my class at school. Whenever my cousins and I would act out imaginary stories, I always played the bad little brother or the dad. I was teased and called “Fly guy” when I, in all sincerity, tried to mimic the bop of the older boys on the corner. They were making fun of me, but I loved it!
My mother and father never judged me or tried to force me to be anything other than who I was. I wore dresses on the occasions that I needed to, but they let my everyday outfits be unisex and comfortable. It’s more acceptable for a girl child to display masculine or boyish traits, particularly when it’s associated with athleticism, so my way of being wasn’t heavily policed. For a long time, I was just a tomboy who would grow out of my boyish ways and blossom into something totally different — which I did. I went to an all girls private high school that prided itself on womanhood and femininity. I played the part for those four years, and when I graduated I never presented as feminine again. Slowly I began to embrace the masculinity that was acceptable to present as a young child, but that I’d suppressed throughout my teenage years to fit.
When presenting masculine wasn’t enough and I started to feel dysphoric about my gender identity, I began my transition. The conversations with my family were difficult, but once we’d all grieved the girl I used to be, we began to celebrate the man I’d become. They all welcomed and loved their son, brother, and uncle. I’m lucky. So many trans folks lose everyone they thought loved them when they come into themselves.
I couldn’t imagine who I would be if it weren’t for the solid foundation and protection my family and friends have built for me. My mother particularly was my biggest fan and most ardent supporter. Even as she laid in hospice dying of cancer, she corrected my sister when she used the wrong pronouns. This affirmation and love allowed me to create space to become a man by my own design.
I’ve taken deliberate time and intention to examine tropes of masculinity and develop a manhood that worked with femininity and wasn’t diabolically opposed to it. We are bombarded with messages and images that suggest that femininity is untrustworthy and needs to be policed. The idea that a man is entitled to a woman’s body is consistently validated in our media and is evident in the rape culture we live in. I decided that my masculinity would not be seeped in irrational entitlement; it would not be rooted in asserting power or control over women or femme folks. I wanted to create a kind of manhood that creates a safe space for women and femme identified people, so that everyone can be autonomous, carefree in their bodies, desire, and identity. This masculinity doesn’t assume any rank over anyone because they aren’t men or masculine. It’s about listening more and talking less. It’s about being an ally, calling other men on their misogyny, and continuing to actively look for ways to be better.
Becoming a Black man has been a thoughtful journey. I’m curious to know how others have formed their masculinity, so I’ll pose this question to the audience: What does masculinity mean to you?