How do we learn to become who we are?
Our first and strongest influence will be our parents, but there is no perfect template for either parenting or influence. The dynamics of family and parenting are influenced by a multitude of factors including, education, social intelligence, love, compassion, economics, religion, location, and stability in the relationship between mother and father — or some other form of relationship if you were raised by a single parent or a guardian.
Your parents each had their own unique balance of masculine and feminine characteristics that influenced your upbringing, what you witnessed in their behaviours, and the identity you developed for yourself growing up.
I feel fortunate to have grown up with two loving and supportive parents.
I was never taught that I had the option to be gay, straight, or anything else. Nor was being gay discussed in a negative way. Such an option was simply not available in the consciousness of my upbringing. My parents never taught or forced me to act in a certain way. I never heard anything like, “be a man”, or, “stop acting like a girl”.
My assessment of my parents comes with its own baggage, so whatever I describe is directly associated with how I was raised, and any conscious or unconscious shame and judgment I have about myself.
My father I would label as “gentle masculine”.
To me he appeared to go with the flow. He was quiet, unassuming, and a supporting father and parent.
My mother I want to label as “frustrated feminine”.
By that I mean I believe she struggled with being forced into the role of what a woman was expected to be by her parents and the generation in which she grew up (1950s). It’s not that my mother wasn’t feminine or ladylike; she was. Instead, I believe she struggled with being pigeonholed into the role of a stay-at-home mom. She had been to teachers college, but like many women of her generation it seems like post secondary education was a time-filler until marriage and child rearing
Even though my parents appeared to fulfill their respective gender roles of the time, they consciously or unwittingly taught me the best of both worlds. I was born in 1956, and my memories of these influences start in the 70s.
My mother taught me how to clean the house, make the bed, do laundry, sew both by hand and with a sewing machine, how to shop for groceries, how to cook, and also how to care for people. My mother used her skills in teaching and empathy, helping me as a very young boy to deal with my ADHD and learning dyslexia. She sat with me for hours on end helping me improve my reading comprehension and handwriting skills.
My father taught me how to fix things. As a mechanic by trade he showed me how to fix electronics, dig holes, pour concrete, build a deck, cut the grass and maintain the property, lay insulation in the attic, change light fixtures without turning off the power, change a tire and fix a brake line on the car, and how to rough it while camping in Algonquin Park, including how to fish and filet that same fish (yucky!) to cook over an open fire.
There was something my father never taught me.
My father never taught me how to play team play sports.
My dad probably took up golf to do business when he transitioned from being a mechanic into management. The only sport he played that I remember was racquetball. He taught me how to play that game (I must have asked) and I went with him a couple of times to the club as a pre-pubescent boy. I remember feeling awkward in the change room and the open showers with my dad. Not because I was ashamed, but because I was aware I was looking at the naked men and that I probably shouldn’t have been doing so.
One time my father took me to a Blue Jays baseball game. Neither of us really cared for it and I recall him being happy I didn’t want to repeat the experience. We never watched sports on TV at home. Well, the Olympics were the one exception (which I remember in black and white), but that was pure patriotism.
I was never forced or expected by my parents to join a sports team or any physical activity outside of regular school hours. I remember trying karate but I must not have continued with it since I don’t remember getting a belt. From as early as I can remember I hated gym and tried everything to get out of going. Gym seemed to be the one place where I stood out as the other, both for my physical weakness and overall lack of social skills as one of the boys.
Two experiences at school speak to my balanced upbringing.
The first was home economics, which I attended in grade 8, the last year of Catholic elementary school. We were bussed to a different school that had been recently built and had a teaching kitchen. In my memory I was the only boy in the class. I wonder if it was an elective or if I’ve simply created a closed story around those memories.
Home Ec was easy and fun. I loved cooking, which I had learned from my mother. I felt comfortable in that creative environment, learning how to eventually take care of myself by learning how to cook well, but I also felt safe amongst my female classmates. I don’t recall feeling judged or ostracized. It might not be surprising that I attended chef school for a year, a couple of years after graduating high school.
The other class was metal work, which I attended in high school, grade 9. Again, if there was anyone from the opposite sex in that class I don’t recall, but I remember how much I loved the class. To this day I have the steel hammer that I learned how to make by hand in that class. It’s my go-to hammer when fixing something at home — almost 40 years later.
There was so much going on in that class. The noise from all the machines. The teacher constantly shouting instructions and keeping a close eye on all the students to avoid injury. I think the noise and the busyness allowed me to be in that class but to remain out of sight. We were all working with dangerous machinery, each focused on the task at hand. No one was interested in the other, the faggot, in the class.
From a very young age my parents taught me the requisite skills to take care of myself as an adult.
I would grow up not needing a woman, because my mother taught me all that she knew by playing her expected female role. I would become a handyman thanks to my father who loved that work, but who did it without any macho need to be a man.
Did that put me more firmly in the middle, in the gap between the masculine and the feminine? Is that why I grew up in neither too gay or too straight? Neither too femme or too straight-acting? So that I presented somewhere in the middle?
I remember watching the film adaptation of Torch Song Trilogy in my early 20s.
The main character, Arnold, played by Harvey Fierstein (the author of the original play), is having a heated argument with his mother. For me, this was the defining moment of the film:
“I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture. I can even pat myself on the back when necessary. All so that I don’t have to ask anyone for anything. There’s nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect.”
In that moment I saw myself reflected in the character he was playing. The only difference was that I was not a self-proclaimed sissy who totally owned it.
Recounting these memories reminds me of how out of place I felt during my adolescence.
I didn’t know how to be a boy within the status quo of the 1970s and 80s. Perhaps I knew too much — I knew how to be a woman just as much I knew how to be a man. Like Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy I could completely take care of my own needs.
Yet there I was, standing in the gap, alone, because no one had taught me how to exist in that place. No one told me it was okay to exist in the gap, let alone accept myself as how I presented. My identity was something I struggled with, because even though I had been raised with love and respect, I did not see myself represented in the world.
You can listen to the corresponding episode of this post on the Living OUT Podcast, How My Parents Influenced My Gay Male Identity — LOP040.