When kids are growing up, they see the difference between boys and girls, men and women. In films and video games, men do the most things—the fighting, the wise-cracking, the hunting, the problem solving. Women generally earn less money, don’t have as many important jobs, and do much of the housework and caring for the kids. So girls and boys pick up the fact that there’s a feeling, usually unspoken, that men have more power than women.
This means that being a girl is worse than being a boy—that’s how kids see it. For a boy, being seen to be a girl is really scary because it means he’d be giving up the chance to be on the more powerful side. I know that some boys support Grimsby Town, but generally why would any little boy want to be on the crap side in life?
Boys really want to have power, so until they can get some real power through having a job or having money, they court it in games. Boys play with guns and magic, worship superheroes, and pretend to do jobs that come with power, like builders or footballers. When I was a boy, I wasn’t too interested in these things. I don’t know why (please analyse me in the comments), but I wasn’t that keen on pretending. I preferred just to read. I just wanted ideas and the chance to peek into other people’s lives—so books were my closest friends.
I did like to pretend a little bit though: on stage in a local theatre troupe, I played Bill Sykes in Oliver! and Mr Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors. I don’t know whether I loved the chance to play ‘real men’ or just that I loved the chance to dress up and perform. But what I do know for sure is that I hated the fact that by being in the theatre group I was also associated with singing and dancing.
Where I grew up, in Grimsby and Cleethorpes in the 1990s, singing and dancing were girly activities. So when people asked me about my hobbies I said I was in the local theatre group, but I always made a point of saying, “Only really cos I like acting. We have to sing and dance too, but I go for the acting.” I never had a singing part, and I don’t think I enjoyed the dancing—but now I don’t know whether that was because I didn’t want to enjoy it or simply because choreography based on step-ball-change and shimmying is just pretty boring. I knew that I didn’t want to be associated with the girlier activities in the group.
And this meant that I also didn’t really make any friends. I stayed away from most of the girls because being friends with them would only have made me seem more interested in the girly things. And I stayed away from the boys because, well, they were boys who liked dancing. I remember sharing rides to the rehearsals with a neighbour’s daughter, and worrying about the fact that going with a girl only made it seem more girly. I’m really sad about this all now. I wonder how many friendships I could have made if I hadn’t cared as much about these things.
A little later, when I was about 16 to 18, I was in a mixed groups of friends. This was probably the only time in my life I’ve had a distinct group of friends, where everyone knew each other. We were at college together and we all lived close to each other. We thought of ourselves as being like the characters in Friends or Dawson’s Creek. We made films of ourselves dressing up as each other and taking the piss. It was with this group that for the first time I talked until sunrise. However, I didn’t get too close. Although we talked about sex and relationships I never once told them I was gay. Even though one of the other boys in the group was gay, and coming out, and learning how to be himself as a young man, I stayed silent.
I just didn’t want to be associated with being gay. I was mostly comfortable being associated with gay people—including my friend, and my sister. I always stood up for them. But for me? No, I didn’t want a part of it. I hated the label, I hated the idea of naming a part of myself and people then assuming certain things about me based on that label. Plus I had some feelings for women, and I was desperate to encourage these. I even got a girlfriend and tried to have sex with her. That went wrong—the wrong bits were hard and the wrong bits were soft.
And then I couldn’t tell my friends because the real answer would have been that I was gay. I was confused and hurt about failing with the girlfriend, but I couldn’t confide in my friends because I didn’t want to associate myself with being gay. Why? In part it’s because being gay is girly. That’s what I thought. That’s what I must have heard from TV and films and maybe some people around me. And as I said earlier, being a girl is a quick way to giving up the power you have as a boy, or the power you may have as a man.
You might think that I threw myself into masculine endeavours. If a person is so worried about being seen to be a girl, he should take up football or boxing or caber tossing or something. Well, I guess some men do that.
The nearest I got to trying to do a very masculine thing was when I started canoeing at university. And here’s the weird thing: I didn’t last long because I got so bored of the ways the other club members thought it was cool to drink heavily or to be shambolic or to take risks on the river. It could have been a lot worse—there could have been some real dickheads. Everyone in the club was nice enough. But even a medium level of competitiveness and danger, on the river or in the pub, didn’t appeal to me. I had the chance to perform being a man, but I guess I just wasn’t bothered enough. I preferred to sit and read or watch films. I did put a lot of time and effort into hanging out with the canoe club members, but they didn’t become friends. I wonder how many friendships I missed out on while I was courting this masculine group and deciding that it wasn’t for me.
Even today, I still sometimes feel uncomfortable with telling my parents that last night I was hanging out with two friends, both female. I have many friends, and the split of those who say they’re either male or female is probably 50:50. I am much more comfortable with being the kind of male I am (one who can hike alone in the forest or wear a frock on a night out). And yet the idea that I might be seen as too girly—a perception which would remove some of my power or cause others to look down on me—still spikes me sometimes.
To wear a dress takes up all the confidence I have and all my anger at the pressures that limit our freedom. To hang out with girls and then to tell my parents I did that still nags at me. But at the same time, I’m due to go on my first stag do soon, and I’m petrified that my body will be tied to a lamppost and my masculinity will get totally knotted up.