A Warning to My Younger Self
After a very stressful day at work this summer I sat on the bench at the bus stop with my face in my hands, cradling a headache. Then a horn honked and I looked up to see the driver shout “Loser!” from his passing pick-up. I had assumed that he assumed I was homeless and hung over or something of the sort; at any rate, it had been such a long time since anyone had called me a loser that I’d forgotten how one was supposed to feel about it.
A few days later I told one of our summer students, who has chosen the pseudonym Avicenna Nightingale, about it as I happened to be on the same bus as her after work. She suggested he didn’t take me for drunk.
“It was probably because you were waiting for a bus,” she said. She was a local so she probably knew this sort of thing better than I did.
“Yeah, like, ‘Where’s your truck, son?’ Was he driving a souped-up pick-up?”
“Was he wearing a black t-shirt a size too small to show off those guns?”
“Don’t you know only losers take the bus?”
Very little of what I’m about to write in this post, or my next post on gender, is going to be new to people who’ve thought long and hard on, and/or who’ve had fraught experiences with, gender performance and masculinity. I have found my experiences with gender different here than anywhere else I have lived, so perhaps that might still interest you. At any rate:
During my undergraduate career I spent my summers living with my father in Fort McMurray, where I earned my tuition, rent, and grocery money for the upcoming school year. I had never been entirely comfortable around adult men, especially ones in the trades, but these summers I felt more often than ever like I had failed, in some fundamental way, to really be a man. Pretending to be masculine was a frequent anxiety, but so was pretending as though I was an adult; it seemed that I never quite measured up. I could not hammer a nail as well as the other men could, nor did I have more than a learner’s permit, nor did I understand half of what they were saying when they discussed basic maintenance, nor could I talk with the easiness, confidence, and self-possession that they did. I did not feel this way, or at least not nearly so often, when I was at Queen’s University and I assumed that you could get away with failing to live up to gender norms better at university, in the Humanities, than in Fort McMurray among the trades and the business world. Because it seemed to me that I did not fit into male society, I came out of these experiences with the belief that I could not adhere well to masculine gender norms and had therefore lost a significant portion of male privileges. It’s not that I was effeminate but rather I thought that I tended toward some neutral extra-gendered space, failing masculinity in basic ways.
I was wrong to believe this.
Returning to Fort McMurray this past April after a long period of absence, I re-encountered the masculine world here with a better sense of myself and gender and with more brains generally. What I’ve come to realize is that I have always performed a masculine gender role quite well; it’s just that my masculine performance is only recognized in certain milieus. At Queen’s University and in Vancouver my gender performance is generally up to snuff. In Fort McMurray, however, my gender performance is not perfectly legible as male. To make a very common academic move, there isn’t just one masculinity; there are masculinities.
For example, I would never wear a dress.* It’s not even that I want to wear a dress but am afraid to do so. Rather, I have so thoroughly internalized masculinity that it would never occur to me to wear a dress. I would never want to. The basics of a masculine performance are buried deep in me. Consider how preposterous it is: there are many kinds of clothing which I would never think of wearing, would never want to wear, because they are associated, entirely arbitrarily, with a gender I do not perform. And that’s just clothing.
But, on the other hand, I don’t drive. I don’t drive at all but the important point is that I don’t drive in Fort McMurray. Many people don’t drive in cities like Vancouver or Toronto, where parking is impossible, transit is reliable, and most things you need are within walking distance anyway. It’s harder to get away without driving in smaller cities and larger towns, and Fort McMurray especially is an automotive community. It is aggressively automotive; in some ways it seems outright hostile to pedestrians. Of all the places I’ve lived, drivers have nearly killed me in Fort McMurray by far the most often; of all the places I’ve lived, Fort McMurray has the most faulty crosswalk lights. You can no longer even cross the Athabasca on foot, since they changed the overpass situation. And in this automotive city, driving a truck–a truck, mind you, and not a car–is an indispensable component of performing masculinity.
So here, since I do not drive, my ability to pass for masculine is impaired in ways that it is not impaired in Vancouver, for example, or in Stratford, or on the Queen’s campus in Kingston. Notice that I say, “pass for masculine”; of course everyone here identifies me as male, as I identify as male, as I was assigned male at birth. I am cismale without ambiguity. But even so, masculinity is put on with behaviour and garment and language, and here in Fort McMurray there are more limited dialects of masculinity. I do not speak them well. Fort McMurray is also more prone to machismo than other places I’ve lived; I do not think it is a coincidence that Fort McMurray is also one of the Truest Blue** parts of Canada, but I don’t think that explains all of it. I have lived other places that are quite Blue; they are not the same as here.
What I have realized is that my inability to perform any of the Fort McMurray masculinities quite sufficiently does not mean that I don’t perform masculinity well; all it means is that the masculinity that I am fluent in is not recognized here. I am still fluent in a masculinity, or perhaps even in more than one.
But there is something else that I have realized: my inability to perform masculinity adequately would not mean that I lack most male privileges thereby. Oh, I lack some of them: I cannot be quite comfortable in male company, nor does it seem that certain men are comfortable in my company (I have at last learned that it goes both ways, which makes it no better at all); my opinion on certain matters is not taken as seriously as it might otherwise be taken. But my opinion is taken seriously on far more matters than if other men–and often enough women–took me for female, or trans, or gay, and being taken seriously and being comfortable in certain groups are not the sum, or even the pinnacle, of male privilege. I am not sexually harassed, my intelligence is not questioned, no men fear my sexuality and therefore me, few people interrogate whatever religiosity I claim, no one doubts my ability to do jobs for which I am certified (or even uncertified, as is common here), people rarely mistake friendliness for a romantic attempt, and on and on. I’m not sure I would have access to all of these privileges here if I failed to perform masculinity utterly. So while I was not wrong to feel that I did not measure up, I was wrong to think this meant I was cut off from most male privilege.
The warning for my younger self, the warning for young men who struggle to maintain a masculine identity, is this: do not be fooled by your failure to maintain the masculine ideal that you are not plenty enslaved to masculinity. Do not be fooled by the respect you lose for these failures that you do not still gain a lot from your gender and sex. Do not be fooled by your contempt for hypermasculinity that you are not conforming to gender roles. Don’t be fooled!
Let me end with one more anecdote from this summer:
I am not the most reliable shaver. I used to be; I shaved every day. But it is hard to get one’s standards back up after catastrophic depression and shaving is one of those standards that still suffers for it. However, one particular sunny summer morning I did shave before work and I was sitting at point of sale, waiting to charge admission for visitors, with Avicenna Nightgale and another summer student nearby. A man walked in with his family; I took their donations, told them about the site’s offerings, and let them in.
“Did you see his shirt?” Avicenna sounded incredulous. The man had been wearing, you see, a black t-shit which featured an image of an impressive beard and moustache and it read, “There’s a place for a man without a beard. It’s called the ladies’ room.”
“Yes. I can’t believe how closely it matched his face. It was the exact same beard,” I said, fingering my smooth chin. Ah, well.
* In strict truth, I have worn a dress once for a play in highschool. We had too many female characters in our group to avoid having some male students play women, considering that it was an all-male group assigned a play about sex workers in the Canadian prairies. I was mortified but I went through with it.
** In Canada, like in most of the world, political conservatism is coded as blue while political liberalism is coded as red. However, if by True Blue one means adherence to the Conservative Party and not commitment to political conservatism more generally, then Fort McMurray is not True Blue at all: Fort McMurray is one of the strongest bases for the Wildrose Party, a conservative provincial party that has set itself up as the right-wing alternative to the nepotistic and complacent Conservative Party of Alberta. That narrative is unravelling as there is talk of a merger, however.