I wanted to “be a woman”. But I never listened to them.
January 19, 2015
“Often, I wanted to be a girl.
I’d wanted that, off and on, since I was about nine years old. I was often mistaken for a girl as a child, and once puberty, which wasn’t pretty, more or less ended, I could sometimes pass for a girl again. One school journey as a sixth former, staying in a French hotel and having consumed a glass of wine or two, I happily let the girls dress me in their make-up and clothes. (I stuck a photo of that evening in a diary and labelled it “the feminine mystique.” My dad saw it and said, “What the hell do you think you’re playing at.”)
I found different ways of making sense of these feelings from childhood onwards, framing them through whatever I found available. At age nine, I fantasized that I could have a switch like the one on my Telstar Pong game that flipped between GAME and TV, except mine would read BOY and GIRL. In my early twenties, when the feelings either didn’t go away or returned again, I had much more freedom to dress up how I liked, and a circle of friends who accepted it. I read comic books like Neil Gaiman’s gender-playful Sandman, the sex-shifting Shade The Changing Man, Doom Patrol, with a hermaphrodite superhero, and Enigma, which concluded with a chapter simply titled “Queer.” One Christmas my grandma gave me a £10 check and, subversively, I used it to pay for a mail-order pamphlet called The Transvestite’s Guide to London. That was the vocabulary of the time. Those were the discourses of the time, the early 1990s. Twenty years later, when I did have Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, I found different words that also made sense of my feelings and experiences.
So by the 2010s I thought I was pretty set. I thought I knew a lot. I thought I knew about feminism. I thought I knew about gender. I had a lot to learn.
I’m sure everything about my account above is steaming with privilege, with confidence, with complacency. Books, travel, toys, cool parents, even famous family friends. It’s hard to quantify how much of that is due to factors like class and ethnicity, but I think I willfully ignored how much of it was to do with being born and raised as male. Whenever I imagined myself as a girl or woman, I saw myself as a high school Supergirl, as Elle Woods from Legally Blonde or Cher from Clueless: popular, smart, sharp, a perfect balance of charmingly charismatic and self-effacingly adorable. I imagined it happening like magic. I imagined, but I didn’t really think. I didn’t think about what it would really mean to grow up that way, under those conditions, and to become a woman within our society: a warzone, effectively, with women as the constant target.
Just as I was self-centered enough to never have considered my own mother as someone with a richer and more fascinating life than my own, I’d denied the fact that, despite my research, despite my reading, despite my good intentions, I had been successfully trained up as a boy, and then a man, within patriarchy. Yes, as a white middle-class man; but it was patriarchy that did the most work on me. Yes, I often felt so uncomfortable within the frameworks of masculinity that I dodged desperately to escape and become something different, but still, patriarchy did its work, and when it suited me, I embraced it and I accepted its benefits.
I’m still glad social media didn’t exist when I was a teenager. But it was social media that put me in contact—initially, in conflict—with women who pointed out what I should have seen years ago. I made demands of women online that I wouldn’t make of men. I challenged them, expecting answers, in a way I wouldn’t challenge men. Some ingrained, entitled part of me expected them to provide me with information on demand. I expected women to shush when I spoke. I expected to hold the floor. I expected to be thanked and praised for gestures in their direction. I expected to be the hero.
Then I talked to women who didn’t let that happen, and it briefly shocked me. Maybe social media, with its anonymity, enables more direct, no-nonsense responses to strangers than I was used to in real life, where women might be more inclined to raise their eyebrows and keep their peace: but I was told to hold my tongue, to butt out of conversations, to go away and read.
And, surprising myself a little, I did what I was told. I went away and read. I read a lot. I read blogs written that morning, and books anthologizing feminist pamphlets from the 1960s. I read pieces that contradicted each other, and I followed debates, and thought about them. But more importantly, I genuinely backed off, for one of the first times in my life. I accepted the role of a minor, almost-insignificant supporting character, rather than the hero, for once. I sometimes asked to join conversations between women and I was ignored, and it smarted but I swallowed it. So instead, I read: and online, of course, that’s a form of listening. Social media has many flaws, but one of its strengths is that through reading, you can listen and learn without bothering anyone: You can read and absorb, without feeling the need to interrupt and give your opinion. That’s an important instinct, I think, for a man to overcome: the feeling that everyone is waiting for your opinion. And because I was given no choice, I managed it. And then after a while, I sometimes spoke up, and when they had time, the women listened and responded, sometimes cautiously, but for the most part generously and encouragingly.
Perhaps with hindsight, my long-term, helpless yearning to be a girl, or later a woman, has always been more about not-wanting to be a boy or man. But it took me a long time to understand what not-being a man, on a social level, has to involve.”