Take one part female, one part male, mix in a transgendered-male with a a few shakes of transgendered-female and what do you get? You get a mass of confusion and uncertainty about what gender is, how much of who we are is due to our gender and how much does being gender specific limit us from being fully human?

These are questions I have been pondering a great deal lately. Consider first the movies I've watched in the last year....Brokeback Mountain about two young men in the NorthWest who meet in the summer of 1963, a time when being gay was still primarily "accepted" only if it were between two men in the closet, definitely not between two cowboys living and working in the open range where seldom is heard a discouraging word. The next movie was TransAmerica, about a man, who when we meet her, is in the final stages of a long and arduous road to becoming a woman, with only the genital surgery to go. Meanwhile, there are the books I've been reading. A friend leant me her book, entitled She's Not There - A Life In Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. The author of this memoir grew up as Jim Boylan, became a writer (close friends with the perhaps more famous writer, Richard Russo of Empire Falls fame), married the love of his life, had two children and all the while was obsessed with the self-knowledge that he was meant to be she. Jim finally took the plunge, after many years of toying with female clothing and "pretending" femininity, and began the hormones and other treatments to finally become who she knew herself to be all along, Jennifer Boylan.

Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, soon after finishing She's Not There", I picked up the recorded edition of the book, Self-Made Man - One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back by Nora Vincent. This book on CD started out for me as boring, mainly because it was read by the author and her voice was quite low in tenor and monotone. But it was not long before boredom morphed into not only interest and fascination, but a kind of identification that often brought tears to my eyes.
Nora Vincent is a writer who went on a journey, a project, to see what it means to be a Man in America and to experience this though the eyes of a woman, a woman who happens to be a Lesbian. That Vincent is a Lesbian was not so significant, except that she had always been a tomboy and came to the project with what she thought was perhaps a better understanding of what being a man was because of her predisposition to boyish things. Much of what she learned on this journey was to dispel many of her (and hopefully the reader's) preconceptions. So, Vincent did some physical training to build up muscle mass, she did what was necessary to hide her breasts and to appear to have facial hair. She got a coach to help her with any of the characteristics of malehood that she might overlook. All in all, it worked, in so far as her biggest fear, that of being "found out", never happened. She spent about 18 months passing as a man, a man named Ned (a nickname she'd had as a child). She began the journey as the newest member of a bowling league. She went on to become a young man dating young women and then a man in a male dominated field, sales (door-to-door) and her final foray was into a a male bonding weekend in the woods.

I grew up through the Woman's Movement and I am a product of it. I also grew up in a family where, though my parents were well meaning and there was a lot of love, I did not have a great model provided for a good, healthy male-female relationship. I was never given the opportunity of seeing a man who was multi-faceted in his emotional development. After listening to this book, I have come to somewhat understand the monochromatic male when it comes to his emotions. Men, like women, are products of their environment and the American culture we all live in. We can not escape the male-female expectations taught us from infancy and we can not change the early relationship we have had with the parent who was to be our role model.

The author exposes the suffering of men when they are denied their father's approval and warmth. Men, all too often, grow up deprived of being allowed to experience a range of human emotions. They are not allowed to feel them, no less express them. Fear, insecurity, doubt are fiercely prohibited. Silliness, puckishness, playfulness, nurturing are given little value and attributed to the "weaker sex?. Sorrow, guilt, confusion and grief are frowned upon. In other words it's a short list from which men can choose when it comes to emotions. Women are pretty much free to experience and express them all, and generally we do. Boys often grow up learning, and as adults are left with, three major emotions: anger, rage and bravado. Sometimes the anger and rage men feel are directed towards women and Vincent helped me to understand where this might come from; how we women are ever ready to criticize men for being emotionally distant, yet at the same time, preferring them to meet our stereotypical images of strength and virility, how women, intending to be sensitive to their man, in reality, often does not honor his male needs. So, in response to his sadness, perhaps tears, we jump in to kiss the boo-boo or talk away the wound, when what he really needs is space and silent understanding.He needs the woman to understand that just being there, being present with him, is enough. Vincent further explained that she came to see how women often bring on male hostility when we assume an emotional superiority that closes down all communication (this resonated the deepest and elicited the tears.) Finally, however, she states that both genders are hurting, lonely, longing to connect, and fault can be found, just like quality, on both sides.

What is refreshing in this book is that the author is not on a mission to degrade the male gender, far from it. She clearly has no axe to grind. She managed to display men's relationships with other men as enviable. When women meet new women we tend to size them up, literally size them up....she's thinner than me, fatter than me, has prettier features than me..has horsey features, has huge breasts, is flat-chested,, has a flat stomach, is just too damn perfect. We tend to go into automatic competition mode and not necessarily for the highest bowling score. The men Ned met when he joined the bowling league came across to me as more "real". These men seemed to take each other at face value, without judgment or comparison. The stronger ones tended to take Ned under their wings and mentor him. Some of the older men provided a welcoming father figure. The male bonding in this segment of the book displayed a tenderness that never lost its masculinity and I found it enviable. I felt a longing for this kind of relationship with other women. I found myself admiring and even envying men for this ability to truly bond with others of their gender without rancor or pettiness.

Nora Vincent truly helped to give me an insight into the opposite gender that was as open as any I've encountered. Through her eyes I came to have a greater understanding of what's behind men's failures (as well as their attributes) and also to understand quite a bit about our own.

In Vincents words, "And I came largely to forgive women and myself for our own all too apparent shortcomings. Our emotional arrogance, our lack of perspective, our often unreasonable needs and projections and blames, our failure, like men, to manage or acknowledge the imbalance on our own side of the equation."

If nothing else is certain, what is without doubt the most important thing for men and women to learn is open communication with each other. I think of all the gender questions and answers I have come upon lately, this book, Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood is the one for us all, men and women, to read and take from it the fodder for that communication.


Maritza said...

Men still are a total mystery to me. Women raise them yet we don't understand them. These books sound great, I heard of some of them on NPR. I need to check these out. Thanks!

Diane S. said...

I've spent my life wrestling with the issues of what it is that makes each of us who we are: what it means to be male or female; what it means to be black or white; what it means to be Christian or Jewish... basically, how each of us comes into the world with a lot our identity pre-assembled. The issues still fascinate and compell me. I think "Self Made Man" will be required reading.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience with the book.

Sherril said...

I really do recommend checking them out. For me they were enlightening, especially the Self Made Man. Thanks for your comment.

Yes, your quesions are ones that are on my mind often. The gender one is of special significance because if you are heterosexual, you are bound to seek male companionship and love and yet there aer so many barriers that keep that from happening easily.