I am grateful for the encouragement these columns have elicited from family and friends, but most humbling of all have been the responses from strangers. Strangers, recognizing me from my photo in the newspaper, stopped me on the street or at the store or at the pool to introduce themselves and thank me for writing the column.
One reader noted that it’s the first thing she looks for in the paper every second Sunday, and one said it’s the only column she reads. A lovely reader insisted that I keep writing them.
This has been happening a lot lately, and I can’t tell you how much those kind words mean to me. This is the reward. As I noted in my very first Coming Out column, there is something validating about going public, about holding this experience to light where we can look at it together.
Reader, the experience wouldn’t feel so real without you.
And I also hope that these chronicles will provide some comfort and support to those who question our culture’s empty assumptions about gender.
But there is a strange thing about these strangers who have approached me about the columns: they are all women. Not a single man approached me in public to thank me for the chronicles.
Of course, I have supportive male friends, some of whom were the first people I came out to and who have been wonderful encouragement. And I know there must be men out there, strangers reading this now, who also have issues with how our culture imagines gender and appreciate what I’m trying to accomplish.
But so far none of them have approached me to say so. Why not?
I think the situation is analogous to a meme I’ve seen on the web lately. Lots of local people, men and women, are competing in the Ironman Alaska race here on Sunday, and the meme jokingly wonders why the competition isn’t called the Fe-male competition. Fe, of course, is the chemical symbol for iron, so strictly speaking the terms Ironman and Fe-male are synonymous. But you can imagine how few men would show up for a Woman-Man competition.
(Yeah, okay, I’d be there, but I mean real men, manly men, the kind you hear at the gym grunting a little histrionically under the weights in the weight room.)
(You know, the dumbbells.)
I’m sure there are male readers who question our conventions of masculinity, but are nonetheless afraid to acknowledge it publicly, as if it would compromise their own masculinity. There is this reluctance to validate that another man finds greater value in traits and behaviors that our culture labels as feminine and mocks effeminate and diminutive in a man.
Traits such as being more emotional: Aristotle believed women were inferior because they were “more easily moved to tears…more prone to despondency.” From my experience with hormones, I can tell you that indeed high estrogen levels make you more emotional – not the outward display, but the inner experience of emotions. I’ve always been on the emotional side, but now my emotions seem more palpable, stronger, and it takes a little more effort to control them.
I’m not talking about emotionality, that creepy phenomenon when guys cry to show how sensitive they are.
Years ago, I attended a weekend retreat for Christian men, and during the day, some men talked about their experiences, and most of those discussions were pretty much the same: guys thoughtlessly reflecting and sobbing over various traumas, mostly self-inflicted.
But a conversation was different. My friend the late Thomas Weiss, a Catholic priest, former pastor of the Cathedral of the Nativity in Juneau, spoke of the most horrific sexual abuse he suffered in his youth from an older priest. But he spoke without a single tear, moan or grimace. Throughout his speech, Father Thomas remained his typically light-hearted self, with a cheerful face and demeanor that betrayed a genuinely uplifting quiet strength.
“Harden not your hearts” – I think that was Father Thomas’ favorite phrase in the scriptures. You don’t have to show your emotions, but you have to feel them. And learn to manage them.
The idea that a more emotional response to the world is inferior to how a man experiences the world is what writer Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism”; if we regard men and women as opposites, then we tend to attribute opposites to them which seem to confirm a woman’s inferiority: if men are strong, women must be weak; if men are rational, women must be irrational, i.e. emotional, etc.
I was going to say that acknowledging the greater value of expressions that our culture labels as feminine doesn’t compromise a man’s masculinity. But now that I think about it, maybe it is. Maybe that’s the point: Men need to find the courage to think more critically about how our culture defines masculinity.
Simone de Beauvoir noted for a long time that one is not born a woman, one becomes one. It is the same with being a man.
Feminism implores us to raise our daughters without the baggage of gender conventions, to raise them to be strong, honest and courageous. It’s time we started raising our sons the same way.
• Jane Hale spent her first 69 years writing as Jim. She is a longtime resident of Juneau. “Coming Out” is a bi-weekly column. It appears on the Empire Neighbors page.