I had intended for this blog to remain relatively undetailed on how experiences have effected me, largely because the aftermath I continue to deal with is down to a combination of lots of things, and I constantly feel judged, but something on @TheTinMen on Instagram has inspired me.
The post is titled: What's the strangest thing you've been told not to do because "that's gay"?
And it shares the comments of other men with some of the most bizarre assumptions and stereotypes.
Why do these things (some hilarious!) resonate with me? Well, because I have been subjected of stereotypical assumptions from as far back as I can remember, and the impact this has had on my mental health as been everything but #KindOnMind.
This post does not intend to offend anyone of any identity, it (not so) simply references my experience of societal expectations of masculinity, as a cis-gender man.
I was raised to be myself and for me that involved playing with toy cars, army soldiers, skipping ropes, my cousin’s Barbie dolls, having a pram with a baby and playing ‘Mums and Dads’ where I was quite happy to ‘iron the clothes’.
I see no problem with this because boys who grow into men may become fathers who are likely to push prams and iron clothes - this was my (single) mum's view too.
But I was bullied for, I assume being different, from as far back as I can remember (starting school).
I was told that I ‘was a girl’ repeatedly, day in, day out, and recall boys not wanting to play with me. It didn’t help I had (and still don’t) have any interest in sports, at all, but I did often put myself out there and experienced this form of rejection from the age of 4. I feel like I can't share this without readers assuming that I 'obviously' came across as a feminine boy, and I don't think that was the case. I just simply wasn't accepted for not being like the rest...
Naturally, girls weren't overly keen playing with me either (I was a boy) but it's fair to say that they were kinder (most of the time).
The intensity of their #genderstereotypes heightened as we got older, I stopped being called a girl around 8 or 9 years old, and the name calling was replaced when both boys and girls began telling me that I was #gay, and it felt that no-one would believe me when I told them otherwise. I had this label placed on me by others because of perception... but characteristics don't dictate sexuality. Being a sensitive boy didn't help. I never told anyone this was happening and, looking back through adult eyes, this was so damaging to me... but I honestly don't know how I could have dealt with it any better at the time. Society conditions boys and men to not experience emotions and feelings in the same way that girls and women can. It wouldn't have mattered how supporting my mum would have been (which she was). I would tell myself, it's different because I'm a boy.
I genuinely believe a similar narrative circulates around men's mental health.
I'm going to fast forward to later life now to avoid writing about the 11 year reality of being in education.
I went from being told I was gay in school for years, to being in college, uni and the workplace where it was simply just assumed by some people. It's been known to happen on nights out where I'm told things like 'you're just too good looking to be straight' where I found myself in conversations feeling the need to prove myself, to a fucking stranger. It's fair to say these experiences have heightened by sensitivity and contributed (to what I now know to be) my OCD.
It has lessened dramatically from therapy in my 20s but on occasions when references are made it doesn't stop my inner child being triggered.
At the age of 26 after 4 years of therapy (working through a number of different life experiences) I recall the topic of 'how I'm perceived' coming up again and my therapist, Rachel, said that she has never experienced a time where I have come across as camp. I was gobsmacked. So much so I laughed and sat in disbelief as she sat there and quite confidently said it again.
The last time this conversation had happened was with my mum when I was 13. She told me I wasn't camp either but admittedly, and due to the extent of the bullying I had experienced, I believed that my mum had to tell me what I wanted to hear, but at 26, Rachel didn't. When bringing this back up to my mum all those years later, with the confidence the awareness that Rachel had helped me to find, my mum burst out laughing and said "you've never been camp, Stephen!".😂
It was quite funny to be honest but a lot of me had felt angry that I had sat on these insecurities for so long in silence. I couldn't possibly check in with any of my 'safe space people' in case they told me they thought it was true, or they questioned why I was so bothered. I was completely warped. When trouble did happen in school I would barely let anyone in to help me because I felt that they just didn't understand.
So I could ask "what is it about me then?" but I don't humour this question anymore. I don't think I'll ever know the answer, but I know what I do know... on the occasions when I’ve shared this topic with trusted friends, they have always told me the same things:
'I don't think you're camp'
'I see you as really masculine'
'You show quite a lot of dominance, but in a good way'
Your voice is really deep
Yet here I have been, internalising the trauma of how people perceive me simply because I don’t fit into the box that makes them feel more comfortable with themselves.
"People dislike the qualities in you that they don't see in themselves"
In my 20s, on occasions when I decided to casually query why this assumption was made, which of course had to be done in a jokey way for fear of 'looking bothered', I was told things like:
It’s because you’re so good looking
You gel your hair
You’ve got lovely olive skin
You always look smart
You’re into your products
You always smell nice
It’s because you’ve got girl friends
Once I was told, 'You just give the vibe’.
Is there any surprise I questioned my sexuality in later life?
Guess what, I’m not gay.
I've learned in therapy recently (2021) how defensive I can be even if you don't see it.
My internal responses to the above bullet points (in my 20s) were:
It’s because you’re so good looking - Not my fault
You gel your hair - Ok?
You’ve got lovely olive skin - That's my genetics
You always look smart - What's wrong with taking pride in how you look?
You’re into your products - Err, no I’m not😂
You always smell nice - I smell gay.
It’s because you’ve got girl friends - What's so wrong with that?
These type of responses, whether internal or verbal, have lessened a hell of a lot now but the defensive nature still continues (for now).
This blog post wasn't actually intended to focus on sexuality but rather masculinity and outdated views on how society stills perceives 'real men' to be. I think for me the two feed into each other, and it's no surprise why really.
I’m Stephen and I’ve grown to really like the man that I am in the way that everyone else around me does, but it’s took a lot to get here, and like all people I'm still working on my masterpiece (to quote a Jessie J song). 😉
My mental health in teenage years was so low that I’m surprised I didn’t end it because I simply couldn’t escape ‘not being man enough’ and if there's just one young boy out there that reads this and feels comforted then this piece has done its job. Keep going, my friend. Keep fucking going.
For years I’ve wished for the freedom to share this story but the vulnerability attached to it has felt like I couldn't possibly do that because that would make me look even ‘less than a man’.
Well, fuck that attitude.
Guess what, I’m a good son, caring friend, loving godfather of a boy and a girl and although currently single I’ve been known to be a good boyfriend and I’ve never cheated on a partner.
I’m a high quality man, and I’m more than enough, but actually I don't need to justify all of the above to be considered a 'real (cis-gender) man' and neither does anyone else.
In the words of Chandler Bing: “Could I BE feeling anymore vulnerable right now?”
I think any writer feels unsure about writing such truth... the idea of dealing with the fear of how others will view me after reading this... but I just need to remember it isn't about how others view me, it's about how I view myself.
There's strength in showing vulnerability, and educating our unconscious bias is the only way out of this, for everyone.