A Good Man
I’m raising a boy.
I call him my son. I check the M box on school, camp and medical forms. We buy boys’ clothes in the boys’ department, and, unless there is an “anyone” option, he uses the boys’ bathroom. But somehow it didn’t really occur to me until last summer that the person I am trying to shepherd toward a happy and fulfilling adulthood, who was born in a female body but has always been a boy, is going to grow up to be a man.
At last year’s Gender Spectrum conference, I walked a bit late into a session presented by Aydin Olson-Kennedy, the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Gender Center. Aydin was halfway through telling a personal a story about the first time he was aware that women might perceive him as a person to be feared--that because he was a man, women might cross the street to avoid him, or pick up their pace when he walked behind them. It was challenging and confusing, even heartbreaking, he said, to be a man in a world where women have absolutely every reason to fear and distrust men.
Having missed the beginning of the session and neglected to read the presenter bios, it took me a few minutes to understand that Aydin is a transgender man. In spite of what I know about making assumptions, I’d taken one look at Aydin and subconsciously determined, based on his physique, presence, and voice, that he was cis. It feels wrong to say he completely “passes” as a man, because he is a man; I suppose what I mean is that it never would have occurred to me that he was born in a body with ovaries rather than one with testes. But it turned out that he’d lived a significant part of his life in a body with ovaries, and now, having fully transitioned as an adult, he is in the unique position of having experienced the power dynamic between the sexes as both a woman and a man. He has been both the fearful and the feared.
I sat there in my conference room chair as it slowly dawned on me: I’m raising a boy, and though he was born in a body with ovaries, he won’t experience a female puberty. He will never have breasts that he will feel compelled to hide. Assuming he transitions with testosterone in his teens, he will grow a beard, have more masculine features, and a deeper voice. He has completely “passed” as a boy for years now, and, like Aydin, he will “pass” completely when he grows up. He will walk through the world as a man.
Because I’d been occupied trying to sort my way through the uncertainties and pains and worries of helping Muir affirm his gender identity and live as a boy, I’d never thought far enough ahead to see that this tween boy of mine was going to need more than emotional and medical support through his transition; it was going to be up to me to help him understand what it means to be a man. He’d need my guidance as he established his own identity, but also to encourage him to recognize the power his gender gives him in society, the advantages and drawbacks of being a man in the world, and to ability to use this awareness mindfully and positively, both in his personal life and as a human being whose presence and actions can impact the world around him.
I have absolutely no idea how to do this. I’d barely had any clue how to raise a woman, one who was peaceful, self-assured, independent. I had planned to rely heavily on all the “girl power” literature, both academic and self-help, and the growing cultural emphasis on women assuming their rightful place in the world and living free from discrimination and violence. But bringing up a 21st century boy?
What was I supposed to tell him? Whatever I said would of course be influenced by my almost fifty years of experience with cis men, the experiences that had contributed to shaping my perception that many tend toward violence and oppression, that they are self-centered and overbearing, that (in spite of supposedly evolving social norms) they still expect women to bear far more than their share of child-reading and family caretaking, that sex drives almost every aspect their lives, often to the detriment of their relationships and careers. Plus, the obvious truths that we’ve accepted since the beginning of time: Men start wars. They persecute the weak. They rape and commit heinous acts of violence. And they get away with it. In short, it’s no wonder women cross the street to avoid them.
Clearly, I (and I think many humans) have my own issues with men and the culture of masculinity, and to pretend that my experiences might not influence my parenting would be ridiculous. I have to deal with that. I have to create a definition of “good man” that feels true for me and develop some ways to encourage those values and characteristics in Muir. Next up is sorting through how to break it to my highly sensitive, deeply compassionate child who is keenly aware of social justice issues and legacies of discrimination that in the eyes of the world and the annals of history, his gender makes him one of “them”. One of the oppressors, the dominators, the unjust. A person who women might think twice before joining in the elevator alone, who they might assume will try to grope them, man-splain to them, talk over them, get the promotions or just the respect in the classroom of conference room that they are entitled to. And if I manage to help him to recognize all of these things without damaging his self-esteem and evolving identity, what am I supposed to tell him to do about it all?
And what about the fact that Muir will have a man’s body, but also has a self-concept shaped at least in part by the eight years he spent being perceived by the world as a girl? He must have some subconscious understanding of what it means to be experience life as a female. By nature, he is highly sensitive, and since he was an infant has been remarkable attuned to the emotions of others. In spite of his firm desire to have the physical appearance of a cis boy, his behavior has never entirely been what people would call masculine: He plays with both GI Joes and stuffed animals, dreams of the perfect wingtips as well as a new set of bedroom furniture for his Calico Critters mansion. He might be gay, but he might be straight, or bi. He’s not a dude, but he’s not effeminate. He’s just...Muir.
Maybe growing up trans will mean that Muir is in a unique, even incredibly fortunate position to become not just a good man, but a new man, one who can bring the experiences of both genders together in a way that will let him walk through life with balance, with heightened awareness, able to navigate the world using two sets of eyes, two hearts, two minds, two voices.
Maybe I am more fortunate than I’ve realized to be guiding someone who contains within him the potentials of both genders, the gift of having no boundaries, no limitations, just the freedom to become a good person.