If you’re not sure who you are, plenty of online communities are eager to tell you

Pentax Spotmatic F, 35mm f/3.5 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar, Kodak Ektar 100, 2017

We have seven children, ages 22 to 38. It’s remarkable to us how important sexual identity and orientation are to them, even when they’re straight and identify with the gender of their birth. It’s crucial and central to them in a way it wasn’t for my wife’s and my generation, the one called X.

More than one of them claims an orientation that’s not quite straight or an identity that’s not quite in line with their birth gender. I tell them all not to be in a rush to define these things. They still have so much to learn about themselves.

I’m a very good example of that. Growing up, I never fit in with the boys. They were rough and athletic, and I was quiet and bookish. They loved sports, and I could not have cared less about them. When they made their pathetic displays of bravado, I rolled my eyes and walked away.

My dad fretted that I didn’t want to throw the baseball around with him, or go up to the school basketball court and shoot hoops with the other kids. “You’ll regret this when you’re older,” he said. I haven’t.

I had enormous, intense feelings. When they were too much, I’d just cry. This confused the hell out of the other boys. They didn’t know what to do with me. Soon they turned to making fun of me for it.

My dad worked in a factory. He always wanted to toughen me up for the real world, presumably the one he lived in. It was all about blunt physicality and displays of anger. That kind of toughness sounded awful to me. Instead, I worked hard in school, got into the advanced classes, got into engineering school, and went on to a white-collar career in software engineering. We software engineers tend to be a cooperative lot; there’s little chest-thumping here.

I doubted my masculinity as I entered my 20s. I was sexually interested in women, but I was very much in touch with my feminine side, as we used to say. I enjoyed decorating my apartment and keeping it nice. I found connection with others in conversation as much as in shared activity. I would rather have spent a day shopping with a good friend than watching football or golfing.

I found women and gay men easiest to befriend. The gay men I knew weren’t interested in gross displays of masculinity, and I appreciated that. I never felt threatened or judged when I was with them. And they liked many of the things I liked.

Then I got married and had children. Any doubt I harbored of my masculinity quickly melted, as I immediately focused hard on providing for and protecting my family. It was primal: these are my people and I am going to feed them, house them, and keep them safe. Nothing will deter me from this God-given, sacred appointment.

This carried through the time I was single after my divorce. My children were in my home only part time, but I still fed them, housed them, and kept them safe. And because I’m me, I decorated my house in ways that I found satisfying, and I planted extensive gardens. I learned that this is one of the ways I create safety for my family — I make a lovely and quiet place for them to be. They feel physically and psychologically safe in my home. I also took great care in choosing clothes for my sons in which they looked really good. This was my way of sending them into the world so that they could be confident and strong.

I figured out that many of the things I care about that aren’t classically masculine actually are just how I express my masculinity.

I’m extremely glad that gender identity wasn’t a real focus when I was younger, and that there weren’t such strong online communities that could draw me in and influence my identity. I might have been led to a conclusion that, now that I have many more years of experience and growth, I know would not have been genuine for me.

In our 20s it’s just normal for us to question who we are. We’re no longer children and we’re becoming fully functioning adults. We’re also searching for places where we can belong. It’s altogether too easy to think that because people in this online group share traits with me, I must be one of them.

Masculinity is a big tent. There are lots of ways to express it, all of them valid. It’s easy as men for us to compare ourselves to more macho expressions of masculinity and, when we don’t align, wonder if we’re wanting.

My mom said to me later in her life that she didn’t really know herself until after she turned 40. Looking back, I see the same is true for me. I was just a young skull full of mush until middle age.

That said, I believe some people are sure at a young age that their orientation or identity doesn’t fit the norm. I believed my oldest child without hesitation when she said that she was transgender. It all added up for me based on my experience with her, and her story was strong. She was also 35 with a career and a spouse and a mortgage.

To my other children and any other young adults who question their sexual orientation or gender identity, I implore you to wait. Gain life experience. Crucially, sort out the trauma of your childhood. Nobody gets through childhood without some trauma, and some of us need a therapist to help us make sense of it so we can move forward with confidence and equanimity. Lord knows I did. This time, experience, and clarity will bring you far greater insight into yourself than you can imagine.

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31 responses to “If you’re not sure who you are, plenty of online communities are eager to tell you”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    An interesting column, and it also makes me glad I grew up in a highly metropolitan area, second largest city in the country at the time, where there were extremely broad examples of all kinds of behavior, even sixty years ago. People seemed to have all kinds of viewpoints and attitudes. Our neighbors were artists, lawyers, office workers, worked in broadcasting, and were educated on all kinds of levels. When my Dad had to transfer to a different city for his job, a much smaller city, that’s when there seemed to be very large groups of people that comported themselves the same way due to peer pressure, like the “jock” group, and very few examples of broader cultural experiences. Even in that city, tho, those experiences existed in parts of the city and certain suburbs, where more highly educated and professional people lived; altho far out of my parents affordability level.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I grew up in a small city with lots of manufacturing, so maybe that tended to create the experience I had with masculinity in others while I grew up.

  2. lizkflaherty Avatar

    This was very well said.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you!

  3. DougD Avatar

    A good piece, I was shy quiet and goofy as a kid and didn’t fit in with the other boys. We moved when I was 12, and during that experience I decided “I don’t fit in, and I don’t care” which has been a mixed blessing since.

    I think the male identity has a two pronged problem. Firstly the cultural identity of manliness has been fully claimed by the chest thumping Type A’s, and the current interpretation of gender which says “are you feeling this way? It is because you are that way” which may not be the case, as it’s normal to be sorting yourself as a young person.

    My brother has a “special year” for each of his many sons at 13, my task for this is to write the boy a letter of wisdom. Once thing I sometimes mention is that there are different types of men. Anyone who says “A REAL man only acts like this or that” is actually afraid of something. Like Pinocchio was obsessed with being a real boy, because he knew he wasn’t.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I did the same: gave up on fitting in. It was a mixed blessing for me as well.

      That’s a good insight about the Pinocchios of the world.

  4. Bob Avatar

    Excellent advice, not everyone fits in same mold.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Bob!

  5. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Wonderful, thoughtful and insightful article Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sonny!

  6. -N- Avatar

    Well said altogether!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you N!

  7. -Nate Avatar

    So very well said .

    Trying to force a child to match your expectations tends to drive them away and make them insecure .


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There are some expectations I’m not willing to give on — for example, that my kids become independent and responsible, and move out! But other than that, it’s their life and I want them to find happiness and success as they define those things.

      1. -Nate Avatar

        Well Jim ;

        You’d best get ready as they do move out / up, that’s nature .

        This doesn’t mean a huge hole won’t open in your heart when they do, I was bereft for at least a full year…..


  8. Adam Avatar

    This really struck a cord with me.

    Jim, we could have been good friends if we had known each other in school. I was (still am) a loner, wasn’t athletic, hated gym class, avoided fights and confrontations and just did my job and went home, so to speak.

    Being raised by a single mother contributed to the way I was. I didn’t do a lot of the “guy” stuff that others did with their dads. (At least they had a dad…)

    I did manage to make a few really great and close neighborhood friends my age. But I still preferred to be left alone most of the time. My hobbies and interests were and still are technically oriented (history, technology, photography, transportation, amateur radio, etc.) Where I live, most men watch sports, drink, eat too much, drive trucks and shoot guns. Nothing wrong with that, but it seems like I’m the one who’s “different” among them.

    Now, 40 years removed, I have come to understand a lot of things. The whole “man box culture” and “real men do/don’t do (insert whatever activity that applies)” has really been damaging to the male gender and society as a whole has suffered. (War, political and social violence, higher health care rates because of no self care, etc)

    Men are conditioned to be a man and not be weak. Be competitive, the whole alpha male spiel, blah, blah, whatever. Geez.

    Who in the Sam Hill decides whats manly and what isn’t? Men just go stoically go throught the motions ‘cuz that’s that “real men” do.

    It’s all bullshit.

    Thanks to the “hold my beer” mentality, my insurance rates are higher, despite being a safe cautious driver for 30 years.

    Just because a man is intelligent, well-read and traveled, good looking, clean, tidy, organized, fit, and well-put together and actually exercises self care doesn’t mean he’s “girly” or “feminine.”

    Since when are those bad things?

    I have teared up at weddings, or touching scenes. I’m a raging Carly Simon fan and can cook, clean and do laundry. But I also listen to heavy metal, weld, can fix anything and can change a tire in record time.

    I used to be insecure about a lot of things, but the more I know, and the older I get, the more I say: I am who I am, take it or leave it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think it’s part of the western experience to see the Manly Men doing Manly Men Things, and then the rest of us Not Quite So Manly Men feeling inferior. When in fact we’re not, we’re just not so over the top.

      I’m right there with you: take me, or leave me.

  9. -Nate Avatar

    “I’m right there with you: take me, or leave me.”

    THIS .

    In the past there was much made of being rough and tumble or you’re a ‘pansy’ .

    In high school I was a funny Western Comedy that repeatedly made fun of the white hatted hero by asking “are you a confident heterosexual ?” .

    Was wasn’t gay but he wasn’t confident either .

    I use that phrase “a confident heterosexual” to annoy wanna be tough guys for years afterwards .

    I try hard to teach my inner city foster boys they needn’t be tough, violent assholes to be real men .

    I’m off to read ever comment here .


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you for teaching your foster boys that. So important.

  10. John Holt Avatar

    Wow, Jim, you are bang-on accurate in this post, at least for me! I just turned 71 last week and still wonder. Like you, I was not “masculine” oriented; unlike you, I oftentimes forced myself to try. Never really worked. I didn’t like sports with all its physicality; I didn’t even like card playing! I was an outdoor person, individually doing my own thing. I loved it. However, through life, I’ve never really found myself a place in a “man’s” world. I’m still striving to own myself; maybe before I die, I’ll know. Thanks for all your insightful posts (including the wonderful photos!). John

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I still haven’t found my place in a man’s world either. But I have my family, they are my people. And I have my career, all the other nerds I work with in software development. I’ve created the world I can have a place in!

  11. Tam Avatar

    A very caring and thoughtful post.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you.

  12. Fred Avatar

    What you said! (And everyone else!) You have described me and some of my friends quite well. At 72 I am very comfortable with and in who I am, but it was not a smooth ride.
    Kudos to you for expressing what so many of us experienced.
    Best regards!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Fred!

  13. J P Avatar

    This strikes a chord with me too. I was another who was always more comfortable with the women of the family than with the men who sat watching sports on television. I eventually found my groove and settled into my own brand of masculinity.

    The wide availability of online communities have been wonderful for those of us with niche interests. However, some of those communities can be harmful too. There is nothing wrong with boys who like books and music and girls who like football or hunting. FWIW, one of my sons developed into a big sports fan and I eventually came to enjoy watching games with him.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think that’s it – those of us who aren’t “classically” masculine have to find our own groove and be comfortable with it.

  14. -Nate Avatar

    Whatever I do becomes masculine by default .


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It took me until my 40s to finally realize that this was true of me also.

      1. -Nate Avatar

        Interestingly enough, that too appear to be normal .

        I left home very early on and learned it by force, so many never quite grasp it .

        BTW : there’s no log in button/hyperlink I can find .


        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          To log in here, I have to add you as an author or editor of the site. I don’t give that to anyone. You can create an account with WordPress.com — you’ll end up with a blog that way, but you can ignore that. It will let you comment as a logged-in user so you don’t have to type your name and email anymore.

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