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.