The Trauma of Masculinity

While I'm slowly reading Pete Walker's book, Complex PTSD: From Surving to Thriving: A Guide and Map to Recovery from Childhood Trauma, I have another book to "relax", as Pete Walker's book moves me a lot sometimes, and I have to stop.

The other book is by Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker, and it's called How to Understand Your Gender. A Practical Guide for Understanding Who You Are. I've got my gender identity pretty much worked out, and I thought I wouldn't get so caught up in the book. But I was wrong. Yesterday I started with chapter 3 of the book, Your Gender Background, and they propose as a small reflection to think about the impact of sex assigned at birth, and thinking about this I almost started crying.

At birth I was assigned the sex 'male', with all that this means for life. Honestly: a lot of shit. At least for me.

I think that masculinity, or the social expectations of masculinity, further increased my sense of emotional abandonment, the failure of my parents to meet my emotional needs. 'Boys don't cry'. Shit! I haven't cried since my childhood until four years ago, when I was 51, when I couldn't take it anymore and I thought about exactly that, having a glass of wine in a bar in the Alameda: that I hadn't cried since my childhood, ever. That I had been unable to cry. I managed to get home and I cried for hours. It was brutal, painful. It was the beginning of a painful process of facing my complex trauma.

I remember the pressure during my adolescence. I had no idea what it meant to 'be a boy'. I didn't like football at all. I remember one time my father took me to a football game (not that he usually went), and I hated it. I wasn't interested in the game at all, and I didn't like the male atmosphere at all. I remember that I was given a kind of football game one Christmas, along with my brother - I hated it, and I started crying. I hated physical exercise in high school, especially when we had to play football. I hated it, and I tried to participate as little as possible, to sabotage it.

I wasn't interested in cars or motorbikes at all. I did like trains, bicycles. I wasn't capable of those macho poses. Of course, because of my history of trauma and dissociation from my emotions, I was not able to express my emotions either (how can I express something that I didn't feel, that I wasn't even connected with?), but at the same time I wasn't able to appear safe, aggressive, and all this shit about masculinity either. I never did fit in. Then there was the homophobic bullying by my 'friends'. Another piece of shit, although I wasn't even aware of my non-heteronormative sexuality.

A few years later I fell in love with a boy, without realising it. What a fucking disconnect from my emotions!

I left my parents' house disconnected from my emotions, but not very masculine (luckily), and very insecure. Luckily, I entered into more alternative circles, with less hegemonic masculinity. However, the disconnection from my emotions did not allow me to fit into these new, also heteronormative, masculinities either. I fell in love again, without realising it, with a flatmate.

It was much later that I gradually began to connect more with my emotions, and with my sexuality. I fell in love with a woman, and for a year we had an affective sexual relationship. My emotions were overflowing, never felt before. It was a rather complicated relationship, with many misunderstandings. I didn't understand what was happening to me. I didn't understand what I was doing wrong. I had no idea of my boundaries, or of her boundaries - of the concept of boundaries. I had no idea of my trauma, how much I was damaged, or what damage I was causing to our relationship, to her.

The relationship ended, and I began to confront my sexuality, and issues of masculinity. I read a lot, about feminism, but mostly about the construction of masculinities and sexualities. Books like Gender and Power or Masculinities by Raewyn Connell, or The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz (to mention just a few) opened up another world for me to understand myself. Initially I began to define myself as a gay man, but without much success. I also didn't fit into this fairly normative gay masculinity. I also didn't fit into this hyper-sexualized world.

For me the discovery of queer theory from the mid-1990s was a liberation. Finally something that did not require me to define myself within the straitjacket of masculinity and femininity, of gender binarism. I wrote in an article in the anarchist journal Graswurzelrevolution in 1996: "It is not only a question of a multiplication of gender identities, which are not yet separated from the biological sex, but still refer to this 'sex difference', but 'the question of the abolition of gender as a social structure. ... Gender is the connection between forms of social practice and reproductive division, the construction of meaning in all this. Its abolition would logically be a question of decoupling from these areas. This does not mean a denigration or denial of biological difference, but neither does it mean a celebration of it. The difference between the biological sexes would simply be an addition in the function of reproduction, not a cosmic division or a social destiny. There would no longer be any reason for biological difference to structure emotional relationships in such a way that the heterosexual and homosexual categories would become meaningless. There would be no reason for this difference to structure character in such a way that masculinity and femininity would disappear."

It was great in theory, but it took me many more years to put it into practice. I came to define myself as a queer, but at the same time as a gay man (something a bit contradictory), although always with a questioning of masculinity. In 2000 I wrote in another article: "But do I have to take part in perpetuating the „homo-hetero" binary, to take part in cementing it, only to comply with the norms of the „gay community"? Where is the „liberation" in this?" Again, very good in theory.

In 2001 I fell in love with a man (okay, then). For eight years we had a sexual affective relationship, and I think it was the most stable and trusting relationship of my life until then. However, my trauma played an important role in the end of this relationship, which was long and painful, more so for him, but also for me. Two weeks ago was the first time I was able to cry about this loss: "This morning I woke up with a tense back, but initially more relaxed. I thought about the relationship with my ex-partner in London, or rather the end of our relationship, destroyed by my trauma, destroyed by the memory of my mother opening the shower curtain (I have no memory if she ever touched me, but now I think this memory probably stays locked in the black hole of my childhood). And I cried again. I felt a lot of pain, a lot of sadness. I cried a lot, and hard. Maybe it was the first time that I was able to feel the pain of the end of this relationship, of this loss."

It took me until 2014 to openly reject binary identities and free myself from them, which led me to other difficult processes, to other experiences of not being seen, of seeing my identity ignored. Initially I found it difficult to insist on the use of the neutral gender, the pronoun they/them, also with my friends. Now this has been normalised, fortunately. A few years later, I made the decision to take hormones in order to also change - queer - my body, partly because of this, to make it more difficult to ignore my nonbinary identity: "Would I have considered changing my body in another context, in a post-gender society, that is, without gender? It's unlikely. The decision to take hormones has a lot to do with how this cisheteropatriarchal society denies my existence and imposes its binary system on me. A body -my body- is as socially constructed as gender. At every encounter my body is read within a binary frame, and while the resulting changes due to hormonation cannot completely prevent it, at least they make it more difficult."

By all this I don't mean that I have finally found my "essence", an identity that has always existed. I don't believe it, nor do I feel it. I understand where I am now and how I identify myself now as the result so far of a long and painful process - a struggle - with and against masculinity, the binary system of gender. I feel the scars of this struggle, the pain, the trauma. And how I feel and identify now is just a snapshot, something temporary, in flux, a result of my struggle so far with the social expectations of masculinity, with my rejection of masculinities and social expectations, of the need to fit in. I no longer want to fit in. I don't want to be 'normal' (nor do I know what that means). I want to be me, authentic, learning, I want to connect with my emotions and desires. Fuck social norms. Fuck masculinity. Fuck gender.