Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

A good masculinity is hard to find

Part 1 — episodes from the early life of an antimasculine male

About three years ago, I posted a piece (which I’ve since deleted) on Medium, attempting to explain why I don’t like to be described as “cisgender”. That post drew responses from several trans women (one of whom, ironically enough, accused me of “cisplaining”). Another made two telling points. First, she said it was OK not to want to use the term cisgender, but it was my responsibility to come up with an alternative. I didn’t have an immediate answer. It took a while but eventually I found a self-description that I’m happy with. The term is “antimasculine male”. (I’ll attempt to deal with her second point in part 2.)

Since reading the responses to that Medium post, I’ve been trying on and off to write something describing my thoughts, feelings and beliefs on the subject of gender. Each time, I find my argument drifting into a more theoretical and dogmatic stance than I meant it to. J K Rowling’s recent tweets and post about trans men, women and activists has persuaded me that I need to try again. What follows below is not my latest attempt. It has occurred to me more than once that the main problem with the posts I’ve been drafting is that they’ve tended to be abstract and impersonal. Maybe, instead of writing about masculinity and femininity, (and men and women) in general, I needed to write about myself in particular.

I can think of three times in my life when something closely related to my gender has been in question to some degree. The most recent of these happened more than 30 years ago, when I was on honeymoon in Paris. My then wife and I were staying in a two-star hotel on the Boulevard St Michel, in a room which had a partial view of Nôtre Dame. The room didn’t have its own w.c. or shower, so I had to go along the corridor to use them. I didn’t then and still don’t wear pyjamas, and I was travelling lightish, without my own dressing-gown. Rather than put my clothes back on, I borrowed my wife’s dressing-gown which was pink and obviously meant to be worn by a woman.

On my return to the room, my wife snapped a picture of me, using an old Kodak Instamatic which was the only camera we had at the time. When we were back in Dublin and the photos were developed, some weeks later, we were showing the honeymoon pictures to some of her friends.

“Who’s the girl?” one of them asked.

“Oh, that’s Art”, my wife answered.

I had at the time curly, brown hair which I was wearing long. I looked at the picture: in it I really did look like a young woman, one with a narrow, tapering face. I assume I was embarrassed, but what I most remember about the incident now is being pleased that I had “passed” — albeit in a poor quality, autofocused snapshot — and without a wig or makeup.

The previous time was nearly 15 years earlier. I was about 14 and I’d gone to the races with my aunt and some of her friends. I was coming out of the Gents and a man passing me in the opposite direction stopped dead and did a double-take, then looked up at the sign to make sure he was going into the right place. At that time, too, I had long, curly, brown hair and I was wearing faded denim jeans and a more-or-less matching light blue poloneck jumper (sweater). I think I probably had my arms folded, possibly giving the impression of a girl self-consciously hiding her breasts. I was self-conscious, partly because I was tall and skinny and didn’t know where to keep my arms and hands. The man’s reaction made my self-consciousness worse and I worried about what kind of image I was projecting. That incident, the least consequential of the three, was possibly the one I found most disconcerting.

The earliest time may have been the most significant in its long-term effects. When I was five years old, I was in the “High Infants” class in the local primary school. I can’t remember why, but we all had to take off our outer clothes. Presumably it was because we needed to be vaccinated or treated for headlice or some similar infestation. To the best of my recollection, it was something “medical”. Suddenly, it seemed that everyone was pointing at me and laughing. “Kavanagh has girl’s underpants”, more than one person said. I blushed and hotly denied it, but the more I insisted that there was nothing out of the ordinary about my underwear, the less I managed to persuade anyone, and the angrier I got. I had a dizzying sense that the situation had slipped irretrievably out of my control and that I shoudn’t have allowed this to happen, if I’d been paying attention properly. In the end, I probably had a meltdown. I went home at lunchtime and told my mother what had happened. She assured me that my underwear was perfectly gender-appropriate and I went back to school after lunch in a jubilant mood, armed with the facts and ready to set my classmates straight.

It didn’t work. Even my mother’s authoritative pronouncement didn’t manage to outweigh the evidence of my classmates’ own eyes. The difference between the boys’ underwear and the girls’ was insignificant but easily detectable. In both cases, the garments were plain white cotton, but while the girls’ had Aertex-style little perforations, the boys’ had a combed effect, resulting in stripes like a carefully mown lawn. (Or maybe it was the other way around. In any case, there was an obvious distinction.) And there was no denying that mine, uniquely among the boys, fit the same pattern as the girls’. My mother was wrong and the collective wisdom of High Infants had been vindicated.

It was a heady experience for a five-year-old. The embarrassment and humiliation of having been exposed to the whole class as a secret (if unwitting) crossdresser seemed almost literally unbearable, yet I couldn’t see that I had any choice but to bear it. I felt a sense of dismay so excruciating that it seemed impossible that I could continue to exist. This couldn’t be happening. I wanted to run away from the school and never come back. But, at the same time, I was turned on by the experience. The terrible humiliation was also unexpectedly arousing. As you can imagine, this was an unfamiliar sensation to me as a five-year-old.

Did this actually happen? I’m 99 point something percent sure that it did, though I have to admit that it seems unlikely that a class of 5-year-old boys and girls would be asked to get partly undressed in the course of the school day. I can remember the short-lived sense of relief as I walked back to school after lunch, with my mother’s assurance that, no, I was not wearing girl’s underwear. There was a particular boy (whose name I remember) who managed to quell the jeering of the others. I remember asking him the following day for advice on how to behave towards those classmates. To the best of my recollection his advice was to carry on as normal and try to live it down. I know I was disappointed. I had been hoping he knew of a way to roll back time and make this thing not have happened: to allow events to unfold the way they ought to have done, not the way they had. An escape into a parallel universe would have been acceptable.

Momentous though the experience was, I seem to have forgotten about it very quickly. I went through school, my teenage years, university, early work life and my marriage without ever consciously thinking about the incident. When, in my 30s, the memory resurfaced, I was astonished that it could have remained buried or hidden for so long. At the time, I thought I must have suppressed the recollection as traumatic. Only recently, much later, have I come to see that missing childhood memories don’t require any special explanation. I have “severely deficient autobiographical memory” (SDAM), or something closely approaching it. As a result, I don’t have any vivid childhood memories, or much in the way of vivid memories from any other period of my life. All the memories I have of my childhood, including my classmates’ ridicule of my underwear at the age of 5, are in the nature of bare narratives. I may remember that something happened but not how people looked, where they were sitting or standing, how the room was lit or decorated, or much of what was said. I usually don’t even know who was there, unless it’s particularly relevant. There’s no visual element, in short: each memory is more like a ledger entry than a snapshot. So, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about my having forgotten that particular incident, and it doesn’t necessarily involve any element of repression, though from my mid 30s to my late 50s I believed that it must have done. If there’s a question that needs to be answered, it’s not why I forgot about that incident, but rather why it suddenly popped back into my memory, so many years later.

What effect did these relatively early experiences have on my ideas and feelings about gender? It seems inevitable that they (the earliest one in particular) must have had some, though even now, having thought about these and related questions frequently over a thirty-five year period, I don’t feel any closer to an answer. I certainly have blind spots when it comes to gender. For example, it’s only quite recently that it’s occurred to me to ask why, as a five-year-old, I was wearing girl’s underwear in the first place? When I eventually remembered that episode, I think I initially just assumed that my mother must have bought underwear in bulk for me and my sisters and doled it out to us indiscriminately. But when I was 5, my youngest sister hadn’t yet been born and the two others were aged 2 and 1 respectively. The oldest I could possibly have been while at that school is 6, at which time my sisters would have been 3 and 2. So, it’s clearly not the case that my mother was buying the same underwear for all of us. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, she bought that “feminine” underwear specifically for me. I’d really like to know why, though even it I had thought of asking my mother during her lifetime, I feel sure that I’d have balked at the prospect. So, I’ll never know definitively, and I can’t resist speculating.

I intend this to be the first of three posts. In the second, I write about the concept of gender identity, and in the third I’ll look at gender-as-behaviour.

Posted by Art on 05-Jul-2020.