A man lives by a code, a quiet discipline of honor we learn first from our fathers and try to perfect for ourselves. We learn by example and by counterexample. I have studied the ways of my grandfather, who left, and my father, who stayed, and I have learned something about what it means to be an honorable man.
A reader asks, “What does it mean to ‘don the mantle of manhood’?” It means to deeply accept the responsibility of being a man.
To be responsible is to be one who answers what is asked of them. Responsibility is the practice of response, of making a reply to the conditions that meet us. The mantle of manhood is the emergent realities of life as a man, this man, in a particular place and time; to don the mantle means to intentionally accept these realities, to embrace them, and to employ them for the repair of the world. To don the mantle of manhood means that, finding oneself a man, one responds to that condition. There is no one answer. The common denominator is the condition of being a man and making the choice to reply to that condition with honor.
This weight is unchosen, neither earned nor deserved; it simply is. I did not make it, yet it is I who must hoist it, for it is I alone who can. I am answering, for I have heard the question. I did not create the meanings assigned to manhood–I just stumble into them like everybody else. But it is I who decide for myself, given reality as I observe it, how I will respond.
The only difference between a man’s mantle and that of anyone of any other gender is the differences in our lives. Honor is in no way limited to men. I discuss it here through my lens as a man, because I think there are some important particulars of that experience, and because I believe it is the task of men to ask our brothers to do better. For this same reason–our different selves and circumstances–there is no one mantle of manhood, but a massive Venn diagram of overlapping and non-overlapping experiences.
For me, it’s like this. People move around me on the sidewalk. People turn and listen when I open my mouth. If I lose my temper and shout and stomp and punch a wall, people and animals cower in miserable fear, though I have never touched them in anger.
My code is not a series of answers, but a series of questions.
If my voice and my strength can easily scare women, men, children, dogs, how will I conduct myself?
If being a man means when I speak, others listen, what will I say?
If being a man means being strong, what will I carry? What will I defend?
If being a man means I could walk out on my family, what choice will I make?
If being a man means a capacity for violence, how will I behave?
It is written, “For who will eat, and who will enjoy, if not I?” (Ecclesiastes 2:25).
We could also ask, For who will feed, and who will increase enjoyment, if not I?
Feeling like a man. Many guys struggle with this elusive goal. For trans guys, the process can be even more fraught and confusing. How to grow into a man if you weren’t allowed to be a boy?
I say, before you are a man, be a boy. Let your boy-self emerge in the world. You won’t get to experience all the things most boys do. But you can have some kind of boyhood, perhaps a very queer boyhood, no matter your chronological age.
I was 21 when I really became a boy. I’d had an androgynous childhood in wild hair and overalls. I was raised in an open-minded household that didn’t impose strict gender norms. I developed a more and more masculine presence beginning in my teens. Still, I didn’t get to be a boy until later.
I was young when I transitioned, the last light of childhood still visible on the horizon. In retrospect, it was an amazing opportunity; I got to become a man at the same time as my peers. But for several years there, I felt distinctly behind. My friends were sporting new, fully-fledged beards; I was waiting for my voice to drop. I badly needed the chance to be a boy.
My first intentional forays into masculinity were burdened with an excessive weight of fledgling manliness. It’s no coincidence they were also my first attempts at being an adult. I was 18 and suddenly noticed my friends were growing into young men and women. I realized I didn’t want to be an androgynous teenager in messy dyed hair and a hoodie forever. I felt an enormous pressure to assimilate to the extreme gender binary of the adult world. So I started shaving and combing my hair. I took out the five studs that decorated my ears. I searched thrift-stores for tweed coats. I learned to tie a tie. It was an awkward time.
A few years later, when I started testosterone, I became a boy in earnest. I stopped trying to be a “real man.” I got a mohawk and traded my polos for undershirts. I was very much a boy-version of myself as a teenager. I reveled in the frenetic energy of boyhood. I listened to loud music and I bitched about the system. I sharpied heart-shaped anarchy symbols on desks and walls. My attitude was irreverent and carefree. Alma and I had just gotten together, and the energy of the experiences fed one another. We rode that crazy wave through the first year of our relationship, staying up all night, smoking cigarettes on the way to the bus-stop.
It lasted a couple of years. Then that frenzied boy energy began giving way to the solidity of manhood. Now I inhabit a cool, steady masculinity. I am a young man.
I couldn’t have gotten here without my sojourn as a boy. It was brief and it was wholehearted. It was what I needed. I let myself off the hook for awhile. The length and the timing don’t matter. What matters is that I was my own boy-self, for awhile. I treasure all that I learned in that fleeting time when colors were brighter, rules were suspended, and so much was possible for the first time.
It wasn’t easy to allow myself to be a boy. It was embarrassing and strange. But if I hadn’t done it, if I’d just brushed by boyhood, I would have have been doubly betrayed. First denied a boyhood by my family and community; then denied a boyhood by myself. Transition created a strange portal in which the ordinary laws of time, space and society receded. A kind of spiritual boyhood became possible. By allowing myself to be a boy, I healed some of the great rift of being trans.
This may look really different depending on your age and your life situation. But I think we can give ourselves the gift of boyhood at any time. You can give yourself permission to be a boy, and discover who that boy is. You can embody your own boy-energy. You can inhabit masculinities that are youthful, new, emerging.
Of course, if you feel no need to be a boy, that is perfectly fine. I only urge you not to refuse yourself the chance, if any part of you wants it. That way, when you are ready, you will don the mantle of manhood with confidence, bathed in the glow of endless summers, secure in the happy knowledge that you were a boy once.