Some things have changedBy Richard Millicer
This incident, which lasted a mere 40 minutes, and the past 20 years have much in common. In the mid-seventies, my wife and I unwittingly played out the future as we struggled with a divisive assignment of character attributes quite separate from the issues of intellectual capacity and talent.
Now in the mid-nineties, I think Western gender consciousness is approaching the moment when it is the manís turn to speak. But as long as the language describing valued human traits remains principally assigned to femininity, men have to be emotionally speechless but furious, and women will feel constrained and exasperated.
There we were in a part-renovated inner-suburban terrace, a trio in a furniture crowded room with books as walls. Sue moved a chair with palm-worn arms into the therapeutic circle. As I had done for six Saturdays, I wriggled to avoid the springs of my corner of the velvet couch. Ritual exchanges completed, the counsellor in the swivelling black throne turned to the space between us and said, "What do you mean by masculine and feminine and then describe how you see yourself?"
My heart bumped. In my head I said, "Hey, this is hard. I dunno. Damned labels. See myself?"
Sue did not return my check-up glances. Odd, that was. She took a big breath and blew it out. And again. She pulled herself forward, adding to the wear on the armchair. Something was up. I sensed that much. She usually waited for me to speak first, such unfortunately had been the relationship between us. The bargain had been that she deferred to me in Ďmatters of the mindí which meant that she thought she needed my permission to speak her mind. But not this time. Sue started her list. Soft and sensitive, understanding and gracious. She then assigned domineering and forceful, unemotional and lusty. I forgot the anxiety of no eye contact. Her business trips to California might have flashed up, but perhaps thatís only in retrospect.
"What a relief. At last!" said my inner voice. I was elated by the speed of her response, by my not needing to make the running.
So I listened.
They spoke of demure and romantic, rational and insensitive, conciliatory and compassionate, brash and condescending.
I wanted so much to understand what in the hell was going on - with her, with me, us. I felt bad about lots of things and wanted answers, any answer to ease the pain of feeling bewildered and lost. After all, thatís why we were there? I listened. More intently.
They continued. Gentle and caring, virile and active, genitally submissive versus sexually demanding, considerate and delicate, self-indulgent and immature Back and forth, compare and contrast. The counsellor kept nodding and prodding with ever more adjectives. It was like the words were an index to a book with pages marked feminine or masculine. This, I thought, was quite an animated conversation. Affirming too.
giving, modest, subtle, unselfish, demure, responsive, patient
Without warning my inner voice spoke, "What if, what if gender really is the problem? What if the descriptions are not generalisations? What if it is about her versus me? Surely not. It couldnít be that, could it? But the words are flowing so easily between them. It could be the answer." I had to know so I returned to hear, "feminine intuition"
In six weeks I had grown to respect the perceptive, professional skill. And I loved Sue unthinkingly, a sort of natural attachment. Our bargain had included that I defer to her in Ďmatters of the heartí which meant that I thought I needed her permission to feel. I drifted again, "They obviously know what they are talking about; theyíre both saying the same." I trusted them both. " masculine unawareness egoistic and aggressive not feminine." "Hell! It is the answer. I am the cause, though I didnít know. Until now. Thank you. Thank you. Thankyou. Now I understand."
"That shows a lot of insight." The black chair rotated. "Richard?" I blinked a yes. Not good enough. "Richard??" Nod, nod! "Fine. So how do you feel about yourself?"
"Well. Um. As a woman I feel, like I said, feminine and "
I floated to the ceiling.
" constrained "
I was losing contact.
" patronised "
" faked it "
I detached like in a dream and was consumed by an adrenalin panic. "Iíve been living a lie, a facade, a damned masquerade. Idiot! I thought I cared and loved but I canít do it. All my damned life, aloof and disconnected, unknowingly hurtful. What have I done? Shame on me."
The inner me was tearing open. My guts were, "Whatís this? Male? Masculine! Like they said? No, no, please no. But Iíve got bloody balls. Damned things. My genetic destiny? No, no, no. I canít stand it!"
I looked in my inner mirror and the face was no longer me. For an instant, I felt relieved.
"So what am I? What could I be? Those rotten balls pushed me to be ugh, masculine up to now. No, anything but that. I will not be masculine. Never again. Iíll change. I will. Really I will. I just want to be loving, lovable, tender, caring, needed. Better to be gender nothing than genetically hurtful. I must not be those horrible masculine things."
I listed them all, over and over, again and again, round and round. "Now I know what not to be."
I struggled with the whirlpool as if I was drowning. Finally, I let go and it was peaceful. I sank. I felt a nothing, a human blank. My soul escaped. I was not me any more. I was as naked as a new-born, beneath the water, weightless and floating like a transparent jellyfish. I donít know for how long.
Suddenly, I knew four eyes were focussed on me. It was my turn.
Arms around my knees. Nothing came. Absolutely nothing. My mouth opened, but there were no words. My brain wanted to me to say, "Iím sorry, I didnít know, forgive me. Iím sorry, I didnít know, forgive me." Over and over. Sue tried to help, "Why canít you speak? Whatís wrong?" Shrug. "Is it because you canít express your emotions?"
The carpet had a 50ís floral pattern. The corners of the chairs did not line up. Where else to look? Anywhere but up. The counsellorís crossed leg bounced with each heart beat. I glimpsed a wave towards Sue like a cop stopping traffic. "Can you help your wife understand what is going on inside you?" Silence. I couldnít speak. I swayed to and fro.
Eventually, I looked up. At four cold eyes. Penetrating, perforating, spent. I might have spoken. But now I had nothing to say. I understood what had been said. I shook my head, folded my arms and fulfilled the expectation. "I think we might end it there. Perhaps you need some time to think things over."
A few days later Sue said, "As a woman, I have to follow my heart. Itís Warren. He lives in California."
Five of us went to the airport, four came home. The kids donít remember her ever living in their home. The counsellor was right. I needed time to think things over, gender labels that is. Twenty years have passed.
Externally I was masculine, the wealth - the asset split was a conventional re-distribution by gender but blind to reality. Externally I was masculine, the income - there was no maintenance order and none came. Externally I was masculine, a career - time-out by a man for children was unimaginable. Externally I was masculine, just a jobless statistic - we were not entitled to Council help for one parent families. Externally I was masculine, undomesticated - I was not rostered for Tuck Shop duty nor treated as an equal in single mothersí baby-sitting pools. Externally I was masculine, tough and scary - I could not join my children in rooms for women and children on ferries or stations.
Damn the tribal labels! I nurtured the kids full-time, and they me. They are now radiant, equivalent (equal in value) adults. We mean it when we hug. I am not a different person. They astutely tell me Sue is as I remember her when we were lovers. She with her man (itís not Warren) and I have really good times chatting at our childrenís birthdays, graduations and weddings. I care about her but I wonít be touched.
Some things have changed. Men can do Tuck Shops and some women do plumbing. Modern feminism has a 25 year history of examination of Ďa Manís Worldí.
Removing masculine and feminine divisiveness from the language of Ďmatters of the mindí, that traditional intellectual male domain, continues. But a lot more has not changed. The assignments and language of Ďmatters of the heartí remain utterly unchallenged. Why?
Ask anyone but me. My heart still bumps every time I hear those divisive words, masculine and feminine.
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