Protecting Myself: My Failed & Forced Performance of Masculinity


The title of this post is fully loaded, but so was my experience living it.

When I look back at my childhood, all I see is a little boy who simply tried his hand at things he enjoyed. Dancing to Bollywood songs, playing with Mom’s makeup, emulating the gestures of his favourite Bollywood actresses and Disney Princesses and cooking in the kitchen because his mother looked so graceful doing it.

In hindsight, I also see a young boy who was told he shouldn’t and couldn’t enjoy any of those things too; simply because good little boys didn’t enjoy things meant for good little girls. I would have screamed and slapped someone in the face if I knew it was going to take me 20+ years to unpack that all, but I was a kid, I didn’t know any better.

A Look Back…

I accepted that I was gay in the late winter and early spring of 2010, just after I turned 25. I didn’t sit with that truth for long – I woke up one morning and just blurted it out to my family and the rest was history. That moment, of immediate truth, honestly and self-expression did not come with a strategy or careful thought – I was just tired. Tired of pretending to be someone I wasn’t only to appease and please a bunch of opinions and perspectives that weren’t mine. I was over and done with feeling less than because I was scared, I was over that shit. It was time for a change and my spirit just let it out.

But when I sit back and think of it, I spent so many years being unhappy because I was just enacting a role of a person whose spirit did not inhabit the interiors of my physical existence. It was created and existed for everyone around me, so they could feel better about who I was, while I felt stuck and trapped. That false sense of identity was created so that other people could hold their head up high while I bowed down in shame, and so it could make everyone else feel comfortable around me while I felt deeply uncomfortable with myself. Creating that false identity was also my attempt to protect myself from the harsh judgement and criticism of others. I was terrified of being othered.

My experience was very layered. It wasn’t just about societal and familial acceptance. I had other battles and hurdles to overcome. I struggled with my weight, constantly soothing myself through food, getting addicted to laxatives and fluctuating on the scale beyond belief. I hated the way I looked and self-loathed constantly. Connected to that experience was over 7 years of sexual abuse by a close family member, an experience that bled into so many areas of my identity; clouding my judgement and opinion of self. My entire family was sucked into a vortex of abuse, mainly mental and emotional for years – all of us trying to cope in our own ways. I endured physical abuse too. Everyone in my family will have their own experience of this and I cannot comment on their journey but I reacted in not so great ways as a result of all of this. I would lie, steal, exaggerate certain situations that happened at home to teachers at school so they could talk to my parents and sort things out. Every night there were arguments that would terrify my younger sister & I. Growing up was like walking on eggshells. We never knew what to expect and so we said the least and tried not to get noticed, afraid that our actions could trigger a tsunami of events that would just make things difficult for everyone. The next morning we’d wake up feeling tense, but then someone would break the ice, make things feel normal again and the toxic cycles continued. Needless to say, there was a lot for me to work through and come to terms with in order to reach self-acceptance.

Unpacking My Truth Among Lies

I was talking to someone last night and they sent me this quote by Alexander Leon, and he put it best: “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.” This statement is 100% true, and its universal. No matter what the colour of our skin is, where we come from and how privileged or under privileged we are; we all live certain degrees of this same experience. My journey to self-acceptance was just this and still is a layered and complex process of constantly revisiting my truths by searching for it among the many different versions of myself I created for protection.

I can’t say that my experience to self-acceptance was linear. I constantly had conversations with myself in private and talked myself out of stepping closer to my truth. I remember those conversations being dark and completely negative, continuing to force me to adopt a falsity because I didn’t want to embarrass my family, cause pain or have them be removed from their social circles. This led me to walk, talk and dress differently so I could appear more masculine. In most cases I couldn’t help it, the Bollywood Actress inside me would just seep out and I would hate myself for showing a glimpse of my true self to others. My discomfort with who I was, I’m sure, was obvious to those I was around. I was oblivious in most cases because I was more obsessed with protecting myself from the shame of being gay and the onslaught of hate it could potentially bring my way. I wasn’t the social butterfly I am now, I avoided family get togethers, deepened my voice when speaking to strangers and never kept any friends from the LGBTQ community around me out of fear that they would see something in me that I didn’t want to see myself. In short, I was hiding, I was not flying free and being fabulous. It was fear and not fabulosity that controlled me. Since then the latter has literally taken over, lol. My blood is hot pink and not red, lol. Periodttt.

Coming back to protection, I specifically remember a moment in graduate school that I still get shaken up about to this day. We were all responsible for a 1-hour presentation in front of the class. I remember my stomach dropping to the floor when I realized this – I was surprised too, because I specifically chose this course because it wouldn’t have a presentation component. In fact, I chose most of my courses around that, I hated speaking in public or in front of others, even a group of 3 people terrified me. It was all those years of being judged in grade school, being teased for being too girly, or having a high-pitched voice and being made fun of for the way I walked and talked. Either way, I found myself in this course and there was no way out, but the presentation was a few weeks away. I thought to myself, “I could surely use this time to muster up the strength to get comfortable”. The plan was to make friends with everyone, chat them up, be social so that when the day came it wouldn’t be too bad.

“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.” – Alexander Leon

A week before the presentation I broke down. I booked an appointment to meet the Professor in private and begged her to exempt me from the requirement and I told her I would be ready to accept a grade penalty as a result. I couldn’t find the courage to get up in front of everyone. The class had 2 lovely gay men too, and they were so lovely – so trust me, no one was judging me except myself. I begged my Professor and she asked me why, why I felt so uncomfortable and my answer was “I am not ready, I am just not and I don’t want to be forced.” I tried to emotionally manipulate her into believing that making me complete this course requirement was her attempt at forcing me into an uncomfortable position – I resorted to that low tactic because I needed to protect myself. Little did I know, I was hurting myself instead.

My Relationship with self, society & women

Shortly after that I convinced myself that I couldn’t live the life I wanted. To be frank, I don’t think I knew what I wanted in my life, I just knew I wanted to fit in. Throughout those years I didn’t explore my sexuality, I wasn’t having sex with men; I never allowed myself to be intimately connected to any man – so I wasn’t even convincing myself that I wasn’t gay. I was living with the fear of being rejected by my family and friends and being tormented by a life time of shudders, gasps, chuckles and fingers pointing in my direction. I was afraid of my true potential, because experiencing that and embracing myself was going to go against anything and everything my family and those around me held dear.

I wouldn’t be honest in this piece if I didn’t share my experiences with women.

In my early 20’s I inherently knew that being myself was impossible. Over the years the chatter around me just manifested into a deep shame of being who I was; connected to my sexuality of course, but also in other areas too – such as poor self-image, extreme weight gain, toxic habits and addictive behaviours, a resentment for my family and an uncontrollable anger. I was unpleasant to be around. I was pressured by the age-old narrative of love and relationships.

Man meets woman.

Man falls in love with woman.

Man marries woman.

Man has children with woman.

Man lives happily ever after with her.

End of story. An A to Z account of ideal heterosexual love.

As the only son and the eldest child, I was told this was my duty. Heck, my life was planned for me before I even came into this universe. My parents, bound by the culture and families they were born into were bred to believe that this linear love story was what they should expect of me too, a son, a male.  They were victims of these narratives and now I was too. Because of this I fostered multiple long distant relationships with me women, over text and phone conversations, building intimate and intense bonds.  I did this not only to help me satisfy the status quo, but working toward these relationships helped me feel “manly”. I had something to talk about when friends talked about their dating life and experiences. I had something to tell my aunts and uncles as they questioned when I too would get married and start a family. Having these experiences allowed me to have something tangible to explore and present to the world and it helped me hide what I didn’t want seen. It was the mask I needed to wear to hide the truth.

I was on the hunt for a wife, and the truth was, I wanted to secretly be one to a hot handsome man myself, lol. The irony!!!!

I’m glad I can laugh at it now, but at the time it was just crippling.

These relationships with women were short lived. They would go from emotional bonding, and phone conversations to in person bonding and experiences – but they’d all figure me out. I could only keep up the façade for so long. It became exhausting trying to keep track of the depth of my tone when speaking to them, keeping my gait tall and straight while walking with them and having my choices in clothing, food and hobbies all try to reflect what it means to be a good man – husband material. Truth was, I just wanted to fix their hairstyles and in most cases, suggest a better shade of lipstick – something that suited their yellowish undertones.

I remember my last experience with a woman, it resulted in a complete and total rejection in every sense of the word. She was a good girl, but got caught up in the façade with me. That short-lived relationship would be the one that would set me on my path to freedom because I was just fucking fed up. Done with the lies, the masks and the performance. It was the lowest moment in my journey to self-acceptance – trying to make something work with someone I didn’t love, who didn’t love me, both of us trying to fill the gaps in the story we were trying to tell to our families. My life became a movie, one I didn’t want to watch and one that was heading down the road to a really shitty ending.

Embracing my childhood, a pathway to my truth

That’s when I turned to books, TV shows, magazines and music – art. Through that I discovered artists with personal stories of self-acceptance and personal struggle. These stories resonated with me and helped me slowly but surely lay down the bricks to a new foundation. This is where a part of what Alexander Leon said rings so true. I came to a point in my life where I realized that the life I was living was so messy and blurred that I no longer knew who I was. What did I truly like? What of what I said was truly an expression of myself? I spent so many years hiding; I just didn’t know where to turn. I had to literally and painfully revisit parts of my experiences and pick out the moments that were connected to my authenticity and feel those feelings again so I could understand myself. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life doing this and the journey continues.

Everything harps back to the very violent words and experiences of my childhood, where the truest and most authentic version of who I was exists. I left myself there, way back in the late 80’s and early 90’s because it was then where I was made to feel like I needed to wear a mask, not be who I was in order to live a better life and be accepted. The truth is in my childhood, inside the little Daniel. It’s in him where my authenticity flourishes, and as an adult I always tap into my inner child to feel that rush of innocence and excitement again. It’s by living for that younger version of myself that has held some of the most poignant moments in my journey to self-acceptance.

Tapping into those childhood experiences was what helped me look in the damn mirror, stop crying in fear, stop shaking in anxiety and stop contemplating giving in to what was expected of me culturally, socially and religiously.

I was gay, I needed to understand that, be okay with it and accept everything else that came along with it.

It’s been 10 long years since I accepted myself and shared myself with my family and friends. Since then, I’ve unpicked more parts of my journey that no longer belong, and embraced parts that have helped me flourish. That journey still continues to this day. The conversation around my sexuality and acceptance still gives me butterflies and makes me nervous. I suppose my body has been trained to react in one way, and my mind in another. I spend my Sundays reflecting and writing, giving all these experiences and feelings and more purpose – purpose to fuel me forward and give me the strength to live the next decade being 100% me.

 

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