How Do You Define Man?

The other day my older brother, who if you follow us on Twitter, you will know as @SquarePegDem, messaged me. You’ll also be familiar with our sometimes-epic squabbles on the platform. His message read: “I’m curious, how do you define a man? You’re not a Supreme Court nominee, so you can answer me.” I set aside the snark (uncharacteristically for me) and thought for a few minutes.

In my second novel, “Unbroken,” main character Lincoln, struggling to reconcile his own undeniable boyness with his gayness recalls: “I was wrong. Always wrong. ‘No’ was the word I heard most often. No, boys don’t do that. No, boys don’t do this. I was left believing boys only belched, farted, and fought.”

Growing up, it seemed to me that being a boy required membership in some sort of exclusive club, which permitted only certain sanctioned behaviors, the esoteric equivalent, I imagined, of knowing to sip one’s tea with one’s pinky extended, or how to dribble a basketball. I found myself on the outside of a centuries old quarter sawn oak door which had a neat brass plate affixed to it, a silent, but loud warning: No sissies allowed.

Are you a boy or a girl? I was plagued by this question others asked constantly, ruthlessly, throughout my youth. It was asked to torment and remind me you don’t fit; we don’t want you. Later, when I was older and I was tired—so very tired—of the question, my response which was met with stunned silence, ridicule of the poser of the question, or fury, was: “Why are you asking? Do you want to fuck me?”

Looking back, I realize my response flung back in a hostile face is at the root of the debate—why exactly would it matter to you, a stranger, whether I am a man, or a woman, or non-binary? Ask me my pronouns and move the fuck on.

Now to the question: How do you define a man?

I messaged back: "I don’t get to decide. Every man (or woman) gets to decide that for themselves. There are some who would say I’m not a man because I’m gay."

“Riddle me this Batman,” I continued. “You’ve heard of castration mines (also known as the “Bouncing Betty”). A savage dual explosive device employed by the Germans during World War II, stepping on one would propel it three feet into the air; a second device would then detonate, blowing off legs but also quite often blowing a soldier’s boy bits to smithereens. Guys who suffered that fate—are they still men?”

His response was a cryptic and short, “um, no.” Prompting me to respond, “So if your boy bits got blown to smithereens, you’d identify as a woman?”

No response and it’s been a few days. Now I’m rather pleased with my question because there are only two answers—both of which undercut the idea that genitals are what defines a man. If a man loses his genitals and is still considered a man, that means men aren’t solely identified by their genitals. But if not having the expected male genitals, as Michael seems to imply, makes him a woman then there is no basis for calling transwomen, men.

Which brings us back to the original question: how do you define a man?


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