By Samuel Moir-Smith
I admire the men that are brave enough to be themselves.
This isn’t limited to my admiration of drag queens, because it is utterly false to claim I only admire one type of man.
I admire anyone that is brave enough to be themselves.
When I grew up, I didn’t have many male idols.
One of my few masculine influences were found in films, where my admiration of various actors (including, obviously, Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean) blended with an itching desire to embody them.
My early teenage years were a disaster, I’ll say that much. There was a burning discomfort growing inside me that appeared most vibrant when I stood in front of the mirror. Gender dysphoria is such an odd sensation it is difficult to articulate an explanation. I came out to my friends on Instagram, with an illustration of a mother holding a dress in front of her ‘daughter’, only for them to see a man in the reflection. This is the most accurate representation I have found.
I knew I was a boy. But I became panicked about how much time I had lost during these formative years and how other boys my age could repeat and react to masculine social signs and forms of communication. I am also autistic; social cues aren’t my strong suit.
As a reaction to this panic and the overwhelming embarrassment I felt after every interaction with a cis man, I threw myself into what I believed to be masculine culture. I learnt stereotypical tropes about what I thought men had to be. Many of the films I had grown up with presented men as strong, brave and determined. Although, some displayed men with more ‘feminine’ qualities (take the drunken portrayal of Jack Sparrow), where intimacy and honesty were the saving traits over violence and manipulation.
It is fair to say I am not the most ‘masculine’ bloke. When I came out as trans at school, I moved from living in a female boarding house to a male house. Since school accommodation was gender segregated, I had perhaps three close-ish relationships with some boys in my year.
Well, I can say with my whole chest that walking into that boys’ house on the first day was easily the most terrifying experience I have ever endured. My parents had advised me about making such a large step, especially into a house without the established support network of friends I had with the girls. But, I knew this was necessary. I knew that at seventeen years old I had to make some significant and uncomfortable moves that would enable me to ‘become a man’. This year in the boys’ house holds some of my fondest (and funniest) memories at school, and I certainly learned the basics of ‘male code’.
After leaving school I moved to the East End of London for university. Through various fashion events, I had developed friendships with several London-based individuals. The majority of these people were a few years older than me, which presented social situations I felt I was unprepared for. Now, perhaps you are reading this and thinking, ‘wow Sam, you need to relax’; I hear you. For a second imagine you are a trans man. You have been socialised, either purposefully or not, as the opposite gender for almost eighteen years of your life. Now imagine putting on some baggy jeans and Air Max and walking around London being secure in your masculinity.
I developed a heightened awareness associated with understanding particular male social settings so I could replicate greetings and farewells with ease. I kept feeling somewhat inadequate and weak in many of my social interactions. Eventually, I became so redundant I stopped going out. A bad break up during the same period pushed me to cut many of my friends loose. I couldn’t figure out why, after so many years of fighting to be visible as a man, I was now feeling like I could never become one.
As many have discovered during lockdown, a period of being indoors encourages binge-watching shows, engaging with things you love, music, good food. It turns out this period of isolation was exactly what I needed, to spend time focusing on who I am and what I see in my reflection now.
I was lucky to have positive influences around me. I have countless friends that spend time documenting ‘alternative’ masculinities from the patriarchal model of ‘strong men’ who don’t cry. I have male friends that tell me they love me, who hold my hand, and show up for me when I’m feeling hopeless. Masculinity doesn’t hold for much in my eyes; there is no set way of being a man. True bravery and strength comes from being whoever you are, and being that with pride.
So now when I engage with masculinity and its representations, they fit my model. Surprisingly, Drag Race has taught me more about masculinity than anything else ever has. It shows courage, vulnerability, determination, kindness. Actions and emotions don’t need to be gendered; we’re all just microcosmic melting pots of behaviours.