I was fourteen when I picked out a pink shirt at Macy’s and asked my step-dad if he’d buy it for me. “Put that back,” he said. “You’re not gay.”
The fact was and is that I’m not gay or part of the LGBT+ community. And I wasn’t aware that I had to be to wear pink, or why it mattered at all. “What does that have to do with it?” I asked.
“Boys don’t wear pink,” he answered.
My step-dad was mostly a good guy. He took on a lot when he married my mom and adopted into his life two ornery young boys at home and another adult son out struggling on his own. It was a brave thing my step-dad did. But sometimes he struggled to connect with us boys who were mostly raised by a single mother. I was the youngest, separated by twelve years from the oldest and two years from our middle brother. Me and my middle brother had lost our biological dad to the divorce when we were almost too young to remember, and while he’d stayed in our lives for a while, he eventually moved away to Arkansas. Shortly after, when my eldest brother went to rehab in California, our family moved to Arizona. That’s when our step-dad proposed to our mom. The wedding was in Las Vegas, where a cardboard cutout of Elvis was in the lobby of the chapel.
Anyway, I digress.
Our step-dad took us in after years of having a single mother, being homeschooled, and suffering through a string of family difficulties. My oldest and middle brothers both had more memories of my dad than I did, and I was mostly left without a traditional male role model — or, sometimes, without any male role model at all. What my step-dad found in me was not the societal ideal of a budding, masculine boy. I didn’t like cars, throw punches, smell like a zoo, or anything that the stereotyped male teenager did. To this day I’ve never thrown a punch, but I did slap my brother one time when we were arguing. My step-dad had already passed away by then, but I think he probably bumped his head trying to sit up when I slapped my brother, across the face, open handed.
What I was feeling at home carried over into all aspects of my life. I hung out with people who were shorter, skinnier, and much more fit than I was. I never felt manly; I only ever felt awkward. Sometimes when I would repeat versions of the pink shirt incident–asking for floral shorts, to get my ears pierced, dying my hair blond–I was met with eye rolls from my dad and inquisitive, squinted eyes from my peers. The girls I liked and put in any effort for picked my friends. My brothers were better at video games than me. And when my step-dad would take me out to the car for some male bonding time, I would get aggressively annoyed at the mosquitoes biting my legs and never learn a thing about the timing belt, or whatever he was working on.
When I turned sixteen, I started trying to hide it; it being my entire lack of masculine ideals. I started swearing to distract from my speech impediment. (Oh yeah, I couldn’t say my r’s.) I bought tighter jeans because I somehow thought they made my legs look more muscular. I spent hours trying to find shirts that hugged my biceps in just the right way so I wouldn’t actually have to work out. And then two months before my seventeenth birthday, my mom decided it was time to pack up and move away, out of Arizona. I’ve harped on this story on my blog before, but long story short: My brothers had both moved out, my grandma who’d we’d been caring for passed away, and when my mom couldn’t take the memories in Arizona anymore, my step-dad stayed behind for a career opportunity full of false promises while my mom and I moved alone to Colorado.
When my step-dad finally decided to reconvene with the family after a tumultuous few months, we had to move again because his lungs couldn’t take Colorado’s altitude, and what ensued was the darkest my mind had ever gotten. Over the next two years I lived in five states, had little to no interpersonal interaction outside my family, and sank deep into myself. My social life was playing online games with my friends from Arizona whenever they had the time, and my self-esteem plummeted. But I did start getting a couple, humble hairs on my chest.
I’m getting to a point here, so bear with me.
My older brother had come to visit from college during the short time I was living in Idaho, and we were making some short videos we thought were funny. (They weren’t funny.) And that’s when something clicked for me. I was rewatching the videos we’d made, and I was no longer disgusted by myself, rather I was so sad. I had spent eighteen years of my life trying to figure out a way to be a man, the kind of man that made others like me, love me, want me.
But I had never spent a single day trying to figure out a way to make me want me. To be the kind of man that I so desperately needed, and never got.
Masculinity isn’t what I wanted. I wanted acceptance. I wanted to be noticed and have a man take pride in me, not because I knew what a timing belt was but because I was me.
I put the Pepsi down. I started working out and writing more, and I worked even harder to maintain the friendships I had relegated myself to losing when I left Arizona. I did start drinking coffee, and if I don’t have a headache by 1pm without a cup of coffee in hand then I’m not a coffee addict. That year I lost a bunch of weight and self-published my first book. They were small victories on the grand scale, I guess, but immensely meaningful to me. And that’s what mattered to me right then, that and finally getting more chest hair. I’m still an imperfect and often vain, all right?
On a trip down to Arizona after all that went down, I was staying at my best friend’s house (who I have a whole other post about that you can find at the bottom of the page). When we were home alone one morning I had gotten out of the shower and decided to walk into his room naked, but pretend like I didn’t even notice. He hated nudity so I thought it would be for a great laugh. He took one look, covered his eyes and said, “Good gosh, dude. You’re such a man.” I don’t think I’ve ever told him, but I almost started crying right there, naked in my friend’s room, because he had called me a man.
Later that same year, my step-dad passed away. He had a brain tumor. I was so angry with him when he died, I remember standing beside his deathbed and thinking…nothing. Feeling nothing. He had put my mom and my family through the ringer at the tail end of his time in our lives, and of course that’s what we remember most, right? The bad stuff. But now I look back with a different perspective, back to just before his death. He had started reading my first book without telling me, a man in his seventies reading a YA novel written by a seventeen-year-old. He had taken notice of me, and his last words to me were when he took my hand a day before he passed away, smiled through the painkillers, and said, “Your book is so good. I’m proud of you.”
Maybe my step-dad had been proud all along. Maybe my friends had always looked at me as manly, whatever it is to be so. But the fact is that I never would have known or accepted that they thought that about me until I was able to look at myself in the mirror and say, I want you. I accept you. I’m proud of you.
My final thought is this: Masculinity isn’t being a man. Masculinity is being the you that you love, the man that you wish you had in your life, the man that loves and wants the person he is and lets others love and want him that way, too.
And freakin’ wear pink if you want to!
If you want to know more about my dad and step-dad, check out this post: Unconventional Role Models. It’s an older post, but still worth the read.
If you want to know more about that best friend I mentioned, check out this post: What I’ve Learned From a 10-year+ Friendship.
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Have a great August!