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I never wanted to be a man.

I never wanted anything much beyond the beauty of nature, the silence of my own thoughts, and the privilege to be loved.

But this innocence was stripped from me, slowly, in stages that culminated with my forced adoption of at least the presentation of masculinity.

It didn’t start out that way, though.

The early stages of adolescence, of peer training in how to be cool (or how not to be not-cool), were little things.

Don’t be this way, don’t do that thing.

It didn’t feel gendered at first, the subtle behavioral adjustments, coupled with thinly-veiled threats of social exile coming at first from girls as much as boys.

I just went along.

I learned the rules.

I adopted them.

I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

It wasn’t long then, that without enough inner self-confidence to stay true to myself in these “your innocence or your life” moments of pre-teen crisis, most of my original essence had become subjugated and enslaved to serve this childhood feeding machine, this cultural pre-capitalistic training program.

I was ready for the next step.

Only this time around – having blindly accepted the premise of social acceptance for looking and acting a certain way – I came in fully trained to look to others for behavioral direction. That my acceptable behaviors would be laid out before me as peer code of conduct was precedent, settled law in my mind and heart.

In fact, I was eager to learn and master the code, ever in search of the elusive golden halo of “winning” higher praise and acceptance.

Curiously, the rewards themselves of social acceptance had lost a little of their own innocence, to be replaced with a more cunning game of risk and reward; competition and capitalism.

This wasn’t the playground any more.

It wasn’t even the locker room.

This was the house party, the college bar, and, before long, the corporate office.

And so this process of adolescence – the crown of adolescence, for me – was to be earned in learning in ever more narrow and instinctive ways how to “guy.”

It would be measured in my ability to crack sexist jokes, to avoid emotional intensity, to remain relevant enough sexually and stylistically to pass as definitively straight.

Those, after all, were the rules, and we got better and better at living them.

Better and better, til they became the water we swam in.

Better and better, that is, until the old trade off I had blindly swam into like a fish into a weir all those years previous began to reveal itself as severely and crushingly limiting.

As a performance, a rigged game, in which I was complicit, and yet somehow neither competent nor compensated.

I began to realize I had been had.

A few moments stand out.

3 years into college, living in a sports-frat house, I wondered aloud “Shouldn’t we be reading, like, the famous books, the literature of the world?” The room erupted in laughter as the star basketball player looked at me, a mix of utter confusion and mild suspicion spread across his wide face. “You wanna read?” To which he and the room doubled in laughter.

Translation (to me): You have followed the masculine code all the way into a culture that defines personal growth and intellectual pursuit as non-male, and therefore worthy of ridicule.

Again, not having summoned the inner confidence or the outward validation to follow my own path, I stumbled on.

But cracks were forming, beginning to reveal a darkness permeating this path I had followed, faithfully, devotedly, for so long.

Another moment.

A few years into my post-college job – as a managerial statistics consultant colloquially called a “black belt” (a job I took to satisfy the needs and unlived desires of my father) – I bumped into a friend of a friend at a popular upper east side bar in Manhattan, where he lived and worked as an investment banker.

After exchanging greetings, he said, “So how’s it going, are you still a black belt?” adding a mock karate stance.

The question and gesture were so dismissive, so mocking yet so transmitting of freedom that I was shocked. The confidence he had in the apparent unassailability of his own chosen path kind of snapped me out of the trance I had been walking in.

I had thought staying safe would keep me safe. I had been taught that following the rules would earn me non-ridicule. I was a guy doing the guy-thing, after all!

And here, after all those years of guy-training, not only was I being ridiculed by another man for my way of living my life, I was discerning an almost “you fool, there never were any rules” in his wild freedom to make fun of me in such an effusive way.

Another moment.

Still in this job, and very much in the throes of personal crisis, I was caught between pleasing my father and following my heart.

I went through the motions at work, talking the talk, saying what I was supposed to say. When it came time to discuss my next step, I heard myself ask for the big job with the internal audit team.

The Seal Team 6 of this corporate titan of industrial wizardry and financial hegemony.

I didn’t want it, but I was supposed to ask for it.

After a few interviews, I got offered the job.

Driving back home, on the phone with my girlfriend, the tears flooded my eyes as I choked on the words “But I have to take the job.”

I dimly heard her clear, compassionate reply: “No, you don’t. You do not have to take the job.”

Something melted inside me. The view of my path wedged open more fully.

I saw that I could – and I would – go my own way.

And I did.

I turned down the job and I went out on my own.

Spoiler: It was not pretty. It was long, hard, and fraught with physical, psychic and monetary pitfalls. But it was mine. And I would never trade any of the ridicule I received (being assumed gay, being dismissed as a hippy, being harshly judged as a dilletante and a dreamer) in exchange for the rewards of following my own star.

I am not saying that all we have to do as men is turn from the blinding apparatus of our cultural programming. The stakes are far greater than they were on the playground, especially for men and trans folks of color.

But I am saying that the willful performance of masculinity does more to block our individual potential than just about anything else we might identify with.

To question masculinity, or to opt out entirely, is as harrowing – and as worthy – a step of personal freedom as can be taken, in a world so hungry for realness, authenticity and leadership.

Only when a man is ready to take a hard look at the game of masculine culture – making an honest accounting of the costs to his own soul – does he become willing to take a stand against the so-called benefits he enjoys by playing along.

At that point, a man can ask what is the price of his humanity? What is the price of his connection to place? What is the price of the future of his children?

These are the questions that, in the words of David Whyte, have no right to go away.

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