I've been writing a lot recently about the gendered aspects of my childhood, trying to piece together that part of my trans narrative in a way that can be explained and understood by others. Whenever I heard messages about what little boys were supposed to be like, I sought to be the exact opposite. I occasionally found strong girl role models, but the overarching memory I have is the experience of being repulsed from the idea of prince charming, warrior heroes, and any type of masculine virtue - except in one case.
I have a distinct memory after seeing Disney's Mulan when I was 15 and visiting my cousins. There was one song all about celebrating maleness and masculinity. Repeated again and again were the lines "Be a man!" with the emphasized conclusion "I'll make a man out of you!" I was hooked on it, singing that song ad nauseam for a week or two. On a conscious level, I've never been sure what drew me to that song. It certainly doesn't fit with my overall childhood narrative. And over the past several years my mind occasionally returns to ponder the puzzle.
For a while I thought a way of explaining it was how the song was constructed around the actions required to become a man - that being a man was something you do rather than something that you are - and as a result I took it as an example that I could make my own gender and be what I wanted to be. I explained it to myself by saying that it essentially became my personal anthem that biology is not destiny.
Some elements of that may be true, but it's always felt like a half truth at best. A couple weeks ago when I was writing about trans childhoods and thought about that example again. Suddenly it hit me. It could hardly be any more obvious: the main character - the character who is being made into a "man" - is a woman!
After rejecting masculinity and maleness at every turn, it was the first time I had found permission to be masculine on my own terms. If a woman could be masculine, be a warrior hero, and pass herself off as a man to survive, then perhaps I could too. So while singing and dancing in my cousins' living room, I awkwardly took my first steps into a type of masculinity that could work for me - a female masculinity.
After a week or so, the macho factor of the song left me somewhat nauseated and I retreated back to my comfortable stereotype defying gender neutrality. But I still was fascinated with every movie I could find with a female character passing as male. It wasn't until a few years later when I put a few more of the pieces together and realized something else that should have been obvious. Growing up within the lesbian community I had an abundance of masculine female role models, and eventually I looked to them for support. But I suppose it's bound to take a while when you have to figure out gender for yourself rather than having it handed to you. The funny thing is that my parents spent so much time fretting about the male role model issue, while I scoffed at the suggestion I needed one. What I really needed, and got, was butch role models.