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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Name My Parents Didn't Use

by KJ Hannah Greenberg

“Ken” was a boy’s name, was an appellation, which I also associated, in the 1960s, with a male doll. It was, as well, the means I had of summoning my partner, in the 1970s, on my high school’s debate team.

Such a name lacks frills. The name possesses no soft-edged phonemes, no feminine prefix or suffix, en total, no petticoat wisdom at all. As evidenced by my debate partner, that particular means of calling up a soul was commonplace back in the day. Had I worn a different configuration of stuff between my legs, that name would likely have been mine.

However, I was born a girl.

I grew up in a household of women whose lone male resident, my father, was wheelchair bound. There was no talk of sports in my home. No toilet seat was ever left raised. Machismo, in my childhood, was found only on my family’s TV. The fashionable contemporary social belief of the time, in the supremacy of men over women, only made itself manifest when my sister and I played chess or sought to wear pants. On such occasions, we wondered, aloud, how boys did such things.

I knew that “boys” existed. “Sons” appeared in high school literature homework assignments. “Brothers” were bothersome creatures that constantly interrupted my girlfriends’ lives. It was my family, alone, that seemed to hold little that was virile, brave, or strong. Simply, my family lacked a man, in the conventional sense of such things.

Since our nucleus was deficient of any able-bodied male, as defined by dint of genetics, we got by with fulfilling that social need via inventing a man. My parents assigned that social portion, which was ordinarily assumed by fathers or brothers, to me. I became my family’s male surrogate. During my formative years, I was forced to operate as a boy.

It was my job, for instance, to lift and to dress my father. My chores almost always also included: doing yard work, taking out the trash, and bringing in the groceries.

Likewise, in keeping with the social order of the age, it was expected of me to be accomplished academically. “Girls” were cared for; “boys” found means, first in school, and later, in jobs, to provide sustenance. As the latter was my destiny, any grades that I brought home that were less than supreme cost me my allowance. Any high marks I earned raised my parents’ expectations for my future performances. 99+s, the highest score possible on standardized tests, were lambasted by my mother and father because they were not 100s. When I wanted to write for my high school newspaper as a lifestyle columnist, they coerced me to campaign for editor, instead.

I hated my assigned job. I hated being the heavy. I hated being the star. I wanted to wear ornamented clothing and to sing in a chorus of modest achievers. I wanted to experiment with opalescent eye shadow, to laze about with romance novels, and to study baton twirling. Instead, I was pushed to try for the lead in a school play, to excel at weightlifting, and to win my state forensics tournament. My built up biceps and triceps not withstanding, I was and would always be a girl.

I’m not sure how I would have responded, during that part of my life, to being treated as inferior to males, as was the fate of girls with normal social function. I’d like to think that I would have appreciated being noticed and fawned over by boys. I had no confusion as to who I was. As it is, I’ll never know.

I was biologically a girl. I had a woman’s secondary sexual characteristics. Plus, I liked boys. I considered their fledgling facial hair and other manifestations of masculinity’s relatively more hirsute nature, down right sexy. My synapses fired whenever a locker room-scented young man walked past or sat next to me. My endocrine system went into overdrive if one of them, even if he was among the group with whom I competed in classes, in intramurals, or in interscholastic math or writing tournaments, so much as looked in my direction. I had no problem discerning for which team I batted.

I didn’t want to be like boys; I wanted to be liked by boys.

In college, nonetheless, I dutifully studied for a science degree. Thereafter, I sought to fulfill the destiny that had been artificially created for me: I followed the route to becoming a professor.

As an academic, I reached for professionally normative accolades. I engaged in a rigorous program of research, taught a variety of upper and lower level classes, and participated in academic discussions at the national and international levels. I could have been a wonderful good ‘ol boy had I not been a girl.

The older that I got the more I failed to experience the social equilibrium that my family imagined for me. I could never be “one among men.” as long as tenured sorts, who were twenty or thirty years my senior, noticed my female attributes and found no reason not to comment on them. It didn’t matter to those more senior faculty members whether or not I could shoot baskets from court keyholes with regular precision, whether or not I could swim an hour’s worth of laps, or whether or not I exploded with footnotes faster than most of those trussed thinkers. To my surprise, shortly after taking my terminal degree, I found myself litigating against a bunch of boys, i.e. male colleagues, who acted on their articulated hatred for accomplished women.

My experience of gender identity changed further when my sister and I each got married. My husband was a dutiful son. Her husband was a man of means. At last, the male void in my family was filled. I was no longer needed to take up that position.

Shortly after my sister married, I got pregnant, a very female thing to do. Gestating, nursing and fostering helped me to redefine myself. My burgeoning belly, my leaking breasts, and my years spent away from my career, surrounded by diapers, larking at museums and playgrounds, and cooking all manners of child-sized treats, yielded, for me, a different sort of understanding of myself than the one I had been forced to endure earlier.

Accordingly, I invited myself to study herbal medicine and basket weaving, intentionally picking endeavors that I associated with female traditions (few folks, Yours Truly included, realize that basket weaving, among indigenous people, is a male art). What’s more, I again embraced creative writing, intentionally endowing most of my narratives with a woman’s point of view. I learned how to belly dance. I wore dresses and skirts and I grew my hair past my shoulders.

Interestingly, in the face of those facts of my working so hard to reclaim my living as a girl, I was not willing to release all I had gained when I had lived as a boy. I still enjoy weightlifting, landscaping, and all manners of academic challenge. Whereas I have become convinced that the world of women ought to be celebrated as such, I have never been entirely willing to leave the world of men.

My father passed away years ago. During the span from the onset of his illness to the time of his death, my sister, my mother, and I experimented with integrating male and female social purposes and with appreciating and encouraging a mixture of those traits in the people in our lives.

To wit, my older son, who trained as an army sniper, remains one of my family’s best cooks. My younger daughter wears braids and ribbons, colorful nail polish, and other female-assigned artifacts, but insists she’s going to use her interpersonal robustness to become a criminal lawyer. My older daughter dresses in traditional female garb, but is among the most respected teachers in her all boys’ school. My younger son, the family member who is physically larger than any of the rest of us, is also the first to offer hugs when siblings or parents feel down. My husband, a software architect of the highest caliber, can sigh or cry as well as any lady and considers his comfort with expressing his feelings to be the hallmark of a true man.

Ironically, these days, the complaints I had as a child, as a teen, and as a young adult about my ill-fitting social responsibilities would attract as much attention as would any other literary detritus; no one would care. As a culture, we are, at least superficially, able to accept women in men’s roles. At present, it’s no big deal if a lady is an athlete, a nerd, a breadwinner, or an emotional toughie.

Regretfully, our civilization continues to fail to likewise celebrate women’s roles, whether those roles are assumed by girls or boys. Until such time, we will lack authentic social success.

As for me, in particular, as I ride through midlife, I remain aware that I can like perfume and disdain body powder, wear hoodies, but stay far away from camouflage prints, and expect respect from my university students, but insist that my own sons and daughters continue to regard me as both cuddly and fallible. As such, I am no longer a token male. I live the life that my female body parts and inclinations had always prescribed for me. I am still not the name my parents didn’t use.

Faithfully constructive in her epistemology, KJ Hannah Greenberg channels gelatinous monsters and two-headed wildebeests. As such, she helps out as an Associate Editor at Bound Off! and at Bewildering Stories. Her most recent books include: The Immediacy of Emotional Kerfuffles (Bards and Sages Publishing, 2013), Citrus-Inspired Ceramics (Aldrich Press, 2013), Intelligence’s Vast Bonfires (Lazarus Media, 2012), Supernal Factors (The Camel Saloon Books on Blog, 2012), Fluid & Crystallized (Fowlpox Press, 2012), Don’t Pet the Sweaty Things (Bards and Sages Publishing, 2012), A Bank Robber’s Bad Luck with His Ex-Girlfriend (Unbound CONTENT, 2011), and Oblivious to the Obvious: Wishfully Mindful Parenting (French Creek Press, 2010).

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