Becoming a Man, 1940 – 1950

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrasing Theodore Parker



This essay is not a nostalgic wish that we return to the “good old days” nor is it  a plea for sympathy or commiseration. Rather it is simply a personal reflection on the evolution of one element of an individual’s identity and an admittedly superficial and naive look at some of the forces which have influenced it.

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In 1951, as a ten year old with one Y and one X chromosome,  it never occurred to me that anything related to the gender associated with that genetic combo was anything but rock solid. But unbeknownst to me I was straddling  the peak productive years of masculinity’s most visible spokesMEN with one foot on the world of Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises) and Rudyard Kipling (If)) the other on the deep analysis of gender begun by Simone de Beauvoir. (The Second Sex).    Now, at age 79, I find myself reading a NYTimes Magazine story titled Becoming a Man and written by someone presumably born XX, married to another woman, then undergoing a medical sex change (converted medically to a man) at age 50. 


My mother had become convinced that she would remain childless until, ten years after she and my father were married, I announced myself with a missed period.   Since I’d been so long in coming, I was considered especially precious. And she took her parenting responsibilities very seriously – to the extent that when she learned that the kindergarten teacher to whom I’d been assigned had a crankypants reputation she petitioned the principal to put me in a different class – alleging I was allergic to the stuffed animals in the room of the rejected teacher.  But in spite of this hyperprotectiveness she let two of her five younger brothers take me on a crow hunting trip with them when I was eight.


I’d been given a BB gun by the two of them the previous Christmas and they were eager to teach me how to put it to use.  Both had served in World War 2 a few years earlier, one as an airplane mechanic and the other a gunner on the USS Yorktown.  Suffice it to say they were at the oat-feeling stage of life. The one who had been an aircraft carrier gunner was nicknamed “Uncle Crash ” because he’d totalled several cars since being discharged from the Navy.  He’d just gotten a job as a guard at the state prison and entertained me with graphic descriptions of how he subdued unruly inmates with the liberal use of his regulation blackjack.


Shortly after they’d turned 16, both uncles had worked in the nearby slaughterhouse  – referred to in the neighborhood as “Sloppy Charlie’s”. One of their jobs had been to haul the enterprise’s unuseable offal out to nearby fields, turn on the manure spreader into which it had been heaped and shower its content over the adjacent fields. The nearby farmer’s free-roaming pigs then helped themselves to the feast as did flocks of hungry crows. Those both were our targets.


My two uncles slaughtered the crows.  The ones that weren’t killed outright were allowed to flap and flutter around on the ground as living decoys. My BB gun was no match for their shotguns against the birds so I was assigned the pigs as my target.  I’d know my aim was accurate when one let out a satisfying squeal, after which I’d be warmly congratulated by my mentors.


That weekend we sat around my grandmother’s kitchen table regaling the rest of the family with the success of the “hunt” – my uncles praising my excellent marksmanship as they joined my grandfather (who, as “head of the household” had forbidden my grandmother from applying for US citizenship) tossing down shots of homemade hootch and puffing away on stogies, Camels and Lucky Strikes.  All good, manly fun.


Though my father also smoked Luckies and enjoyed his shots, his was a less colorful masculinity:  bring home the pay, expect dinner on the table when you get there, fish, play poker with your childhood buddies once in a while, no dishes, no frills, never laugh, never ever look sad. The only emotions allowed: disappointment, disapproval and, rarely, disgust. His favorite entertainment was listening to radio broadcasts of boxing bouts and attending demolition derbies – events involving a dozen or so unmodified used vehicles smashing into each other until the last one still running was declared the winner.    


Though he never said as much – or much at all for that matter – I imagine my father felt that as the bread-winner, childcare was just not in his job description.  His peers, no doubt, felt pretty much the same. So my immediate gender role model was the strong silent type. Most of what I was “taught” verbally, however, came from my mother who, I think it is fair to say, wore her heart on her sleeve.


While she was doing housework, one of my mother’s stock expressions was  “It’s a man’s world”.  Fortunately, even though there is still lots to be done, things have changed for the better in many ways.  But as an XY living through the changes it’s been a bit like paying the utility bills or undergoing an appendectomy – absolutely necessary and the right thing to do but not exactly pleasant. Voluntarily exchanging a position of power, privilege and authority for one of humility and equality is not stress-free and while rational considerations of fairness and empathy are noble,  the fact that not everyone is playing by the same rulebook doesn’t help. Watching a flagrant male chauvinist pig strut around before an adoring crowd of cheering thousands, many of whom are women, and doing it with an extremely attractive though, in all likelihood, entirely ditsy one-time model on his arm, distresses. It’s hard not to wonder if one is being played the fool. Doesn’t boarishness (sic) still have its rewards?


Personality typing is big these days and, according to the Truity tests I took recently,  my Myer-Briggs personality type is INFJ – introverted, intuitive, feeling and judging.  Apparently this is an uncommon combination, occurring in less than 2 % of both males and females.  But among those who are in this bucket, there are twice as many females as males. Whether this type of testing  gives a full picture of personality is arguable as is the degree to which nature or nurture determines personality.  By those numbers, however, if they have any bearing on reality, one might say that I am somewhat more feminine than masculine.  Was it nature or nurture that did this to me? I suspect that my father would be surprised and likely disapprove of my sharing dishwashing duties on a nearly equal basis with my spouse.  


And then there’s biology to contend with.   As a general rule, the XY combination in most mammals brings with it greater size and strength and a certain amount of aggressiveness and pugnacity – think bulls, stallions, great apes etc.  Since muscle mass as a percent of total body mass is about 15 percent higher in men than in women it’s easy to imagine that as cultural patterns emerged among H. sapiens, domination of the XXs by the XYs became the rule.  Helped along by a handful of just the right mutations, that seems to have been a successful survival strategy and and led to the development of well-fed big brains and the ability to conceptualize abstractions like fairness, justice and equality. Underlying aggressiveness, however, influenced in some way by my XY chromosomal combination still lurks somewhere necessitating the expenditure of psychic energy if it’s to be kept at bay.


Which brings us back to my cognitive dissonance.   Simple physical superiority makes it tempting to play the “might makes right” card and, within the protective bubbles of family and peer group, use force or the threat of it to make things go one’s way.  And that works particularly well if the religious belief system and existing cultural hierarchy reinforce XY privilege. On the other hand, our species’ high-functioning brains and the logical and ethical abstractions they’ve created push all that brutishness aside and scowl at the use of force over reason. And I seem to have had the fortune, or misfortune, to have a lifetime spanning the tipping point. Sometimes it feels a bit like standing with one foot on a dock and the other on an untethered rowboat which is drifting slowly away.

8 thoughts on “Becoming a Man, 1940 – 1950

  1. Fascinating soliloquy. I grew up in a perhaps less misogynistic family: My mother, having given up an operatic career to raise a family, was entitled to and enjoyed respect. And I began my marriage with a mate who earned her MA and then supported me while I finished my BA.
    I took a Myer-Briggs while in high school, but if I ever had the detail I’ve long lost it. All I remember is that my Dad, a pioneer in powder metallurgy, all but failed whatever they called the ease-of-words/glibness test, and I passed it with flying colors.
    Best to Nancy, too!

    • Don, Thanks so much for your reply. I have never known you to be glib by any stretch. Much more an artisan of words. As such I am curious to hear what caused you to use the word “soliloquy” which I think of as words not particularly meant for public consumption. What I was trying to do, perhaps without success, was to use some personal anecdotes to describe what it is like to have a culture change dramatically under ones feet – perhaps a miniature version of Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”. (I hope the wordsmith in you will forgive the use of quotation marks on a book title. WordPress does not offer the option of underlining or italics.)

  2. Peter…I think you’re the only person I know whose dream is to get a f Irm grip on the elusive subject of wisdom. To think we sat down to lunch and dinner with L inus Pauling, Norman Thomas, Richard Feynman (my favorite) , William Buckley (who must be aghast at the present politics threatening to-overthrow sense)q Father Darcy, and a protestant theologian I can’t name makes me say, “NO WONDER WE’re STILL SEARCHING!” “Nature is the handwriting of God”.


    • Yes Sam, like Garrison Keilor’s Guy Noir I do find myself drawn to life’s damned persistent questions very much as he found his tongue drawn to the iron pumphandle in his scoolyard on subzero days when he was a kid..
      And I agree with you entirely about nature’s author.

  3. As always, a thoughtful and personal essay. I always like hearing about your colorful family, and it’s influences on your life. Growing up, gender roles in my family were similar to yours and I still find it difficult to break out of that pattern. My father’s recent passing has gotten me to think about all the influences on his life (growing up in the Midwest during the depression, conservative Lutheran background, serving in WWII, etc) that kept him locked into the classic “head of the family” role. Thanks for posting!

  4. This post made me think about identity and changing notions of masculinity in Saudi Arabia, where swift social reforms under the controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are bringing more (young) women into the labor force, as well as into social spheres traditionally reserved for males.

    More and more, we hear amusing tales of young Saudi men astounded to be interviewed by women or struggling to compete against (in many cases) better educated female counterparts for jobs. Indeed, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. is a young princess. She may not be a commoner but nevertheless reflects the changing times…at least for those Saudi women eager to embrace the government’s reform agenda.

    Sex changes, however, remain a long way off.

    • It’s good to hear, from a voice as authoritative as that of a Scholar in Residence at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, that the phenomenon I am trying to communicate is even more universal than I imagined. You reference the feelings of young men. How much more astonishing it must be for those old guys – like me !

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