I was reading Glosswitch’s wonderful newsletter “OK Karen” earlier when this bit really struck a chord:
I detect in books like I Hate Men – in writers such as Laurie Penny, Andi Zeisler, Jessa Crispin – a real desire to be radical, to create discomfort – and yet an unwillingness to bear the consequences. It’s the difference between making very specific demands of men (no, you can’t have that, you can’t go there) and couching them in vague, abstract terms. So often there’s a celebration of the woman-only space, the coven, with no acknowledgement of tensions surrounding who gets in, who’s kept outside. Cackling about keeping the men out is socially acceptable; creating hard and fast rules is unkind, and unkind is taboo.– Glosswitch
She is discussing Pauline Harmange’s new book I Hate Men, which Glosswitch has read but I have not. Still (and without weighing in on any of the individual writers mentioned, only one of whom I am familiar with) I think this is a good observation, though my thoughts don’t amount to a hill of beans considering I’m a man. I stopped thinking men’s opinions of feminism matter a long time ago. Women decide what is and isn’t feminism. I’m just along for the ride, hoping to be supportive in any way I can.
Yet the passage I quoted above cast my mind back to when I did think my opinion mattered, or at least, that being gay was a get-out-of-patriarchy-free card. High school was a challenging time for me, as I have discussed before. Most of my friends—all my close friends—were girls. That wasn’t the hard part (the crucible of homophobia was), but it did make for some lonely times.
You see, something I struggled with understanding at the time was that despite being gay, I was still male, and that the girls I was friends with understood this to be true. As such, they frequently set boundaries which excluded me. At the time I could not fathom why I should be excluded from their “coven.” After all, I was gay, and being a gay boy was as good as being a girl, right?
This was the early 2000s, and certainly that was the message I was receiving from, well, nearly everyone. I liked bright colours and frilly things. I longed to colour my hair and wear makeup—nothing too brash, just some foundation to even out my blotchy skin and liner to make my brown eyes pop—and to be desirable to men, the vast majority of the ones I knew being straight and therefore not the least bit interested in what I had to offer. (Yes, I realise that sounds incredibly misogynistic and reductive; I was 15, so cut me some slack.)
Most of all, I longed to be included. Listening to the girls talk about what they’d do over the weekend, when they slept over at one another’s houses or just hung out, sans boys, I envied their friendship. Their fellowship. Their comradery. When they would steal away to have a private chat, I always wondered why they felt the urge. After all, I was gay and therefore unthreatening. Couldn’t they talk in front of me?
What I did not understand at the time, and what took many years of therapy and women’s studies classes for me to understand, is that my problem was twofold: I was living in a virulently homophobic society, and that coupled with the constraints of socially constructed masculinity meant that I did not feel free to be my authentic self. What else I did not understand at the time was that none of this was my friends’ problem.
We teach women to cater to men, to put kindness and accessibility above their own needs and desires. My friends did not do that, at least not with me. Good on them. Being able to set a clear boundary and exclude men—even gay men, even gender non-conforming men—is a right that women fought long and hard to have. My feelings did not matter more than those girls’ boundaries. That isn’t to say they didn’t matter—no child should have to feel as isolated as I did—but fixing the problem was the responsibility of the adults with a duty of care toward me, not the girls who, looking back, showed me nothing but kindness.
We place such a high premium on “inclusion” that we too often look at “exclusion” as being inherently bad. It is not. We exclude people all the time, for all sorts of reasons. After all, you don’t date every person who hits on you. You don’t take every job that is offered to you. You’re not friends with everyone you meet. Not everyone you know is invited ‘round for Sunday dinner. (Or maybe they are, in which case, call me after the pandemic.)
I am sure, looking back with nearly two decades’ hindsight, that I did think that “creating hard and fast rules” about when I was and was not welcome was “unkind.” I am equally sure that I was wrong. My friends understood that being sexually attracted to other men or liking makeup or pop music did not make me “like a girl,” because being sexually attracted to men and liking makeup and pop music are not the definition of being “a girl.” Or “a woman.” I was still a boy. I am still a man.
There is nothing wrong with being a boy or a man, including—I would say especially—one who likes other men and makeup and pop music. Who doesn’t love a bit of *NSync or Britney Spears? Come now. But none of that entitled me to the company of women, or an invitation into their shared spaces.
Looking back, I am glad my friends set boundaries and excluded me, because it taught me a valuable lesson: women have the right to say no. It doesn’t matter what boxes you tick, women are allowed to set boundaries which exclude you. Even if it hurts your feelings. Even if it means you are alone.
That doesn’t mean I want anyone to be alone. Like I said, the problem I had was not girls not wanting to hang out with me – they did, and frequently enough that I have many fond memories – but the problem was a homophobic culture which prevented me from forming friendships with other males who, when the girls excluded me for whatever reason, I could then go and hang out with. This was a problem that the adults in my life should have recognised and helped to rectify. (Though, if I’m being honest I am unsure what, if anything, they could have done given the general culture of 2001.)
But as much as anything, it was a problem of male entitlement on my part, of the superficial expectation that because I liked things society told me were “girly” that I must suddenly and magically be included as some sort of honorary girl or something. Not so. A boy is a boy is a boy becomes a man is a man is a man. No amount of makeup or pop music will change that.
Boundaries are not bad. Exclusion is not evil. Saying so should not make you a villain, should not make women villains. My high school friends understood this, and they were brave enough to stand up for their right to their own spaces away from me, a boy, and to clearly set boundaries. 20 years later, I hope young girls are able to do the same.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan