From the fairy tales that shaped us through to gender expectations and why they should be ignored, we discuss how to be better gay men and avoid participating in toxic masculinity, along with paying tribute to the gentle boys we were taught not to be.
A Love Surrender Production. Created and written by Goran D and Mitchell J.
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My mother followed me down the hall and waited for me to enter the bedroom before approaching. (STOP)
“Your father would kill you if he heard the way you’re speaking now,” she said, half-terrified, half angered.
I was five years old and we’d come to visit family. I thought back to what I’d just said in front of my relatives. It must have been something funny because there was laughter – maybe even a "say that again."
I questioned my mother about what I’d said, and this made her even more flustered. Not because I’d spoken back, but because of the way I was still speaking. “Don’t say it like that,” she urged, getting me to repeat words again. It was no use. Everything I said only made her anxiety boil over like an unwatched cauldron whose contents who wreak chaos.
By the time my father arrived later that day, I was so paralysed with fear that I barely dared breath, and although I relaxed a little bit at some point, I would continue to carry the guilt of these faults inside me like a worm that could twist and wriggle into different positions but stubbornly refused to ever leave.
I don’t feel any resentment towards my mother, either then or now, over this incident. In fact, we are quite close and she is quick to champion gay rights. The theory that is both most likely and easiest for me to accept is that she was acting out of fear over what was waiting for me if I did not change this most dangerous part of myself.
I only watched The Little Mermaid once, in primary school, when the teacher showed it to us as a treat. But as a teenager living in a country town where the ocean was at least six hours away, Ariel was always on my mind. How I wished to be her, not because she had striking red hair or met and married a generic, characterless prince, but because she found a way to lose her voice. (space) I didn’t self-harm though I often thought about how satisfying it would be to gouge out my voice box, knowing it was nothing more than a cancer that had no beneficial use. I would have done a deal with villains ten times worse than Ursula the sea witch if it meant I could not speak anymore.
Tonight, the sirens went off again, this time in a different sound … piercing the sky, like a raging dragon. I could clearly hear a couple of detonations in the distance.
“It’s the air raid they are expecting, we should be moving on quickly,” says Mom, showing me the way to the ground level where we’ll spend another sleepless night under the stairs.
“Are we safe there?” asks our 75-year-old neighbour Ann who has been living with us for the past few weeks.
“Nothing can penetrate three layers of concrete”, I said, brushing off her concerns.
It is winter 1994 in the middle of the Bosnian war. We haven’t had electricity since last February. That’s now almost a year. Mom plugs an old lamp to the car battery and throws a few tiny blankets on the freezing tiled floor. We listen to the radio for a while, taking in the announcements about the number of dead and wounded soldiers, before eventually winding down and falling asleep. Well, at least some of us. I spend these dark hours wide-eyed and imagine travelling to remote islands in the Pacific that I will probably never have a chance to visit.
The morning always brings relief. Light filtering through the house means we have survived another night. Despite the war that has been raging for more than a year, my mother is still working.
“She is a teacher, and children have to go to school – even in wartime,” my neighbour snaps at me, just to say something before going back to her house where she usually spends her days.
The workday mornings are almost always the same. Mum gets quickly ready, pens a brief note with a list of chores I need to finish before she returns and dumps on the table a can of corned beef that she gets from the Red Cross for my breakfast. I hate corned beef. It expired almost a decade ago, but we all eat it because it’s the only thing we have. Today, I don’t even bother opening the can. The sound of the door locking usually signals it is time for action. The most exciting part of the day, when this seven-year-old boy turns into the Snow Queen.
I run to my parent’s bedroom and pull a beautiful brown dress out of their closet. It’s a gorgeous sweater gown with puffy sleeves and varsity stripe detail on the cuffs and hems. I really don’t understand why Mom doesn’t like it. She only wore it once to a family wedding and then left it to be eaten by moths. This dress is always accompanied by my sister's prom shoes (she is 21 and has the smallest feet) and a straw hat my late nanna used when gardening. At the top of the endless staircase that is the centrepiece of our home – I think I counted once there are about 40 steps – I set up a dining chair and voilà: my palace is finished.
I always act out the same scene. The Snow Queen receives visitors from all over the world who take turns at the foot of the staircase presenting their gifts, bearing the greetings of their rulers …. and leave. Sometimes the queen gets tired, so she runs to the bedroom and takes a nap for a few minutes. Kind of beauty sleep. I only play this game when no one is home. Dad has been at the frontlines for months; mom is teaching at the local school and my sister works as an apprentice at the gas station in the village nearby.
I am a super emotional Snow Queen, at times I shout a lot, issue orders: “You should just all go to hell! Utterly useless!”
But you could also hear me sobbing while reading the love letters I received from my Prince Charming.
Your Highness. Prince Philip of Dreamy Meadows. What does he say? Read, fast. "My sweetest rose, my heart is hollow when not in your presence..." Stop it, stop it, please. (cries…)
High school isn’t easy for most people: chances are that if you got through unscathed, you were probably one of the bullies able to negotiate cracks and loopholes to your advantage. Long before I even felt a stirring of attraction to another male, people at school let me know I was gay. How could I protest otherwise? That would involve speaking, and my voice said it all. At my nadir, paranoia over my voice grew so strong that I even asked people: “Can we still be friends even though I’ve got a strange voice?” Strange was an easier word to say than gay, something I wasn’t comfortable I could be even though everyone had long ago figured out the truth for me.
Luckily, in some ways, my parents divorced and I changed high schools after two years of hell. We moved to a coastal town which felt like a city even though it wasn’t really, and I attended a performing arts high school. I’ll be honest and just admit this now: on my first day, I heard a boy in my maths class with a high-pitched, feminine voice talk loudly, unapologetically, and my first thought was at least people will notice him, not me. Perhaps I could have seen this boy as my chance to learn to speak when I had something to say, but those earlier years of torture made me prioritise surviving at all costs. I would do anything not to repeat them; I planned on staying silent even if I was set alight.
It was a rainy winter day when I became the Snow Queen once more. Just as I was expecting a visit from the German envoy, to my surprise, my sister Lana appeared at the front door. I later found out that the gas station she worked for was robbed overnight, so they sent all employees home. I remember thinking at first, oh Lana decided to take part in my little show, so I muttered, " You have come a long way from your distant lands, my fair friend."
My sister looked at me in complete horror, her beautiful blue eyes that I loved so much kept getting bigger and bigger… until, I think, they tripled. And then she screamed out loud as if she had just seen the ghost of our late aunt Anka or, God forbid, the devil himself.
I don't even know how she managed to reach me so fast, the stairs were so steep and there were so many of them, but she ran up in a few seconds and threw herself onto me. She grabbed my thin arms so tightly that I could hear my bones rattling. I moaned in pain, while she kept yelling out threats over and over: “Take it off, you little bastard! Take that dress off!” I stood frozen, numb, the only thing I noticed was the smell of gasoline coming from her jacket. Somehow, I eventually managed to pop out of the dress and to get rid of the shoes before she noticed they were hers. And only then did I burst into tears. I cried uncontrollably as if I had lost my best friend—and in fact, I did.
Instead of trying to comfort me, Lana pushed me against the wall, so hard that I bit my tongue and started bleeding. “Wash that mouth and say nothing to Mum. Because if I tell her what I saw, you will be finished. Do you hear me, you will be finished!" she said, looking at me in disgust. What did you see, I wondered to myself? I was just making theatre. I always dreamt of being an actor! What is so wrong with that?
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong ….
As high school drew to a close, I grew reasonably comfortable with being gay, something that was made easier by the number of other gay and lesbian students and even some teachers that I was surrounded by. But what really pushed me into acceptance was a man I’ll call Sam.
Sam found me in a chat room – yeah, remember those clunky old things where conversations all began with ASL, and emailing a photo of yourself to a stranger was actually a daunting prospect? Sam was on the cusp of graduating from university with a degree in medicine. At the age of 24, he seemed otherworldly – he belonged to the outside world, after all. Sam insisted he was definitely not gay, bisexual possibly. “When I’m older, I’ll get married and have kids,” he told me as if this was just something seasonal that would pass with time, a winter flu. He wanted to know where I went to school. “Thought you might have gone to a private school,” he lamented. “The boys there all have such good bodies.”
It’s hard now to convey without cynicism just how much Sam shook the breath from my lungs and made me feel like the most special person in the world. I sent him one or two photos of me – all I had since I didn’t own a scanner and had to rely on a friend to do it for me. “So handsome,” he said. I panicked, briefly, that he had meant that message for someone else. He didn’t. Later that day I left the house, walking as though I had wings. At almost 18 years old, no one had ever called me anything other than nerd, freak or worse. Much worse.
But there was a catch – there always is. I had to admit, as it wasn’t so clear in the photos, that I had braces. “That could be a problem,” Sam replied. Sam was sporty and very, very manly. My friend and I looked at his profile. “I enjoy surfing, sailing, football, tennis, cricket, running and so on,” he wrote. My friend erupted into laughter. “Oh, come on,” he said. “He might be hot, but no one plays that many sports.” (break)
Sam oozed masculinity: his rugged, unshaven face was a rich forest; he had a healthy head of night time sky that I wanted to drown inside. But even someone as smart as him could not entirely strike that most delicate balance between natural and forced. Perhaps if I wasn’t so interested in words and language, it might not have been clear how much effort he’d put in to cultivating his masculinity. If Sam had to rely on chat rooms to prove his manliness, he’d let the words clash and echo with their rank power: Ah ‘k, reckon tonight’s gunna be a big one, aye? to give just one example. In my loosest imaginings, I’d always seen myself falling in love with someone at least a bit like me: someone who spoke in poetry, liked writing or the arts, someone gentle who didn’t raise their voice. Someone nothing like Sam.
One day Sam announced that he was coming to the area I lived to visit a friend. There was no suggestion of us meeting, and I was glad of this. I’d need at least one month’s notice to get myself into a half-way acceptable shape. I was only half-joking when I mentioned plastic surgery to a friend. That night, I collapsed on my bed, aching with longing and barely able to move from the fearful knowledge that the man I had fallen for was twenty minutes away from me. (pause) It meant he was real. (pause) That was when I first started to realise, no matter what I did or said, I was always going to be me, not a version of Sam.
Yes, my sister was my best and actually my only, friend. We shared a room and a bunk bed since I was born. I knew all her secrets and daydreamed about all of her boyfriends. Thirty years later it still makes no sense. When I eventually came out to my family, I asked Lana whether she still remembered that day.
“I beat you? What are you talking about? I always knew you were gay. Since you were little. I never minded.”
She doesn't remember something that has fucked up much of my life. How can that be? Lana says she doesn’t mind me being gay, yet she still talks to my mum about my sexuality as if it was an illicit substance.
That was the last day that the Snow Queen came out on the stage of my staircase. The closet in which I left the brown dress that morning was shut forever. At least I never dared to open it again. Instead, I spent hours in the silence of my room in front of the mirror, often observing my movements and listening to the tone of my voice, which suddenly sounded strange and twisted. I practised how to move my wrist, so it didn’t hang loosely, how to walk without wiggling, how to sound confident and act like a bro. When I finally started school, I realized that my sister was not the only one who believed that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
My schoolmates bullied me, calling me sissy because I wouldn't take part in sports. Once they rubbed Tiger Balm for pain into my eyes. I cried walking back home but never said a thing to mum or anyone else. The burning was nowhere near as strong as the shame I felt. But why? What was so wrong with me? Why don't they just leave me alone?
A few years later, I took the entrance exam for an acting course. I still loved theatre and kept performing in amateur productions, though I only ever played exclusively male roles. I walked out before a five-member committee and recited a well-known national poem, to which one of the members commented: “He has this beautiful, thick, mature male voice.” God… I wanted to hug him, throw myself at his feet and kiss his shoes. He did not notice. I managed to trick him. No one noticed my little secret.
MJ: When high school finished forever, I stayed in my room dreaming up stories or dreaming about characters I’d met in books; Sam went on a sailing trip and called in to Schoolies, the week-long end-of-year rite of passage celebration for school-leavers that was my idea of hell. Apparently, a few boys there had made eyes at him, and it pained him not to have a hotel to take them back to. I was starting to let go, but the untangling was not always so straight forward.
Six months later when I was at university, Sam and I met in the city. We had lunch then he mumbled an excuse about leaving. All up, I got maybe twenty minutes of his time, 10 of which were the time it took for his meal to be prepared before he blocked me and disappeared. I once spotted him in a chat room and asked why I never saw him online, though I very much knew the answer. My email’s broken, he wrote. Anyway, gotta go. (pause) The good news was that I didn’t beat myself up over it like I once would, but given his preference for boys still in high school, I do wonder how someone not in university with educated friends might have taken this. Was my voice to blame? The way I walked? Or did it all end when I flashed him my offending braces? I’ll never know.
(break, sip water) Even today, in my thirties, there are times when I am still not completely comfortable with my voice. If my phone rings in public, I always do a risk assessment of who is in my immediate surroundings before answering. In job interviews, I wonder if this will be the end of my chances, the fateful second I speak, though at least I live in a city where I am less an oddity, and – honestly – the days I worry are growing fewer and fewer. Would I now, in my thirties, still trade places with Ariel? Only if it meant living the ocean forever; I’ve always liked the idea of being a pelagic person.
Funnily enough, I came across Sam on apps a while ago. The most surprising thing of all was seeing that, according to his profile, more than 15 years after we first chatted, he’s remained a very modest 30 years old and is looking for dates with men in their early twenties. I had to smile, remembering that teenage boy in braces looking for a saviour behind a computer screen. He might not have ever met the masculine ideal, but he wasn’t the one living a lie.
I didn't even know how much the harassment I experienced as a feminine boy in wartime Bosnia had left me deeply wounded, covered in scars. It wasn't until I started dating men that I realized that I was still that seven-year-old boy lying on the cold stairs of my home with his mouth bleeding. Terrified and full of self-loathing. “I don't do feminine guys”, I said once in a conversation with friends, “if I wanted to date women, I would be straight”. I built this crazy system of preselection that would allow me to distinguish whether the guy was more masculine or feminine. I called it a fem-trap. If I suspected the guy was “girly”, I would ask him to send me a couple of photos, or to call me. If he didn’t want to call, I told him to at least leave a voice message. If it turned out that his voice was “soft”, I would immediately think of a way not to meet him in person or expedite the now-famous transition from a romance into a friendship. It took me almost a decade of hard work with my therapist Ben to finally learn to accept and love myself, my vulnerable, gentle, soft-voiced self.
In the stillness of the night, the snow queen often visits me in my dreams. Beautiful and innocent she slithers into the brown dress like a snake shedding its skin. We both laugh like two kids who just got caught with their hands stuck in the cookie jar.
“Before we part,” I say while giving her a hug “I want you to know something. Don’t let anyone keep you from playing”.
She licks blood off her lips, pulls up her dress, puts on the shoes and slowly walks up to the throne. When she finally arrives to top, she turns and looks at me for a moment. She nods, closes her eyes and whispers: “I do belong here.”