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How to Be a Guy: What I Learned From Dad

I interviewed my father about what it’s like parenting a trans kid

My dad is a gentle, silly guy. He grew up in Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s, in a Jewish family, with fairly chill parents and a grandfather who never forgave him for not becoming a rabbi. He cries at Disney movies, watches football with classical music as a soundtrack, has a prodigious collection of opera DVDs and once delivered a Florida Philosophical Association presidential address in blank verse. He can juggle up to four balls and sing most of the works of Tom Lehrer from memory, which was how he used to keep me entertained during long drives when I was very small.

At work, my dad is a philosophy professor, the sort of kind but profoundly eccentric figure who quickly becomes the stuff of campus myth—even at a small liberal arts college that is itself notorious for eccentricity.

At home, he’s always been one of my most influential role models for what it means to be a good man. He’s brilliant, thoughtful, compassionate — and very much himself in ways that significantly supersede gender roles and social expectations.

But what I’ve learned directly from my dad about being a guy has leaned heavily in the direction of theory. My mom taught me to use power tools, but my dad is the one who sends me links to articles about gender and language, who taught me the word “performativity” long before the cool kids started using it online.

In February, when I was visiting home for the first time since my top surgery just over a year before, my dad Aron and I sat down for an hour to talk about gender, transition and manhood.

Very early on, around when I first came out, you mentioned that it felt like kind of a vindication of how you’d approached gender when you were raising me. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
The idea that identified sex or gender should place limitations on what’s possible or considered appropriate or attractive or valued in someone beyond pure physical limitations — the idea that that should have a significance beyond that just seems fundamentally bizarre to me. It’s incredibly deeply built into, as far as I know, every society there’s ever been, and it still seems deeply bizarre to me. I don’t see it at all.

And my sense is that your mom very much feels the same, and that was a central element to how we thought about bringing you up. We had no desire to make your gender a determining factor … and we also knew that we were pushing against social messages and cues, which were going to try to push you around on the basis of your gender. … And it seems to have taken, which is nice!

It really does, yeah. To what extend did you identify with the gender roles you encountered growing up?
I sort of remember in middle school having attitudes about this stuff that were very different than what I ultimately grew up with. But I think mostly in my case, the sort of path I’ve taken, the things I’ve done professionally, the sort of hobbies and interests that I have and so forth, aren’t remotely what you’d list if you were making a list of sort of, “What does a real man do?”

I feel like ping-pong and juggling are both pretty gender-agnostic.
No! But let me finish the thought. If you say, “What’s a real man’s profession?” professor isn’t going to be one of them; but when I was growing up, overwhelmingly most professors were men. It was one way of being a man. It wasn’t the sort of quintessential He-Man way of being a man, but it was one.

What you’re saying reminds me a of something that comes up in a lot of discussions about Judaism and transmasculinity — that a lot of what identifying as male means in a Jewish community is different from how those things are stereotyped in our culture at large. That Jewish masculinity has more to do with academic engagement and social responsibility and less to do with performative machismo. How does that line up with your experience?
Being a scholar is sort of traditionally the highest-status thing a man can do in Jewish contexts, which probably connects up a lot, for example, to the way my folks thought about what was important. So when you come from a background in which the highest-status man is the rabbi, and status even among rabbis often has a lot to do with scholarly accomplishment, and that’s the direction that you want to go — not rabbinical, and that has its own issues, right?

I think I had a very not-traumatic childhood, but one of the painful things I remember was my father’s father upbraiding me because I wasn’t interested in becoming a rabbi. But, y’know, still, focusing my sense of myself on doing well in school and eventually sort of developing intellectually and pursuing an academic career probably was even less a source of gender-related friction for me than for someone whose religious background doesn’t have that feature.

You’ve generally been the person who was ahead of me on the semantics curve, even through transition. I remember, specifically, that when I was using neutral pronouns exclusively, you were the only person who specifically asked if you could use one other than “they” and “them,” and had a list on hand.
Yeah. I don’t know when I first sort of saw the lists of various neutral pronouns that people had come up with, but again, it sort of feels like a long time ago. … In terms of trans identities, I think New College students were ahead of me. …I sort of think of New College as being at least close to the vanguard among colleges and universities, but colleges and universities as very much at the vanguard in society generally, with respect to the sort of sophistication of thought and evolution of moral categories and so on connected with trans identities. …. And it’s shocking to what extent that hasn’t reached the larger culture [outside of academia]. The instance of that which was most shocking to me was how profoundly unaware of trans issues and the range of trans identities and stuff [two family friends who are therapists] were when we first started talking to them about your transition. I think one of them said he didn’t realize there was such a thing as trans men. It was stunning. And that’s a mental health professional.

And a relatively progressive one!
Yeah! And it’s in Sarasota rather than New York, but it really shocked me.

So, I want to veer back to the personal a bit. Popular myth is that you’re supposed to learn to be a man from your dad. And I feel like — I mean, in terms of the things you’ve talked about with regards to just kind of not having gender define your interests, I have, to a great extent. A lot of the skills and vectors of identity that are more central to who I am than gender are things that I picked up from you. But my question — and this is sort of an involved one — is: What would your specific advice be in terms of the official subject of the column I’m doing this interview for, “How to be a guy”?

It’s really sort of tricky.

On one hand, what I want to say is, “Do the things you want to do, and if you’re a man, that’s being a man.” The idea that it’s better to do things one way when you’re a man because you’re a man, that that should be a part of decisions and senses of possibility and so on, still seems bizarre and sort of soul-crushing to me, and I don’t like it, and I don’t want it.

The place where that sort of stops is in terms of recognizing that you’re in a privileged position, and dealing with that. There are decisions that you have to make by way of dealing with privilege. But that’s going to apply to trans men in ways which are so different than the ways it applies in my experience that I’m not sure how to begin to think about that. So, I’ve got nothing useful to offer in that regard.