Manliness, and the Difficulty of ‘I’

 | Mon 19 Aug 2013 15:54 ICT

They in the other room asked me to write something “manly” for the magazine next month as Citylife has been written by mostly female staff and nubile interns for the good part of two years.

That should be easy, I thought. Men like football and porn. Women like shopping and crying when the dog dies in the movie. I could write about that.

I’m a man, if I’m anything at all, I’m a man.

It’s the essential ingredient of ‘me’, manliness. It’s the first thing I fill out on the form. SEX: M F

You only get two choices.

In Thailand there’s the notion of a third sex. The katoey, or transgender person. They’re not taken seriously, though. If they were there would be a third option on the form.

Are some men manlier than others? Maybe there should be a scale on the form. My guess is I’m about 70% man.

You’re either born with a miniscule elephant trunk pinned to the bottom half of your torso, or you have a slot between your legs. This at least clears up some of the confusion when girls will be boys and boys will be girls.

But the sexual and reproductive organs do not completely define our sexuality. There are feminine men, and masculine women. There are butch homosexuals dividing their time between the rugby field and the closet, and there are pansies busting bed springs with their skinny knees most nights of the week. The trunk (fuel vessel) or the slot (receptacle and vessel), lays much of the foundation before ‘you’ start designing your own personality, nonetheless sexuality is a complicated matter. A grey area.

My brother is a woman. He was born with a little trunk, but that didn’t stop him becoming a little girl.

My brother, sister, was always nurse to the doctor. I was always ‘Mick’ the patient. I thought Mick sounded manly. Too many people said I looked like a girl (much to my brother’s chagrin!)

He was fond of dolls, doing cart wheels and hanging out with the girls. It was a trying experience for two old-school parents – the children of tired Yorkshire miners – who called him ‘Mary-Anne and ‘sissy boy’ before they realized names weren’t going to hurt or change him.

The ‘grey area’ is where I feel I’ve spent most of my life. Nothing was as it seemed in our house.

I was born Shaun Michael Alison. I was Shaun until I was about one year old. After that people started calling me James Austin Farrell. This changeover I don’t think went down quite as fluidly as it might have looked to my new owners who hoped I hadn’t noticed a thing. It was confusing. It still is confusing. Who did I leave behind? What happened to Shaun?

My brother, big sister, he was born Philip or something like that, I can’t remember. He was introduced to me as Craig. Craig Simeon Farrell. Philip the boy, became Craig the girl, who is now Angel, a woman.

We both looked like girls in our teens, when we went in search of our (separate) birth mothers. Had we have stayed with them we might now be celebrating Thanksgiving and sporting the Stars and Stripes on our backpacks. We’d have American accents, like our half-sisters. I found my mother and she kept calling me Shaun. This was confusing. It felt as if another boy were growing roots in my shoes. It was the start of a great identity complex that I have come to cherish in spite of the anxiety it has caused me, and perhaps the reason I like the relativist philosophers from Heraclitus to Richard Rorty. The “truth” is dead seemed like a fine concept to me. It sat with my shape-shifting ideals perfectly. “Doesn’t Shaun have nice hair”, my new mother told my new uncles and aunties who crowded around me and made me feel something like I imagine ET felt when he was being introduced to the new kids. If LSD in those days had given me sight of another dimension, being Shaun unveiled many more down to earth strange possibilities. I’d get on the bus home and be confused as a girl, and then when I arrived home late James would get the bollocking (telling off if you don’t speak colloquial UK).  

Am I qualified to write about manliness? No, not really. I’m not even qualified to write about James.

I like this grey area though. I have learned from the doubt and the humility it causes me. Hubris is like mankind’s suspect device, it’s liable to blow-up in your face. The surer you are, the more wrong you’ll be.

Living in Thailand I’ve enjoyed the fact there’s a perceived distance between M and F.  It doesn’t mean there’s an absence of sexual discrimination or gay-hate, but it does mean for the most part more tolerance towards sexual minorities.

Why would anyone be intolerant towards sexuality? In rational terms it makes no sense to me. Therefore I have come to believe that the anger is a proxy for deeper hidden discontent. Grey area. I quoted Slavoj Žižek in an editorial not long ago where he said that ‘religious wars’ were waged by people whose lives were beleaguered because of economic and social inequities. I might have said the same about the guys and girls who used to bully my brother from time to time.

Living with my sister, having Shaun, this ghost of me living somewhere, has taught me tolerance. I can’t take myself too seriously (even if this piece is admittedly self-indulgent). I could have been someone else, with different ideas, principles. I could have been many people, if you believe that we are determined by our experience as well as our genes. Is it nature or nurture? It’s both obviously. I think adopted kids have a heightened awareness of this dichotomy. Many scientists now call it a false dichotomy, but that’s another story.

“If you don’t bend, you’ll get broken”.

As you may have read I’m not keen on the idea of Thainess, or national identity, or religious fervor, or political intolerance. I am very keen on the Buddhist conception of malleability, constant change, flux, transcendence. You can’t step in the same river twice! You have to adjust to the constant changes around you or you become a kind of rusted relic anchored to the bottom of a beautiful ever-changing ocean of experience.

Our beliefs become our identity, so when we hold fast to those beliefs whether they relate to politics, sexuality, or East Vs West coast rap music, we run the risk of becoming one dimensional, fractious, and perhaps even bigoted. We undermine our own progress and in doing so progress of society. What did Boethius say, “Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope.” I think we must always be ready to shed new skin, and from time we must gladly accept that we have to lose a few faces.

From mortal embarrassment my father accepted his unique family, and after some time he wasn’t at all perturbed by walking around Tescos with a tranny at one side and little scruffy hippy at his other side. The man transcended.  

I am a man, but that’s just the beginning of a story, a constantly shifting narrative.

My principles are curious I hope, and they’re also changeable. Just as truth is re-definable.

My body is not my temple, it’s my taxi.

Angel told me a while ago that she doesn’t even like to “compartmentalize” sexuality, rather just get on with life the best way he/she can. A lot of people still don’t like Angel for various reasons, but she’s not bitter. She’s tolerant, and I hope, perhaps not an exception, but part of an enlightened, complex mass.

As for the photo. My mother dressed me in girl’s sandals and an outfit that cut into my baby flab. I became not a nationalist, but an individualist. My brother is an atheist, although he doesn’t mind a dress.

James Austin Farrell