I held the doll in my hand and sniffed her hair. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “This smells great. I wonder what the other one smells like?” My little cousin had left her Strawberry-shortcake dolls unattended while she ran off to the other room. I had heard that they had fruity scents, so I thought I’d take a whiff while I had a chance. Just as I picked up one of the other dolls, a male family member stepped into the room and stopped me. “What are doing with the doll John?”, I heard him say. I remember getting ready to apologize for touching my cousin’s toys without permission. However, I was never given a chance to. “Dolls are for girls! You aren’t supposed to play with those!”, he shouted, “Are you a girl?” “No”, I answered, in a confused voice. “No!”, he said, “you are a boy! Don’t you ever play with girl toys! Do you understand what I just said?” I nodded my head acknowledging that I understood. However, I didn’t understand. I was only five-years-old at the time. I was clueless as to what I had done wrong. I didn’t want to play with no stinking doll. All I wanted to do was smell it. The only thing I knew is that I didn’t like this conversation, I felt shame, I was sad, I wanted to leave and go home. I wanted to pretend like this had never happened. I suddenly hated Strawberry-shortcake. I hated girl’s toys. I hated grown-up men. Nevertheless, despite my confusion, in my innocence I understood that this man had an expectation of what boys should be like, and I wasn’t meeting up to his standard.
Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to fit the expectations of others…. especially when it comes to masculinity. The memory that I just shared is the very first recollection of this struggle. However, I began to lose trust in “grown-up” men before I was even old enough to attend school. I imagine that most children look at the men that surround them and identify one that they would like to be like someday. I, on the other hand, looked around me and saw everything that I didn’t want to be. Unbeknownst to my father, several of his friends ruined the innocence of my childhood. This experience left me scarred and untrusting of most men. This caused me to rather spend time either alone, with female friends, or with my mother. I had a few male friends, who are still my friends to this very day. However, I just didn’t feel safe around most boys or men.
To cope with what had happened, I created an imaginary world where no one could hurt me. Every chance I could get, I would walk around the family farm to escape to this place. Most of the times I’d carry a stick. In my imaginary world, my stick was magic, and could ward off evil. However, it wasn’t long before another relative told me that a group of relatives (men) would sit around, drinking, and make fun of me and my stick. “Boys, don’t swing around a stick,” I was told. Once again, I failed to measure up to someone’s standard of masculinity. My stick made me feel safe. Yet, I reluctantly put it away to avoid being made fun of. I surrendered to pain, in order to fulfill someone else’s expectations of me.
As I grew older, my struggle to fit into the societal norm of masculinity continued. To my father’s disappointment, I failed miserably at learning the art of farming, mechanics, and basic home repair. Much to his dismay, I excelled in academics, cooking, music, singing, and theatre. He often would make comments attempting to inspire me to try harder at meeting his expectations. However, I never felt inspired. Instead I felt rejected. Thankfully, sports were a waste of time to him. Otherwise, I would have added more to his disappointment. I know he was trying his best. However, he had no clue how to relate to me. I was so different than my brothers. It had to have been hard for him too.
During my teen years I decided to follow Jesus. This was the best decision that I ever made. I finally felt like someone understood me. During the first year of my Christian journey, a preacher challenged me to daily spend thirty-minutes, alone with God, in prayer. I took this challenge to heart. Many times, during prayer, I would find myself asking God to help me be the man that He created me to be. Sure enough, God answered. Finally, I began to gain confidence in who I was. I also began to let down walls of resentment that I had built around me. I finally felt valued and appreciated. However, this was only the start of my journey. I’d still have to work through the trauma that I experienced in my childhood.
Right before I turned twenty, the reality of my childhood hit me full-force. I wasn’t prepared to fight it, nor did I know how. I quickly slipped into depression and constantly questioned my reason for living. Thankfully, right as I was planning to act on my feelings, God intervened. The process that I went through is way too long to include in this post (Perhaps I will share it later). But what you should know is that God, once again, met me where I was at, healed my heart, and gave me a reason to live.
This new experience left me ecstatic. I wanted to share the hope I found with everyone that I could. I thought the best place to do this would be at church. The church, I was raised in, always gave opportunity for people to sing and share their testimony. I thought this would be great time to share what God had done for me, so I did. The sharing of my testimony was received well by the congregation. Many people, young and old, came to me and began to share similar stories. I could sense that most of them were sincerely seeking healing and hope from their past. However, shortly afterwards, I was called to the pastor’s office. “John, you can’t be sharing stories like this with everybody.”, he said. “Men, don’t talk about things like this. People might get the wrong idea about you.” Once again, I failed to meet the standard of masculinity of another person.
I wish I could tell you that this ended there. However, this has been a repeated story in my life. At the age of 21, and not yet married, I became a treatment foster care parent in the State of New Mexico. This type of foster-parenting is not for the faint-hearted. Instead, it was a full-time job that required a great deal of attention. At times, it felt like I was running a rehabilitation center out of my very own home. And as expected, this didn’t fit the gender-role expectations of one of my former pastors. Although, I had left his denomination by this time, he chose to write letters to the pastors throughout the state of New Mexico, instructing them to not accept me into their congregations. He reasoned that I was attempting to start a family in an unnatural way (that was a new concept for me, especially since my placements were court ordered to treatment, not available for adoption, and it was my primary source of employment. [SMH]). Apparently his cultural expectations did not have room for the good will of someone who was trying to improve society.
I wish I could tell you that I have managed to escape the criticism and opinionated judgement of others. Sadly, once in a while someone interjects an unsolicited opinion of their expectation….
Anyhow, this is what I’ve learned throughout this journey.
- No one, other than God, has the right to define what masculinity looks like.
For years, I gave people the power to define masculinity for me. This confused the heck out of me. Truth is, I’ve been given an example of who I want to model my life after…. His name is Jesus. Anything short of that misses the mark of excellence, in fact, it’s people pleasing… and I’m so done with that.
- I am 100% comfortable being me.
I’ve come to terms that I absolutely suck (yes, I used the word “suck”) at sports, mechanic work, and fixing things. However, there are hundreds of other things that I’m good at, and that I’ve love doing. God is so good too… He blessed me with an amazing wife who embraces my love of the kitchen. She hates cooking and she was blessed with the talent to have her own home remodel show on HGTV (God sure does have a sense of humor). Truth is, I love being me, and I refuse to be embarrassed of who I am.
- I refuse to be part of any organized group of people that holds an archaic and unbiblical worldview that oppresses others.
At the age of twenty-one, I chose to walk away from the fellowship that I was born into. This was one of the hardest decisions that I made. For years, I felt unworthy to even breathe without being judged. I’ve learned that I know where my faith resides, and it’s definitely not in the opinion of others. I’m grateful that I have a timeless manuscript to guide me when I have questions. I’m super-grateful that God has surrounded me with an amazing group of people that I can worship God freely with now….. and sometimes I do stupid stuff, but just like Jesus, they love me anyhow.
John Eli Garay
John Eli has spent over 15 years mentoring and coaching individuals in life skills, career transitions, and through organizational change. His resume includes pastoral care, behavioral health, and higher-education advising. From an early age, John recognized that God created him to bring hope, healing and encouragement to others. He is currently walking out his purpose by helping others confront, and work through, self-inflicted trauma. His ministry includes blogging, speaking, and personal development coaching. He currently lives in Chandler, Arizona with his wife, mini-schnauzer and an antique piano whom he calls, “Betty.”