My struggle to define masculinity

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.

Unapologetically yours,

John Eli Garay

John Eli is a transformational life coach who has spent over 15 years mentoring 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, any negative self-talk that keeps them from living life to the fullest. 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.”

To schedule a coaching session with John Eli click here.

Published by John Eli

I am a self-awareness coach (coach for humans), life strategist, blogger and speaker. I’ve spent over 21 years mentoring individuals in life skills, career transitions, relationships, and life recovery. My resume includes pastoral care, behavioral health, and higher education. From an early age, I realized that God created me to bring hope, healing and encouragement to others. I am currently living out my purpose by creating a space where people can rediscover and become all that they were created to be. I currently live in the beautiful state of Arizona with my wife, two dogs, and an antique piano whom I call, “Betty.”

61 thoughts on “My struggle to define masculinity

  1. Holy shit, Primo! Once again I feel like I am reading a chapter out of my own life story. I’m sorry that we grew up so close to each other, yet so far away!

    I can’t ever begin to explain how much your posts have meant to me. If you were here, I’d grab you, hug you, and cry with you like REAL f%&#ing men!

    Thank you for allowing me to finally feel okay with myself. After over 40 years on this earth, and my own struggles with masculinity, I’ve come to believe that there is no stronger man than one who is willing to make himself vulnerable and show his “weakness”. If I could start my own life over and pick someone to model my own life after, it would be YOU! You are by far the epitome of my idea of what a “man” is!

    I love you more than you will ever know!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gee primo. I just got done sharing my struggles with defining masculinity, and then you got to go and make me ugly cry. But honestly, I’m so blessed that God has placed you not just in my family, but in my life. I no longer fret over what I didn’t have in the past, what matters is what I have now. .. I consider it a divine blessing that we have reconnected in the manner in which we have. I used to look forward to seeing Marcie cause she understood me and would let me cry with her. Looks like she sent you to me to help me move forward during this next season of life. Love you more than you know. Bendiciones!


  2. I love what God is doing in and through you, John. There are men and women who need to hear your story and your journey. You are a wondrously created and fashioned Man of God. Love you Hermanito!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your transparency and sincerity are such a blessing. Thank you for the reminder that it is not just okay to be who we are but it is a necessity. We live in a world that makes it very hard, if not impossible, for anyone to feel comfortable in their own skin. I know I have spent my entire life trying to figure out who I am and not just who other people think I am or who I should be. I wish I could say that I am the same person no matter who is around but I would be lying. I will say that I strive to be and that by the grace and mercy of God I am getting closer. Love you brother . Blessings to you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always thought very highly of you growing up and feel very sad for those that missed out on what a wonderful person you are due to this closed mined ideology. This was wonderfully written!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. John, you are an eloquent writer. I am so proud of you and sharing your story. Growing up around you I never would have thought you struggled with anything. You always inspired me to be a better person. You are one of those people that I always think about and am so grateful to know. You have always lived from your heart and I think everyone can learn a lot from you. Love you always my friend!! Keep up the inspiration!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shauna. I got all teared up when I saw your comment. You have no idea how much I value you as a person and friend. Twenty-three years ago, we had a conversation while we were visiting the nation’s capital. That conversation gave me the courage to begin to face everything that had happened to me. I’m forever indebted to you for that. I know that your friendship was nothing more that a divine gift from up above. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. Much love and blessings. 🙂


  6. Thank you for sharing you! Lord bless you! Keep keeping Him first! God is worth it all…and once again another life touched by Christ Himself in you!! God bless you and keep writing!!! 👑🙌

    Liked by 1 person

      1. A couple months ago I finished up a Bible study/counseling with a young lady. We walked through Emotionally Destructive Relationships by Vernick. WOW!!! What a book! I am in the process of re-reading it. An eye opener of a book. Love that she uses Scripture throughout the book as well. I am looking forward to reading more of her books. She also has a Facebook page.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post by a great writer! Sad how you were treated, but thank God He drew you to Himself and you were empowered to rise above all that.
    Now, look at the way society is going, where the sexes are harder to distinguish and gender differences are merging into some kind of gender-neutral version of the males and females God created in His image.🤔😒


  8. John—
    Man! Hit the ball out of the park. Thank you for this post. You have a gracious way of writing. It’s sad and true and a bummer that the church can be such a place of judgment and not grace. Been trying to change that for years. I loved the freedom you’ve found and authenticity you’ve embraced. Cooking has always been a soul-blessing activity as well. And I played with dolls frequently with friends who lived down the street but no one really knew I don’t think. The harsh words and confusion about masculinity came from many other voices. Took years unraveling the threads. But the freedom found in jesus- amen. It was a long journey for me and some days I’m still needing unraveling. Thanks bro for your honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving words of encouragement. I’m a work in progress, but so grateful for the grace of God. Blessings to you. 👍👊💥


  9. Hi John, I’m so glad you got to share your story on here. thanks for your honesty. you’re right – nobody has the right to define masculinity and tell you what you should and shouldn’t be interested in. So many adults ruin the lives of children! I hope you can continue to share your story with others and help those wanting to know Jesus personally realise that he accepts us just as we are. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I loved this post, it’s a story that I and many other men can relate to. Even in this day and age the youth are being raised with such strict expectations of what I consider to be a toxic type of masculinity, that you have to grow into a certain set of guidelines or else you’re labeled as less of a man. Your story of faith and personal growth inspires me, I wish the best of luck to you on the rest of your journey through life and I hope you have the opportunity to keep sharing these stories and reaching out to others in situations like yours

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi, br J., your blog post took me down memory lane. I was in similar situations growing up. Thanks for sharing your story. I really appreciate your authenticity and honestly. Looking forward to more blog post. God bless

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by. This is something that I continue to work through and share with others. I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this specific journey. Blessings to you bro.


  12. John, that’s amazing testimony. I can relate to the girl toys, the disinterest in things considered masculine such as sports, mechanics, hunting. I found peace when I finally accepted God’s version of masculinity. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The church certainly fails at many levels with many people time and again. What a story. John — how rich and wonderfully beautiful you have turned out through all those tough experiences. That opening story caught my heart. I’ve been on the other end of the same as well! Jesus does know how to speak identity into our hearts. Thanks for this honest sharing of who you are! Grace to you brother. Brian

    Liked by 1 person

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