Friend and former Radio Harvester guest Cindy Crabb just put out this really cool zine about conceptions of masculinity and she interviewed me for it and I'm really honored to be included and also stoked that it's finally out and I can share it. I think these kinds of conversations are super important and I feel really lucky to have been given the forum to have one publicly.
I haven't read the zine yet. I literally just got it from my mailbox and texted Cindy like, "OMG YR ZINE IS BEAUTIFUL CAN I PUT MY INTERVIEW ON MY BLOG?!!?!!?," but I'm sure the other interviews are great. You should pick up a copy of it if you're interested. Cindy says she'll have it up on her distro website by Monday, so go buy it and other zines she's made and other zines she sells because she's amazing.
Anyway, here's the interview:
Cindy: What was masculinity like growing up?
Colin: I have a really contentious relationship with my
masculinity, so I like the idea of this project. I wish there had been more
resources like this when I was younger.
I grew up in a fairly affluent
suburb of NYC, with a diverse public school. I didn't think about masculinity
much when I was very young, but when I was a teenager, it got tied up with my
substance abuse history in a really intense way. I started getting fucked up
all the time when I was about 15, just smoking weed all day, and then when I was like 19 I started drinking all the
A lot of the social and societal
discomforts I was medicating by being fucked up was this anxiety I felt around
gender, masculinity, my masculinity, how to perform masculinity. I've been off booze for about two and a half years now. When
I was 28, I quit drinking.
Cindy: What kind of messages about masculinity were you
Colin: I didn't play sports growing up, and that wasn't
something that was made a priority. I remember my Dad got me a baseball mitt,
and I never wanted to use it. And I remember one day telling him, "I'm
never going to want to play catch with you." He was basically relieved
because he didn’t want to play catch either, so being athletic wasn’t a
paradigm that I had to butt up against at home, though I still do have anxiety
around playing sports even now based on how unpleasant I found the mandatory,
gender-segregated ballgames in school when I was a kid.
drove a cab and didn't take shit, but he was in general pretty low-key. His father was incredibly unavailable. I
think about masculinity a lot in the frame of how it's been passed down through
generations, and how the previous generations inform the version of masculinity
today that's being put on me.
Grunge was a
huge thing when I was a little kid. I read about Kurt Corbain, read the liner
notes for Incesticide where he pretty
explicitly calls out bro culture and toxic masculinity in a way that, looking
back, was super radical for something so mainstream. It just seems like the dominant
culture in the 90’s was a little more gender ambiguous in ways it hadn't been
before. Or maybe it had been like that
in the 70's with disco, I don't know.
Cindy: Yeah, it does seem to come and go. Like there was
disco and then it got more traditional, and then there was Glam, and then it
got more traditional, and then there was Grunge.
Colin: Yeah. Well, I grew my hair out super long when I was
really young. I remember being at my Grandparents 50th anniversary or
something, at this Eastern European, Jewish schlocky steak-house in the Lower East Side. I must have been 12 or
13, and my hair was down to my nipples, and I thought it was so cool. And then
this old-world waiter thought I was a girl, he addressed me with a female
pronoun, and I was so STOKED! I was like, "he doesn't know what gender
I am, this is so cool.” I thought
it was funny, and then I looked at my Dad, and he was bummed. But he wasn’t bummed that the dude had thought I was a
lady, he had long hair in the 70s and him and his cousin Luke used to always
get mistaken for women hitch-hiking. He seemed disappointed in me that I enjoyed being misgendered
and I didn't understand why. My therapist calls this sort of thing micro-aggressions.
Or like, I joined NOW when I was 13 or so, and I remember one Thanksgiving my
shitty uncle Donny saw a NOW bulletin laying on the table in the hall,
addressed to me, and he was like, “What’d you grow a vagina?” He actually said “vagina”
because he’s this weird Christian who doesn’t curse. And like, that wasn’t a
big deal, and neither was my father’s disapproval at the anniversary, but then
these little tiny things end up adding up and making a clear picture for me
that there are specific things I’m not supposed to do because I’m a guy.
I was also
really into dressing in drag when I was young. Just before and up until
puberty. I remember wearing this slinky dress with these Jackie O glasses to
see The Craft in the movie theater and I was like, 13 or so and I was scrawny
so my body itself was kind of this neutral, genderless canvas and people would
assume the gender based on the accessories, right? That’s why I was so into
Judith Butler when I found her in college, talking about gender being a
performance, because that’s how it had felt to me. And I remember at the time,
the way that I thought about it wasn’t that I was doing any sort of
transgressive gender play, what I liked was that I was tricking people. Like, I
was undercover as a different person.
And I stopped doing that around the same time as I started
getting really fucked up, which is also the same time that all the
micro-aggressions had finally crystallized into a clear picture for me of what
behaviors were off limits. Probably also around this time actual violent
reprisal for men failing to be masculine enough came into the picture too,
though none of it was directed at me. But that was on the table. Kids started
getting beat up at school for being faggots, excuse my language. It’s only now,
looking back, that I can see the correlation between when I started suppressing
all my instincts to be a gender freak and when I started mediating all my lived
experience through substances. The other thing is that getting fucked up was
like, an easy out if I acted weird.
Like, I wasn’t a failure as a man, I was just stoned. I think if the culture
had been different in regards to gender, I likely would have become female at
some point in my adolescence. I didn't do that, though, because I didn't even see
it as an option.
Colin: My introduction to punk was kind of crazy too. I
brought home a NOFX tape a friend of mine had made me, and played it for my
dad, and he gave me a copy of the first Dead
Kennedys record. And both him and my mom were really into Gang of Four.
So things that were rebellious for other people were not even remotely
rebellious for me. But then when I was 14, someone gave me the first Bikini
Kill record, and both my parents were like "What is this!?"
and were freaking out, so I'm like Ok, here's something I can use to rebel.
I finally have a thing that's not ok. So a lot of my politics when I was
young came from a very cursory understanding of feminist issues. I remember
thinking at the time that my life would have been easier if I was a girl. I had
the political understanding that navigating the world as a female-bodied person
was more difficult in a lot of ways. I didn't think it would be easier like
that, but I had this notion that it would make more sense, my life would make
more sense, if I were travelling through the world as a girl instead of a boy.
I don't know
if it's a great tragedy that I don't feel that way anymore. Because now, in
this life I have, I love my body, I love being a man in the world. I'm
fascinated by it, it's intriguing to me, it's interesting and it's fun. I like
the clothes, I like being a dude a lot, and I'm very grateful for who I
Cindy: Can you articulate more what do you find intriguing
Colin: Maybe. All of this is going to be intrinsically tied
to punk. Growing up punk in the 90's in New York was a pretty wild time for
studying masculinity. Like I would go to see Blanks 77 on a Friday night, and
see Anti-Product at ABC No Rio on Saturday, and then go see some New York Hardcore band on Sunday. And the way
I would act and dress and speak, and even my posture would change, in these
different places. It was something I did without thinking, but it was totally
different. I felt out of place at the hardcore
shows and I LOVED it. Well, I don't know if I loved it actually. Maybe I
hated it, but I kept going, so there must have been something that I was into.
Sometimes these days I describe my forays into the Sunday afternoon CBGBs
Hardcore Matinee as being motivated by wanting to witness the spectacle of male
violence, but I think that’s just me trying to seem precocious in retrospect.
Hardcore was so different from
the Peace Punk and Street Punk scenes, both of which resonated with me way more
because they were explicitly about either fighting injustice or partying, which
were two things I liked to do. The NYHC scene was these huge dudes in camo
cargo shorts, doing windmills and
beating the shit out of each other. But at the same time there was this notion
that - this is a thing that we share. This hyper-masculine bond of
the response to the masculine aggression at hardcore shows - like "you
can't do that. You have to make space for other people too." But at
the same time, some people really needed those spaces and people to get that out with and be able
to participate in violence with. Looking back on it, going to those
shows was really a way to see into a very dark place, but it was also a hopeful
place because it was clear that there was something almost therapeutic going
I don't need
that kind of catharsis, I never have, but I have known people who really did,
and most of them came from much more violent backgrounds than me, and they
needed to let it out somewhere in the world, and I think that was a really
healthy, important outlet for those people to have. I don't know where the
I guess I'm
at a place now in my 30's where I'm like -- do all places need to be
inclusive to everybody? You know. I went through a pretty unfortunate folk
punk phase in my early 20s and I didn't necessarily bring my hardcore friends
to the neck bandana housepunk shows
where I was playing a ukelele with my shirt hanging coquettishly off my
shoulder. They would feel probably just as uncomfortable and awkward as I felt
in their hyper-masculine spaces.
Cindy: I know what you mean. I had friends in the hardcore
scene - female friends, and they hated riot-girl for trying to demasculinize it
or stop the violence. They were like "these are our spaces. We need
Colin: Right! And I say this as someone who never needed
that, and who found it alienating.
remember going to see a Barbara Krueger
exhibit at the MOMA with my mother, and there was a print of some dudes fighting, and it said, "You
construct intricate rituals in order to touch the skin of other men." And
I immediately just imagined replacing that imagine with like, a pile on sing
along at a hardcore show. There’s a certain intrinsic homoeroticism to a lot of
those super-hetero, hyper-masculine spaces that I find really compelling.
I think the problem isn't really the degree of
violence in those spaces, but rather the degree of censure against those who
don't conform. And I think it’s because the participants know they’re
participating in something that could easily be construed as homoerotic, and
because masculinity is defined largely by what it’s NOT rather than what it IS,
they need to violently defend their straightness at all costs. The fact that
all these men are shirtless and sweating and touching each other is only okay
if they’re all straight, so anyone who punctures a hole in that reality is met
with violent reprisal. I think that’s very dangerous and problematic, but I
don’t think the consensual, cathartic violence of a hardcore show is bad or
wrong at all.
know, I still act differently depending on where I am. Like I went to the
junkyard the other day, and the way I talked to those guys, the way I made eye contact,
it was very different than how I would be at home or at a punk show.
I love that
in this world, there are all these spaces, and you have to learn the rules and
you have to learn to navigate them. I think that's so fascinating and
potentially this beautiful thing, where there's all these eclectic, different
ways for people to see each other. I don't know. But obviously, there's the
same problem, the censure of people who don't conform, which is actually super
in high school I was at band practice and I was like "why don't you
wear earplugs," and my bandmate was like "only pussies wear
earplugs." Neither of us were “like
that,” but he said it because it seemed like a tough-guy thing to say, and I
And I don't
want that. That's not positive for anyone.
Cindy: How did you make the transformation from
self-medicating around issues of masculinity and gender, to the kind of
acceptance and celebration of who you are today?
think that happened largely via my sobriety, which it took me a few years to
even realize was something I wanted. In 2008 a really good friend of mine died.
At the funeral, I couldn’t cry. Like, I went and I looked at his body in the
casket and I had written him a little note and I slipped it in his shirt pocket
and I wanted to cry so bad but I couldn’t. And then someone asked me if I
wanted to go get a drink at the bar across the street and I had about 8 drinks
in 40 minutes and when I got back inside it was like I had found the key to
access my caged up emotions, and I was able to cry and it felt so good! That’s
another thing about masculinity, the idea that we can’t be outwardly emotional.
There’s just this idea that we’re not emotional, we take care of shit, not
having any problems, not letting the little shit get to you. You know what I
mean? Some of those things are good things, but taken to these extremes,
to the funeral from all over. On trains from Seattle, from places all across
the country and across the world, like this huge dirtbag convention. Everybody
was shitfaced. I went to a show that night at a bar that he used to work at.
They were sad too, the bartenders, so no one had to pay for a single drink. Everyone
was WASTED and people were weeping and punching out windows and freaking out,
and I had this moment of clarity where I was like “Ok, our friend died from overpartying.” He had struggled with
addiction for as long as I had known him. And the collective, community
response to that was to just blot it out I guess, but like, this did not feel
died in my community before, but there was something about this death that
really hit home for a lot of people. For me, prior to this moment, being fucked up and never having
a job and not giving a shit and rejecting capitalism and rejection of the
shitty fucked up world was all tied up with getting super fucked up and
being like “We don’t care about tomorrow
we care about right now!” and like
“We’re gonna live our lives how we want it, when we want it!” After my
friend died, it stopped feeling like a life-affirming thing and just felt like
we were all waiting in line to be dead.
I think at
first it had been a healthy outlet, but it turned from like this beautiful
thing to this totally nihilistic thing. I never correlated the two till I was reading old
journals a few years later, but I took my first ever “sober week” a few days
after the funeral. It was actually like 5 days, and I was eating pills the
whole time. But I didn’t drink! It was a big deal. I’d toyed with
sobriety, I’d stop for a few days, just smoke weed. After the sober week
eventually I stopped for 3 months, and then I stopped entirely.
until I stopped that I even could pinpoint my reasons for wanting to just dull myself all the time.
I didn’t have an understanding that I had these deep-seated gender anxieties, and
that I had dealt with them by self-medicating. Also like, whatever masculine traits I felt
I was not achieving, I knew what I did have was I could get so fucked up and
still more or less take care of shit, and at least that was like, a solid,
masculine quality. Like, I may look like a wuss, but I WILL outdrink you.
end of my drinking I had started this relationship with my current partner, and
I just acted really shady to her and a lot of it was centered around how deep
in it I was with booze. I
had been doing Support New York since waaaaay before I got sober, and all of a
sudden I was doing processes for people who had done things that were similar
to what I was doing in my own relationship in terms of being manipulative and
untrustworthy. I realized this was super problematic, but didn’t do
anything about it until my partner brought things to a head in this really
intense way that I kind of forced her into via my own inaction, which just
compounds the unfairness of the situation. Not only was I the architect of this
heinous dynamic, but I was also leaving her responsible for dismantling it.
I think my shitty behavior in
that relationship was
rooted deeply in my alcoholism for sure, but equally in my masculine identity
and socialization. A lot of it was about intentionally not being aware of what
my emotions were because I didn’t want to deal with them. Making decisions that
would affect my partner without her input, because I was a man and I could
figure out what was best. Seeing that behavior in myself, realizing I was
capable of it, that really made me want to quit booze forever because I could
see how much pain I was putting my partner through and I didn’t want to be that
sort of person. And then through the ensuing clarity of my sobriety and
really interrogating my own life and motivations I started to piece together
this story of myself as a little boy AND a little girl that I had stopped
telling at some point.
Also Nevada, have you ever read the book Nevada? By Imogen Binnie? It’s a transwoman road trip novel, more
or less. The protagonist, Maria, she leaves out of New York City and goes on a
road trip, and meets someone in the midst of a gender crisis in a small town.
It’s a great novel, and the
gender crisis aspect of it struck a really deep chord in me. When I got
it, I was in the process of acknowledging that I had a narrative tension in my
own life. That was the beginning of me considering that maybe I have more than
a general discomfort with gender in the culture, and
in fact have discomfort about my own
Cindy: Where are you at with your gender identity now?
Colin: I’m fine with who I am right now. Maybe someday I’ll
be an old lady. For now, I take care of myself better. I eat better, I take
vitamins. I take a holistic antidepressant. I feel more at home in my body than
I ever have. I don’t know why. I think little stuff. Like I grew my hair long
again and got my ear pierced. None of that is essentially “feminine,” like I
have a pretty “butch” earring, but I think I’m being a little more playful with
my masculinity. I do my hair up funny and wear a headband sometimes and dress
and act a little more femme when I want to and don’t really think twice about
it. I curtsy a lot.
Also having a writer friendship
with Imogen has been really amazing. When her book freaked me out, I wrote her
a letter and was like “Your book freaked
me out! I’m in this gender crisis now. Don’t feel responsible for it. Actually,
thank you. And I’d love to talk some stuff out. And, I think we’re very similar
and would be good friends.” And she’s just been really warm and receptive
in helping me parse a lot of this stuff. This was also after Laura Jane Grace
came out and transitioned, and that opened the door to me thinking “maybe it’s not too late for me.”
I think realizing it was a possibility for me at any time was helpful, because
prior to that when I would think about transitioning, it always seemed like
something that happened to people who were younger than I was. So even in my
20s when I had trans friends and knew it was an option in the world, it still didn’t seem like an option in my life.
this, I barely smoke anymore, I smoke like 2 or 3 cigarettes a day, and I can
leave the house without them. But there was a time when if I left the house and
I didn’t have cigarettes in my pocket, I would start panicking, not because I
needed a cigarette right then, but because I needed to have a cigarette there
in case I needed one. Just having them there gave me an out. Laura, who is
older than me, transitioning in her late 30s, that was like me having a pack of
cigarettes in my pocket. I don’t necessarily need one right now, but I know
they’re there and that’s comforting.
And so I’m
getting to a point within myself where this is an option for me, and it’s
something I can start to do tomorrow if I want to. That just opened up a box
that I’d locked myself into, and so then it became a thing where I had room to
be like “there’s so much about being male
that I like, and that I’m grateful for.”
do like my masculinity. I don’t want to destroy it. But I like the notion that
I can feel like a girl and still maintain my male identity. How do I embody all
my female role models, and all the incredibly powerful and rad shit that I
respect and appreciate from the women in my life?
A lot of my
anxiety definitely comes from these essentialized notions of gender that I know
are problematic. I was thinking about it a few years ago after I had written a
letter to you. I was having a freakout and I wrote you about it, and I was thinking
about how great punk is, and all these older people I could turn to as a
resource, even though you and I didn’t really know each other, and how
wonderful our community was, and I was thinking about all the people I had
reached out to in various ways, and I realized that when I was having a crisis
I either wrote you a letter or called Kimya Dawson, and when I needed advice
about creative shit, I called Aaron or wrote to Eric Lyle. And I was like “oh, this is fucked up! I have very
gendered roles for who I reached out to.” That helped me start to examine
why I develop certain relationships in my life.
Being sober I was thinking about
the fact that even when I was wasted and suppressing a lot of my gender stuff,
I did do these types of gender play. One of the things I did was I had a pearl
necklace, and about once a month I would get in the bath, put the pearl necklace
on and I would drink my Ballentine out of a champagne glass and fake shave my
legs like an elegant lady in a shaving cream commercial. I would listen to this
Brahms tape and pretend I was Imelda Marcos or Cruella Deville, some vicious
rich woman. It was a thing I would only do alone. And when I would clean my
house, I would dress up like what I thought of as a rockabilly housewife. And
when my cats were kittens they had repeatedly tried to nurse on my nipples, so
I referred to myself as their mom.
So when I started
reconsidering my own gender, I thought about “what do I consider female?” and all the things were things that
were nurturing. Like caring for myself. Whereas things like standing up to
jerks on the street, these things were implicitly masculine. That’s something
I’m trying to critically examine now, especially considering that most of my
lived examples of people standing up to jerks have been women, yet I still
somehow gender it as male.
Another person who’s had a big
impact on me recently is Kiese Laymon. In his book "How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America," he
has this one essay that's been really important to me, both in my personal
life, and in the work I do. It's an essay that's a series of letters amongst a
group of six black men, (the essay has six separate authors), all talking about
masculinity and how it's confined and defined their lives. The first letter is
from a straight identified man, Kiese is straight identified. Then the next
letter is from a gay man, and then a transman, and then a man talking about
being a childhood sexual abuse survivor, and a man who just got out of prison.
They're all talking together about their own personal experiences and working
on forming positive notions of black masculinity.
When I approached him over the
internet after reading it and said, "Hey, your essay totally blew my mind.
I been doing transformative justice work for a decade now, and I would really
love if you would let us use this essay in our processes. I think it would be a
really useful lens to look at masculinity and socialization through." He
was basically like, "I have been waiting for someone to ask me that. Thank
you so much."
I think what he's doing, this
project of his, actively redefining what it is to be a man in this world; part
of the point is that there is no universal notion of what being a man means.
It's our responsibility as a community, as various communities, to create
modern examples of what masculinity can be. The work he's doing in his
community is really useful and beneficial to me, and to the larger community of
men, in deconstructing masculinity and trying to build a version of it that
will be beneficial and nurturing to the world, instead of violent and toxic.
He's unapologetic about his being male, but understands the need for a
recuperative effort on the part of men to basically everyone else.
His work, coupled with the notion
that I can walk away from it at any time, has a lot to do with my new-found
comfort in masculinity and being male because I feel that there's positive work
to do, in this body and as this person. Being male no longer feels like a
prison. It’s a choice I’m actively affirming, rather than something
proscriptive that I’m stuck with. And although the difference between now and
before is almost purely ontological, it turns out that was all I needed.