Innocence Lost

Innocence Lost

[May 28, 2017]

When I was a young boy, I was best friends with a girl named Tracy who lived down the street from my house. Though she was a year older than I was, Tracy and I did everything together. We rode bikes, played games, had sleepovers and basically lived at each other houses. I was so comfortable with Tracy’s family that I called her mom “Aunt” and would let myself into their house without knocking.

Tracy’s family— to my delight—had a pool and, by far, my most favourite thing to do with Tracy was to go swimming. I remember quite clearly making whirlpools in that pool, diving for quarters and laying bare skin on black pavement in order to warm up. Back then, people affectionately referred to Tracy as a “Tom Boy”. She was sports-minded, wore jeans (never dresses) and kept her hair fairly short. When we swam we swan in cut off jeans—no fancy bathing suits for us—and as far as I was concerned we were the same in every way.

In those carefree days I had no idea what gender was. I knew, of course, that Tracy was a girl but I had no idea that we did not share the same anatomy. Sure, Tracy was labeled a “Tom Boy”, but I didn’t care about that. Like Tracy, I also didn’t conform to my expected gender role, preferring to draw pictures instead of playing sports. Looking back on that time, I cannot help but miss the freedom of those days. Tracy and I were free to be who we were; not judged by each other, but instead left to define ourselves in the way that we chose.

Things changed for me around the time that I reached the third grade. Tracy was a year ahead me and, though we still saw each other after school, it wasn’t long until our friendship began to break apart. We both began to make new friends in our own grade, and eventually began hanging out with each other less and less.

At grade school I was confident and well liked. I socialized with both girls and boys equally, skipping and playing hopscotch with the girls one-day, then rough-housing and playing marbles with the boys the next. At around Grade 5, however, things abruptly changed when the word “sissy“ was introduced into our vocabulary. For some reason that I could not explain, it was no longer acceptable for me to skip and play hopscotch with the girls. Though I don’t remember being bullied, specifically, I do remember conforming to the new unspoken rule of the playground and, because of it, soon began socializing almost exclusively with the boys. It was clear to me at the time that I had to make a choice in order to fit in even though that choice made absolutely no sense to me.

Coming to terms with the new normal, I changed my behaviour and began to embrace playground sports in order to fit in with the boys. As my father had tried to teach me, sports were the language of boys, and though I still would have rather just drawn pictures I knew if I wanted to fit in I would have to fake an interest. I have to admit that playing informally on the playground was much more fun than organized sports, and though I wasn’t very good at them I did enjoy the feeling of being one of the boys.

Conforming to the strong gender expectations, I soon became inseparable with two boys from my grade. We did the things that boys were supposed to do. We played sports, went to see movies, camped in each other’s backyards and even went on vacations with each other families.

One day, all three of us went to my buddy’s cottage with his family for the weekend. We were all at the age where we were discovering our bodies and were curious about how they worked. At my friend’s urging we decided to go skinny dipping one afternoon. At that point in my life I had never seen anyone else’s naked body before but my own, and I was delighted to be able to contrast and compare what I was seeing. Swimming naked in the water was invigorating and freeing and led to us inventing other games, for that weekend, where we could continue to be naked in front of one another. These secret games were exciting, and though we instinctually knew that our parents would not condone them we were helpless to resist.

Now you have to understand that these games were not sexual in nature. We were all innocents and had not reached a point where we even fully understood what sex was. In our way, I suppose, we were trying to open up to each other and know each other in the most profound way that we could. We had no secrets when we were naked in front of each other, and knowing that we were the same under our clothing connected us in a way that we had not been connected with each other before. Many people automatically connect nudity with sex but we were too young to make those connections. In those moments at the cottage being naked with each other was not dirty, was not something to be ashamed of or self-conscious about. It was just natural and something to be embraced. For the first time I was truly one of the boys and I loved every minute of it

Unfortunately for us, we did not leave the cottage that weekend feeling empowered about our bodies. Instead we left trapped in many ways, thinking the way we perceived our parents wanted us to think. One of the games we had invented for ourselves was a naked race that we held in the backyard after dark. Under the cover of night, behind the cottage, shucking our pants to our ankles we would race to a preset finish line. Granted, it was not exactly the most dignified game for our naked Olympics but what did you expect –we were only 10. To our surprise, however, midway through the race my buddy’s mother tuned on the back porch light of the cottage illuminating us for all to see. Hitting the dirt as soon as the light went on, we hiked up our pants and lay motionless until the light was turned off.

Defeated and petrified that we were going to get in trouble, we sat by the campfire in the front yard and waited for one of my buddy’s parents to come out and talk with us. As we sat and awaited our fate we decided that what we had been doing had been wrong. The freedom that we had experienced went away replaced by shame, and we professed to each other that we wished we had never begun playing such games.

My buddy’s parents never did come out and talk with us that night. Perhaps we had been too quick hitting the dirt when the lights came on or perhaps they had seen it all but decided not to say anything chalking it up to "boys being boys".

That night us boys made a pact that we would never tell anybody about what we had done that weekend. A pattern I would go on to repeat later in life when I was in the closet. I wish I could have been there to tell my younger self that I had nothing to be ashamed of but, unfortunately, it took me years before I could remember those day with fondness and understanding. Of course, I know now that we did nothing wrong, which is why I decided to break the pact and share the story. Our entrenched Roman Catholic guilt back then had gotten the best of all of us.

I suppose it does no good to long for the innocence of childhood but I cannot help but wonder what my life would have been like if I had continued to perceive my gender and my body the way I did when I was a child.

When I first came out of the closet, it was very important to me that people saw me as masculine. Being seen as being "feminine" was distasteful to me and I turned my nose up at those gay men in the community that strongly embraced their more so-called "feminine" side. I understand now that I had internalized the pervasive and destructive homophobia and sexism all around me, and was trying to distance myself from being seen as what many people think a gay person looks, acts, and sounds like.

Since coming out, I have matured and realized, like my childhood self, that the labels of “masculine” and “feminine” are inadequate and outdated terms used unfairly to judge one other. Personality traits, likes and dislike, should not inherently be masculine or feminine; they should just be a part of that person and devoid of any gender association. I knew that instinctively as a child but fighting my societal conditioning, find that I must continue to remind my less enlightened adult self.

As for my body, I miss the boy who could shamelessly disrobe in front of his two friends. I had no judgment then, no expectations, no images in the media of the ideal man (both gay and straight) to live up to. All I had was anticipation and the longing to be just one of the boys. I don't think that I have ever had a healthier body image then I did back when I was 10 and I hate the fact that that feeling of empowerment was so short lived.

Through struggle, through pain, and through much joy, though, I have found my place in this world. I am not a “sissy” or a “faggot”. I am not too fat or too hairy. I am loved for who I am. I am learning to love myself. I am comfortable hanging out and being considered one of the boys but at times am equally as comfortable hanging out and being thought of as “one of the girls”. And though I cannot reclaim my childhood innocence I have made a promise to myself to honour the lessons I learned while losing it.

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