This interview is a little different. In this one, I interviewed someone who has an interesting, non-traditional relationship to masculinity. David Combs, also known as Spoonboy, is 30 years old, grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, and lives in Washington, D.C. This interview was conducted via email from February to April 2014.
David has a non-binary identity, but was assigned male at birth, was raised as a boy, and is perceived as a cisgender man and often benefits from cisgender male privilege. David’s experience is very interesting to me as a non-binary person who also benefits from cisgender privilege. Even though we share the experience of being non-binary, our experiences of being non-binary are very different, as David is living with the experience of being mistakenly perceived as a cisgender man and I live with the experience of being mistakenly perceived as a cisgender woman. With privilege, I have found, it doesn’t matter how you identify; it matters how you’re perceived. Of course, with that privilege comes an erasure of one’s true identity, which really sucks, to put it simply, and isn’t much of a privilege at all.
Content warning for discussion of patriarchy and rape culture.
Charlie Stern: What is your gender identity?
David Combs: i guess it’s fluid. i don’t feel i have great words to describe my gender identity, but some words that have come close at various times are genderqueer, genderfluid, genderqueer man, boy, transfeminine, androgynous, ambivalent. this manifests mostly in how i understand myself, and less through outward gender cues. 95% of the time i pass as cismale.
Stern: At what age did you identify that way?
Combs: i started understanding myself as something other than cis when i was 28.
Stern: How does identifying as male make you feel?
Combs: it doesn’t click. but other people identifying me as male generally doesn’t make me uncomfortable. i experience the world largely with cismale privilege. there are aspects of my male experience that i really value and i don’t just mean male privilege. like parts of my experiences in life that were coded as male experiences are things i experienced as dissonant and alienating and other parts have been meaningful and resonant.
Stern: Do you sometimes feel trapped by your identity?
Combs: i occasionally feel trapped by a sense that i need to express my gender identity in certain ways for the benefit of others.
Stern: What made you decide to dress as your gender?
Combs: i’ve pretty much dressed the same way since i was 5 years old. i wear more clothes with buttons now than when i was younger but i don’t feel like buttons are particularly gendered one way or another.
Stern: How long did it take you to “pass” as a male?
Combs: i’ve passed as male for the majority of my life but not all of it. in periods where i’ve worn my hair longer i’ve often been read as female, both when i was a kid and as an adult. but even when my hair is short, i’ve been read as female more often than any of my cismale presenting friends.
Stern: Do you ever feel completely at home with your developed voice?
Combs: no. and as a singer i have more than one cause to be self conscious about my voice. some of it has to do with gender and some doesn’t, but i’ve often wished i could sing with a typically female voice.
Stern: Do you ever have second thoughts about being male?
Stern: When did you learn about the different gender pronouns used?
Combs: i learned binary gender pronouns like anyone else when i was first learning the english language. i think i first met people who used non-binary pronouns around 2003 when i was 19. i remember being put off by the idea of non-binary identity initially, because i considered my masculine identity to be a more feminine masculinity, and i sort of felt i was being left behind in a strictly defined masculine identity if i didn’t identify as this new and alien non-binary identity. i later came to see that some of the non-binary people i met were using different words to describe a similar thing to what i felt.
Stern: Do you feel the need to conform to what society asks of you, in terms of your gender?
Combs: i mean, i definitely did when i was younger, particularly when i was a teenager and coming into my sense of self. before i was a teenager i felt comfortable with feminine and queer aspects of my identity that i came to really hate about myself once i was old enough to know those weren’t socially desirable masculine traits. as an adult i’ve learned to be comfortable with myself regardless of that, but there are certainly still times when depending on who i’m talking to i might feel pressured to perform my gender differently than i would normally. but actually if you take that idea outside of the context of the mechanisms of culturally policed gender roles, i don’t that kind of fluidity is always negative. there are certain environments where i feel really at home and comfortable presenting more masculine sides of myself, and certain environments where i feel at home and comfortable presenting my femininity.
Stern: Do you think gender is merely a social construction? Why or why not?
Combs: i think the ways we define gender and the categories we use to understand it are constructed. the idea that there are gendered behaviors expected of a person based on the sex they’re assigned at birth is entirely a social construction and there is so much evidence to that effect that i wouldn’t really know where to start. but that doesn’t mean the way people experience gender isn’t real. i think that a majority of people have an innate sense of gender whether that fits within binary categories or not. and certainly we all experience the real world effects of the ways that gender is constructed. arguing that gender is a construct doesn’t make navigating a gendered world any less real.
Stern: Do you think of gender as a thing you would like to undo? Please explain.
Combs: i think of the gender binary as something i would very much like to undo. i don’t think gender goes away, but i think it should be something you define for yourself, not something you should be assigned.
Stern: If gender did not exist, do you think you would still have the desire to live as a male?
Combs: that’s kind of a trick question, right?
Stern: If you were unable to live as a male, what would that mean for you?
Combs: there have been many times when i’ve fantasized about living as a woman in a sustained way, but i’ve never done it, so i can’t say 100% that i’d be comfortable with that as my only option. i could easily see myself occupying a more expressly non-binary identity, but it would probably swing towards the masculine part of the spectrum in regard to gender cues, so does that even count? in that respect, i’d be happy to stop living as a man, but if it was never an option to express myself in a masculine way i think that would be pretty uncomfortable. there is definitely a comfort in my lived experience of maleness that i wouldn’t want to give up permanently. and again, by “comfort” i don’t mean male privilege, though that’s certainly part of my experience, but i mean comfort as in feeling at peace with myself.
Stern: Do you have many friends/family who are also male?
Combs: plenty of friends. no family.
Stern: What is your relationship to the male community?
Combs: i don’t know that there is any such thing as coherent “male community.” my relationship to other men really varies depending not the man, obviously, but if it’s a question of spaces where there is a sense of masculine solidarity among male identified people, my relationship is also fluid. when my typically masculine people read me as feminine it puts me lower on the totem poll and i am antagonized by misogynist men. but when there are others present who are read as more feminine than me, all of a sudden i’m part of the club.
Stern: Do you find that your relationships with people in the male community are different from your relationships with people outside the male community?
Combs: sure. there are certain ways that male socialized people are taught to relate to other men differently than we’re taught to people we don’t read as men. it’s like the cab driver who is perfectly polite until my female friends get out of the car and then he starts with the sexist jokes.
Stern: Have you ever felt excluded from the male community because you weren’t “male enough”?
Combs: i have felt excluded from certain communities of men for not being masculine enough for sure. there’s a pretty long running narrative about the boy who is picked on for being too feminine and it’s based on a prevalent social dynamic. it’s misogyny and it’s how masculinity creates a barrier of solitude to protect itself. constructing itself in opposition to femininity. trying to root out anyone who brings femininity into it’s fragile fortress of pure hegemonic masculinity.
Stern: Have you had any role models influence your gender, “teaching” you how to be male? Please explain.
Combs: i mean, totally. our understanding of acceptable gender expressions are policed strictly by the people in our lives constantly, by the models we’re offered through media, and particularly by the people who raise us. i certainly recall the ways in which my father tried to prepare me to “act like a man.” i wrote a song about it. it’s called “stab yer dad.”
Stern: What kind of support for being a male do you have?
Stern: Have you run into any problems with religion, in regards to your gender identity?
Combs: religion is very often a primary influence in how gender roles are taught to kids. i haven’t been in much of a religious environment since i was young, but i grew up immersed in various denominations of judaism. and particularly in orthodox strains of judaism there are very strict restrictions on what is or isn’t acceptable depending on your assigned gender. whether it’s self conscious or not, growing up with the idea of a masculine god, masculine messianic figures, masculine religious rights and leadership, you learn to value masculinity over femininity. on some level that influenced my self-understanding and biased me against my own femininity for sure.
Stern: Did you have any friends/family who thought they could change you to be “normal”?
Combs: no. this interview is set up to point out to people with cismale privilege how little they have to think about their gender identity and how infrequently it’s challenged and i hope that me trying to answer the questions sincerely hasn’t come across as oblivious to that. this question though was a real poignant one in that regard. i have enough privilege that no one would ever try to change me to “normal”, because when i’m read as a straight white male (regardless of my identity) or close enough, those things are coded as “neutral,” “objective,” “normal.” and that’s really disgusting.
Stern: How has being a male affected your romantic relationships?
Combs: most of my female partners have told me at one point or another that they didn’t think of me as being masculine in the same way as they did other men they’d been with. in some instances i think my partners understood my gender better than i did at the time. even when i identified as cis it was always comforting when other people identified me as feminine. i’ve dated a lot of queer women and whether it was explicitly stated or i just thought about it privately, i’ve understood many of my relationships with women to be queer relationships. conversely i sometimes feel most at home with my masculinity when it’s been the source of desire from other men. queer male attraction is one of the spaces that i feel most at home with a masculine identity.
Stern: How has being a male impacted you negatively?
Combs: hegemonic masculinity teaches us that vulnerability is weakness. and weakness is antithetical to manhood. so we shut down our emotions to avoid any appearance of vulnerability and we alienate ourselves from ourselves. i wouldn’t underemphasize what a damaging effect this has on the world. but also it’s a relatively small thing compared to the ways that patriarchy negatively impacts people without male privilege. our culture’s misogynist status quo economically, socially and politically disadvantages non-cismale people to the point that people are basically psychologically tortured and even murdered for not having male privilege.
Stern: How safe do you feel at school/work/public (and why)?
Combs: generally pretty safe. i mean we could talk about the various factors that might make me feel safe in one neighborhood in versus another. but basically my privilege allows to walk around without the general fear that any given person might stalk me, attack me, or sexually assault me for not being male; that any given person might be looking for some opportunity to take advantage of me sexually, etc. not that i haven’t experienced that fear at all, but it doesn’t present itself to me the same omnipresent way that it does to people without male privilege.
Stern: Have you faced any hindrances functioning within the system (like school) because of your gender?
Combs: no, but i don’t do school or have a traditional professional life either.
Stern: Have you ever been a victim of a hate crime?
Stern: Have you ever been forced by friends/family into mental health treatment for your gender identity?
Stern: If your family had to raise you all over again, what advice would you give them so that your life gender experience would have been different?
Combs: i might have asked my mom to raise me with the same baseline of criticism and disdain for the gender binary as she did for sexism, racism, and homophobia. i might still have been indoctrinated into those ways of thinking from all the shit we absorb from media and the dominant culture, but i might have had a little easier time with self understanding as an adult if i’d been exposed to a critique of the gender binary sooner.
Stern: What was the best advice you received as a young person?
Combs: be yourself.
Stern: If your own child were to declare themselves male, what advice would you give them to help them survive the world they may have to face?
Combs: be yourself. and beware the way our culture trains boys to think like male supremacist sociopaths.
Stern: Do you have any fears about the future and how living as a male could hinder pursuits in the realms of family and children?
Combs: no. but i’m also not making any plans to have children.
Stern: What do you see as the main issue facing male people today and what do you see as a possible solution to this problem?
Combs: overwhelming male complicity in rape culture. i think teaching consent and comprehensive sex education to young people might go a long way.
Stern: Do you feel like any health disparities you face are directly related to your gender identity and expression?
Stern: Have you ever felt that you have been denied proper medical treatment or questioned inappropriately while seeking medical treatment?
Stern: What changes would you make in healthcare in order to receive better care oriented towards males?
Combs: health care is already unfairly oriented towards men. there are all kinds of changes we could make to health care that would make it better for all humans (including men) but yeah, not being oriented towards men isn’t really the problem.
Stern: What do you think society could do to better understand people who are male and their needs?
Combs: offer young people education around the ways that gender is constructed.
Stern: How could society change to be more accepting or emotionally better for you?
Combs: the dissolution of the gender binary, patriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, colonialism, ableism, etc. :)