A Measure of Men by SJ Sindu

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person buttoning a shirt

What does it mean to be a man?

The first time I dressed in men’s clothes, I looked in the mirror and cried. I pressed myself against the reflection. I wanted to press myself to the other side. I finally looked like I needed to for everyone to believe my genderqueer identity. I was exhausted at being doubted. I sobbed while my boyfriend studied me and told me he liked me looking like a girl.

But he still took me to shop in the boy’s department of Target, still held my hand even though people stared and yelled “faggot” out of cars.


Did you like dressing like a man?

The blonde coiffed flight attendant asks me what I want to drink.

I look at my Fossil men’s watch with the thick distressed leather strap. 8:05 a.m. I’m on my way to see my family for the first time in months, for the first time since I started dressing in clothes from the boy’s section.

“A Corona, please.” I itch for the blankness in my head that only comes with a few drinks. I want the alcohol to smooth out my fear.

“A what?” she drawls in a heavy Texan accent, hand on her hip.

“A Corona,” I say a little louder. The heavy-set man in the seat next to mine turns to stare at me. My heart—strapped down under my lover’s old chest binder—jumps a few beats.

“You want a Corona!” The flight attendant chuckles. Several more passengers turn around in their seats to look. “This little boy wants a Corona!” the flight attendant repeats louder to the passengers in the area. A few chuckle along with her.

I find my wallet and pull out my ID. I hold it out to her. Her smile freezes as she takes it from me and squints at it. She walks to the back of the plane.


Where did you first learn to be a man?

My father is the kind of man who never wears jeans. He, the first of a six-child brood, grew up poor in Sri Lanka, grew up eating mangoes plucked from public trees, grew up in clothes his mother stitched on a pedal-powered Singer. Jeans were something you bought in stores, something imported from elsewhere, something rich kids wore to show off their Western style.

My father is the kind of man who will shovel the driveway and mow the grass, then cook us an elaborate dinner. The kind of man who married a woman older than him, a woman who has worked all her life, a woman who doesn’t have the word “submission” in her vocabulary.


Are good men also good fathers?

A trans guy friend of mine is pregnant. He shows up to dinner swollen with the baby, clutching his lower back against the weight of his womb. When he posts updates and pictures on Facebook of the newborn, I click “Like,” and smile like I never do when my cis woman friends post the same things.


What does fatherhood mean to you?

In elementary school, I was embarrassed of my father’s accent, of the way he sometimes dropped articles or conjugated verbs wrong. After I graduated high school, when we went to Sri Lanka, soldiers stopped our van at Army checkpoints because people who looked like us were on the rebel side of a decades-long civil war. My father leaned out the van window and spoke to the soldiers in a language he hadn’t enunciated in over fifteen years, a language I didn’t understand, a language I didn’t even know he spoke.


Should men be chivalrous?

Sometimes, I like to hold the door open for my cis man friends, just to see the panic in their eyes, the indecision as their various socializations—chivalry and courtesy—battle with each other. Sometimes, this is an impasse, a standstill, a moment from which no other moments can continue.


What does it mean to be a man?

When I visit my family wearing men’s clothes for the first time, my father takes me into a room. He pats his forehead with a kerchief. “If you dishonor this family,” he says, “we will have no choice but to die. You will kill your family, just to dress like a man.”


Is being a man based on strength? Or on toughness? What, exactly, is the difference?

My little brother is entering puberty. Hair prickles above his lips and down the sides of his face. I wonder if some asshole will call him towelhead, if he’ll be stopped at airports for special screening, if he’ll be marked by his brown skin. I try to train him for this, because living in fear is still a form of survival.


Do you consider yourself a man?

It’s been years since I stopped buying from the boy’s section at Target. Not because I feel less genderqueer, but because the world has shifted. I don’t need the clothes anymore to be believed. I still keep a men’s short-sleeved button down that I never wear. Every time I clean out my closet, I think of throwing it away. Every time, I decide to keep it. It’s not very flattering. Its green and white stripes stretch me in ways I don’t like. But I hold it in my hand and feel the cotton in my fingers, the weight of it pressing into my palm, and that’s enough.


Meet the Contributor

SJ Sindu is a Tamil diaspora author of two SJ Sindunovels. Her first novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award and was a Stonewall Honor Book. Sindu’s second novel, Blue-Skinned Gods, will be published in November 2021. She is also the author of two hybrid chapbooks: I Once Met You But You Were Dead; and Dominant Genes, which will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2022. A 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow, Sindu teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: SamLupa/Flickr Creative Commons

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