Learning to See Again

This Facebook post features Mark Ryan, who is identified as a sixty-two year old German man who “wears skirts and heels to go to work. He says he does it to break stereotypes”. This is cool, in that it lifts up some of the ways one expresses themself and lives into their own unique identities. Yes, I intended identities to be plural in a singular sentence.

One thing I’m learning more carefully to consider is the fact that none of us are a monolithic self. Each of us has competing loyalties, ideas, means of self expression, and even core understanding of who we are in some of the seemingly most basic fundamental aspects of our sense of self. My personal efforts at being a unified self — I jokingly call it my effort to become the One True Eric — unavoidably prove to be in vain. I’m not a single Eric, because these competing or oppositional aspects of myself do exist. More, I’m beginning to wonder whether the very effort of it sets me up to feel frustrated with many things about me that I could otherwise accept.

Mark Ryan, an engineer, has solved part of this problem for himself by shattering a stereotype about what men should look like by adopting a visibly rebellious mode of dress. I don’t believe we choose our protests by accident. I don’t know, because there’s nothing that says so, but I suspect that there’s something in him that allows him to feel more like himself.

I don’t intend to be glib in this comparison, but I always pictured myself with a beard.


Since I can remember, my image of “me” was bearded. When I was finally able to grow a goatee in my early twenties it was nice, but it didn’t feel right. When I worked at Waffle House, I could have a mustache but not a beard. I believe that was an unfortunate moment in my facial fashion. Around twenty-one or -two, I could finally get the sides to grow in. They were thin, but it somehow made me feel whole. A full beard made me feel more like me.

I shaved it once shortly after I got married. My new bride told me in no uncertain terms that I need a beard. I agreed, and I’ve had my current beard since 2001. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to shave it, but I never do — partly because my still-new-seeming bride won’t stand for it!

So what’s this all about?

In the post, the author says that Ryan “claims to be completely straight”. The phrase felt weird when I first read it, but I realized why it stuck in my head upon reflection — claims.

To say this is what he claims seems to assert with a wink and a nudge that no completely straight man might opt to wear heels and a skirt. It conveys a suspicious mistrust, disbelief of the man’s stated orientation. It’s common for people to identify as gender queer or some other variety of nomenclature that shatters an assumption of binary gender. This is important because I believe if Ryan claimed himself to be somewhere on the queer spectrum, the sentence would be more artfully crafted. Many of us still wrestle with our language and assumptions when speaking about gender and pronouns, so we’re more conscious when we encounter something that’s different than expected norms.

Claims indicates he’s a bit suspect, as it was phrased in former times.

This shines light on one of the struggles of our own age. As much as I work to speak, act, and think more respectfully of the humanity of others, I still run into my own inartfulness with regards to race, gender, orientation, sex, and other formerly and still taboo topics. I don’t get it a lot of of times, and experience the frustration of my own comfortable categorizations of people and the world being disrupted. I have occasional visceral reactions that I can’t shake.


That’s my problem to deal with; my learning to engage. It’s my work of loving self-accountability to do my own introspection in these moments rather than rely on those who are just trying to live their lives and get through the day like all of us to spend their energy doing it for us.

It’s not all that easy to hold ourselves accountable for the feelings, reactions, and microaggressions we engage. Even so, our question must be the question of the Good Samaritan compared to the priest and Levite in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s sermon about the parable. Not, “what could happen to me if I stop to help?”; rather, “what will happen to them if I don’t?.

And what could happen?

There are lots of ways we ask these questions and justify our unreflected reactions to things that make us uncomfortable. After all, It’s just a suspicion. It’s just a pronoun. It’s just a gender. It’s just a dis-ease I have with gay men being affectionate in public. It’s just – it’s always just something I can easily dismiss when it isn’t my own identity at stake, isn’t it?

But when it’s me, it matters. I can see my nuance, my logic, my reasoning. I can reclassify my own identity – sometimes at great cost – but I’m worth the work, right?

That’s just it.

Being someone who attempts to engage the world with love, and who attempts to experience others through the lens of love means that I have the responsibility to engage the world and others with the actions of love. Love is not dismissive, careless, inflexible, or unbothered. Love is embracing, attentive, malleable to the shape of others, and concerned with who they are rather than who I expect them to be.

It may be a small thing to say that Ryan claims to be completely straight. We live in a world that questions and scrutinizes every move of those who are different from whatever each of us considers to be typical. Most of this scrutiny happens in ways imperceptible to me; I don’t have the context to notice.

But we each notice how we’re treated and received. We notice slights, stares, uncomfortable laughter, or awkward jokes about something close to our own identity.

Love means not transferring my own awkwardness to someone else. Love means owning it so I can treat one who is loved with love.

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