As a young teen I studied men. How they talked. What they talked about. How they gestured. How they walked. And I studied them because I was determined to pass.
No one likes to be teased and I saw what happened to the boys who were less than manly. There were limitations on how much I could close the gap between who I was by nature and how I wanted to be perceived. I was a little guy, not a natural athlete. I liked to read, didn't want to chase girls (although I had plenty of friends who were girls), hated talking about sports scores. And at summer camp, I loved arts and crafts and did everything I could to avoid getting sent out to right field.
But despite my limitations and decidedly un-manly range of interests I trained myself to tone down my gestures, tighten my wrists, cross my legs like a cowboy, and walk like a man.
I wasn't even aware that there was something un-manly about my gait until my uncle commented on the way I bounced when I walked. He didn't say I walked like a girl, but from my perspective he might as well have. So I compared myself to guys who walked in a way that I thought of as masculine. Out went my bounce. I practiced planting one foot solidly on the ground in front of the other. Out went the exuberantly swinging arms (which were more like flailing rubber bands than hinged swords slicing through the air). Gone were the loose hips and rolling shoulders. Chest out. Shoulders back. Rigid spine. Head held high.
For a while I must have looked like a bad impersonation of a soldier, but in time my new walk softened into something that appeared more natural and eventually I forgot that I'd ever walked any other way. Unfortunately, my body never forgot, or at least that's what my physical therapist recently told me as he poked and prodded my pain-wracked body looking for clues that would help him help me end my agony.
On the cusp of 50 my back rebelled. No, went to war would be a better description. Acupuncture, Vicodin, Prednisone, and physical therapy followed. A month of hell. I couldn't sit. And if I sat I couldn't get up. I was mostly fine flat on my back, but I couldn't roll over without risking high-voltage jolts. And getting out of bed required a half-hour of painful stretches before I could force myself onto my feet. I joked that I needed a wood stick between my teeth just to crawl out of bed, but it wasn't far from the truth. At least I could stand, but there were only so many hours I could stand before I'd be overtaken by low-grade pain and exhaustion. I was miserable. And scared. What if I never got better?
It would be an exaggeration to say that my adopted manly walk was the only thing that triggered my back problems, but it was the way I walk that was the most visible change I had to make if I was going to live like a human again. I'm a very compliant patient and I'm obsessive about following instructions. But when Dan, my physical therapist, showed me how to loosen up my walk--swaying hips, rhythmically swinging arms, relaxed spine, fluid upper body--and said I should "sashay"--I found myself explaining how I'd trained myself to walk like a man and couldn't possibly sashay. We both laughed, but I didn't have to reflect on what I'd done to myself to know it was more sad than funny.
To go with my new old way of walking the physical therapist suggested deep breathing, using my belly to draw in the breaths. "And," he added, "why don't you hum show tunes just to force yourself to breathe."
Why didn't I just hang a sign around my neck announcing "Gimpy Fag on the Loose!"? When I offered a mild protest--"What will people think?"--Dan reminded me that we live in New York City and that no one would notice.
Dan was right. I sashayed and hummed on my way home from 14th Street and 8th Avenue and no one stared. Not a single double-take. Given the highly eclectic cross-section of humanity that was strolling on 8th Avenue in Chelsea that afternoon it's not like I stood out. But I seemed to draw no attention anywhere I sashayed and hummed. Upper East Side. Around the Central Park reservoir. Down Broadway in the theater district. No one could care less. Except me.
I've been sashaying and humming for the past couple of weeks and I'm already up to doing a brisk two-mile sashay without any pain. I can even sit again and stand up without needing a crowbar to unfold myself. Remarkably, I've also mostly wrestled my internalized homophobia to a draw. And I'm really enjoying making friends with my old, much younger self. He had an exuberant way of walking, one that came naturally to him, so I haven't really had to work that hard to re-train myself. I just had to take off the restraints.
And as far as the show tunes go, if the current production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center ever needs an emergency understudy to step in, I've memorized the cast album and can replace just about anyone. With one exception. I don't think I could stomp around like the soldiers do in the big production number for "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." Unless, of course, they want a soldier who sashays.