RESTRICTED: 'For 18 Months, I Was a Guy'

As a child she was “the kind of tomboy who makes you think there must be a gay gene,” says Norah Vincent, 37. But the former Los Angeles Times columnist, who is a lesbian, had never wanted to switch sexes until she got the idea for her new book, Self-Made Man. Hoping to understand the opposite gender from the inside out, she went undercover as “Ned” in five states from New York to Oklahoma beginning in 2003—joining a bowling league, working, dating, even living at a monastery. What she found: “There’s this whole male world going on parallel to our experience,” she says. “No wonder it’s so hard to get men and women together. But I hope the book will help reopen conversation between the sexes.” An excerpt follows.


Her first foray into manhood: joining an all-male bowling league.

Walking into the alley that first night, I was dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and a baseball cap. But I was still far too scrubbed and tweedy to pass for one of them. These were men who, as one told me later, had been shoveling shit their whole lives. I didn’t see how this could possibly work. If I was passing, I was passing as a boy, not a man, and a candy boy at that.

Jim, my team captain, worked at an appliance company. He extended his arm to shake my hand; I squeezed assertively the way I’d seen men do when they gathered in someone’s living room to watch a football game. Next I met Allen, a construction worker. His greeting echoed Jim’s. It seemed to mark me as a buddy, unless or until I proved otherwise. Bob, a plumber, I met last. We just nodded.

I had to get used to a different mode on those Monday nights. For example, our evenings always started with grunted hellos that among women would have been interpreted as rude. Were they pissed off at me about something? But among these guys no interpretation was necessary. If they were pissed at you, you’d know it.

Nothing was beyond humor for them, especially for Jim. He was at his funniest on relations between the sexes. “I mean, take work,” he said one night. “There’s ugly chicks in my office every day, and I can concentrate fine. But every now and then there’s this hot woman who comes in, and I’m completely f—–. All I can do is stare at her like this—” He made a dumbfounded expression.

Joking aside, these guys took their sexuality for what it was. They found ways to work within it, ways that sometimes entailed lying to their wives about going to strip clubs now and then. The way they told it, it sounded as if the male sex drive and marriage were incompatible. At the very least they lied to their wives about the ubiquity of their sexual fantasies involving other women. On nights like these, among the boys, they could be honest.

As I tried to be one of the guys, I could feel myself saying and doing the things that men do as teens when they’re trying to sort out their place in the ranks. Half the time I was ashamed of myself for trying too hard, saying f— one too many times, or swaggering a little too wide and loose.

Part of me came to really enjoy those nights. When somebody opened up to me suddenly, like when Jim confided how much he loved his wife, who had cancer, or when Bob smiled at me after teasing me over a throw, it touched me more deeply than my female friends’ dime-a-dozen intimacies ever did. So much of what happens emotionally between men isn’t spoken aloud, and so the female outsider, who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken (often overspoken), tends to assume that what isn’t said isn’t there. But it is.

After six months, I decided one night that it was time to tell them. I asked Jim to have a drink. When we sat down I told him to order whatever would relax him most. “Jim,” I said, “I’m not a guy, I’m a woman.”

“Shut up, ass—-,” he said. “C’mon.”

“I swear, Jim. My name is Norah.”

“If this is a joke, it’s a good one.”

“It’s not a joke, Jim. Look, if you don’t believe me, let’s go in the bathroom and I’ll show you.”

“No thanks,” he blurted, jerking away from me. “Jesus, man. And you were my coolest guy friend, too.”

We sat there talking for hours. “Wow, you’re a chick,” he said finally. “No wonder you listen so good.”

For the most part, it seemed, I’d pulled off Ned pretty well. In the end he just said, “That stubble is really good, man.” That was satisfying.


Before I started dating, my male cues were in need of fine-tuning. I talked too much with my hands, and I applied ChapStick with a girlish lip smack. Once, while shopping, I rubbed my wrists together after applying cologne. The woman at the counter looked as if she’d seen something indecent. I needed another pair of eyes to correct me on stuff like this. My friend Curtis said he would nudge me when I got out of line.

The first night we went to several watering holes that catered to young professionals. As I got up to approach the bar, I could see the women I was heading for absorbed in conversation. The female me knew that my approach, no matter how unassuming, would be perceived as a little pathetic and detestable. I didn’t want to be that nuisance guy women dread.

“Hi, ladies. (Ladies? Jesus.) Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to meet you.” The women looked me over like inferior produce, then smiled weakly.

As I talked to one woman, I found myself switching to her point of view. Seeing how protected she seemed, I remembered my brother saying, “They only want one thing. That’s how guys are.” I had, I realized, treated most men with the same coldness that these women were showing me.

After another ten minutes of condescension, I realized that I might learn more about Ned if I let them in on the gag. I had to repeat “I’m really a woman” four times before they got it. Then, with startling quickness, we all began chatting like hens. The inclusion was physical. When I’d approached as Ned, they had only bothered to turn halfway around to talk to me, their faces always in profile. Now they turned all the way.

As Curtis and I said goodnight later, I found myself thinking about rejection and how small it made me feel. Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power; I disliked women irrationally for a while because of it. I disliked their superiority, their accusatory smiles, their entitlement to choose or dash me with a fingertip. I have never felt more vulnerable than in my clanking suit of borrowed armor. But then, maybe that’s one of the secrets of manhood that no man tells if he can help it. Every man’s armor is borrowed, and beneath it, he’s naked and shivering and hoping you won’t see.


Ned got a job as a door-to-door salesman.

In my dress clothes, I felt entitled to respect. A suit is a signifier of maleness every bit as blinding as the current signifiers of attractiveness in women: blond hair, heavy makeup, emaciated bodies and big breasts. A woman can be downright ugly on close inspection, and every desirable part of her can be fake, but if she’s sporting the right signifiers, she’s hot. A suit, I found, does very much the same thing for a man. You see it, not him, and you bow to it.

For the first time as Ned I felt male privilege descend on me. I spoke with what seemed to me absurd authority, especially in interviews, where bluster was expected. I leaned back and crossed my legs ankle over knee. I stopped obsessively saying sorry and thank you. Just “give it to me now the way I want it.” I didn’t do it rudely, and no one ever interpreted it that way. It was like partaking in a common understanding that that’s just how guys are.

To the gas station attendant I’d say, “Give me a pack of the gum, too.” To the waitress I said, “Get us two filets.” As a woman, I so often speak in qualifiers. “You know, I think we’re going to try the steaks. Are they good?” I try to establish a connection with the servers, an implied apology for their job and my orders. “I hate to bother you, but could we have some more water when you have a chance?” The thank-yous are ubiquitous and the tone of voice more pleading than perfunctory. To the gas station attendant I’d have said, “Oh, you know what? Could I have a pack of gum, too?” And if it came too late in the ring-up I’d append an extra “sorry.”

People see weakness in a woman and they want to help. They see weakness in a man and they want to stamp it out.


I had thought that as a man I would get to do all the things I didn’t get to do as a woman: the perceived freedoms of being unafraid in the world. But as Ned I rarely felt free. I curtailed everything: my laugh, my word choice, my gestures, my expressions. As a guy you get about a three-note emotional range. That’s it, at least as far as the outside world is concerned. Forget doubt. Forget hurt.

Yes, guys get good stuff too. Sometimes they still get special deference and a license to brag. I found this in the workplace. I had at times the billy club confidence of unwarranted self-belief that I have seen in more guys than I can count. I always used to wonder how they did it. Now I know. A tough front is all you have when there’s nothing behind it but the weakness you’re not allowed to show.

I am glad in every way to be a woman.

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