‘Since my parents’ divorce, contact with my dad has been going downhill. As a child, I was supposed to visit him regularly, but he often came hours late to pick me up or just cancelled last minute. Soon enough, our already rare father-and-son weekends turned into quick coffee dates, and eventually our contact shrank to short phone calls once or twice a year. I never expressed any anger or grief to him because I was afraid that he would end the little contact we had.

Instead, I created an ongoing carrousel of thoughts in my mind, centred around the question: What was wrong with me? What had I done to be treated so differently from other boys, who were loved by their father?

At school, I never really fit in. I was rather feminine and was called Mädchen, which means “girl” is German. The bullying humiliated me and made me feel ashamed. At home, we never expressed our emotions, and I grew up into a rather timid and withdrawn child.

‘My beard is the ultimate signifier of mature masculinity. It makes me look older and it gives me a kind of authority’

My mother got remarried to the type of man you don’t want to mess with. He was tall and beefy, and he wore his dark, wild beard with dignity. His posture and strong voice instilled admiration. He told me to man up and fight the bullies. Even as a child, I was big, and my stepdad told me to use my body to get the respect every man is entitled to. So, one day, I walked up to my biggest bully, knocked him down, and whispered, with my fist on his face, that I would not stop hitting him until he stopped bullying me. It worked: the bullying stopped.

I became popular. As soon as I got facial hair, I started growing a beard. For me, it is the ultimate signifier of male adulthood. My beard makes me look older, it gives me a kind of authority. For a long time, I thought being a man was all about being respected. My beard felt like armour, something that made me invincible; it also felt like a mask, something that hid the parts of me I didn’t want to show.

Image: Elvin Boer

Being gay never has been an issue, and soon after coming out I ended up in a relationship with a man called David. As crazy it may sound, it just kind of happened to me. I liked the validation he gave me, but I wasn’t particularly fond of his character or his looks. As time went by, he turned into a gambler who loved prestige and who burdened us with serious financial debts. His behaviour infuriated me, and I realised that our relationship was a big mistake.

Instead of expressing how I felt, however, I cheated on him continuously, hoping that he would leave me. When he finally did, I felt both relieved and empty.

‘They respect me because I am honest and vulnerable with them’

I moved to Amsterdam, and for the first time in my life I became friends with other gay men. Until that point I had jumped from relationship to relationship, continuously craving validation and never speaking my mind, out of fear of being rejected. With my new friends, there was less at stake, and I could be myself.

Little by little, I started to open up. I told my friends about my self-doubt and about my relationship with David. About still being ashamed of cheating on him. My friends love me, simply because I am me. They respect me, not because I look tough or strong but because I am honest and vulnerable with them. They tell me it is my softness that makes me attractive. That, and my cuddly beard.

I turned thirty recently and my dad sent me a text message to congratulate me. It is what it is. Of course, I hope the contact between us will get better. But if it doesn’t, it is not because of me or because of who I am. I no longer depend on him to feel good about myself.’

Image: Elvin Boer