What Having a School Counselor for a Mom Taught Me About Being a Man

Photo: Getty Images/Morsa Images
“A lot of guys my age...they say, ‘Every day I think I’m becoming more like my dad,’” comedian John Mulaney tells an audience. “I think I’m becoming more like my mom.” Well, after re-reading some texts I sent to a friend who’s going through a tough breakup, it became clear that I, like Mulaney, am becoming my mom, too:

“Hang in there, ok? Be kind to yourself.”

“Small steps—one day at a time.”

“Just checking in. How are you today? I love you.”

While I definitely sent those affirmation iMessages, they were probably at one point direct quotes from one Felice Kassoy—the mother, the bubbe, and the LGBTQ+-advocating school counselor who scooped a casual PhD at age 57 and who, through nature and nurture, created me in her image.

Growing up with her, as you might imagine, there was a lot of talking. A lot of emoting. A lot of learning how to feel, how to listen, and what to say. I was encouraged to express myself and, from an early age, to explore intellectual, emotional, and creative dimensions of myself, outside assumptions or expectations of what a heterosexual male—how I identify—is or should be.

When I asked, Mom gladly took me to Claire’s to get my ear pierced in third grade; she loved when my older sister would give me hair wraps (remember those?!) during road trips; she was an enthusiastic supporter when I took up basketball and baseball and tennis, along with ballet and gymnastics and drama. I had a gymnastics birthday party and also a birthday party at a Major League Baseball game. I took a stage combat class and starred in The Magic Flute and captained my varsity tennis team in high school. I blew a soccer tournament for my squad when we lost in a shootout after I, the starting goalie, left before the championship game because I had a ballet performance. It was common on weekends to trade my shin guards and cleats for tights and slippers in the back of the minivan on the way to the theater. There, with grass stains on my knees and some residual dirt still on my hands, I’d confidently, albeit clumsily (and heavily), apply my own stage makeup for professional productions of The Nutcracker or Carmen or Beauty and the Beast.

After shows, when teachers and parents would comment on how “courageous” I was, I had no idea what they were talking about. Mom, I now realize, cultivated self-confidence and self-love in me via a nuanced version of masculinity centered upon acceptance.

How my mother son relationship shaped the man I became
Photo: Courtesy of Ben Kassoy

I can still make a reverse layup or smash an overhead, but as they say in A Chorus Line, “God, I’m a dancer. A dancer dances!” Dance has provided me infinite joy throughout my life, from creative movement classes as a kindergartner to breakdancing performances in college to today, in clubs or on streets or in my apartment, by myself. Dance is the truest, most powerful way I’m able to express my joy and my light and my love. It’s liberating. It’s life-affirming. It’s transcendent.

It’s also probably one of the reasons some people assume I’m gay. Perhaps it's something in the whirling, the strutting, and the hip-popping paired with an occasional booty bounce. Regardless, I'm no longer surprised when a cute guy makes eyes at me or a cute woman tries and sets me up with her male companion. I don’t take offense at this miscalculation that's based on stereotypes of gay men that are often quite wrong; in fact, I take it as a high compliment. I’m not trying to trick anyone—I’m just being authentic. It’s a sign of self-actualization, an outward expression of what many regard as the "feminine" aspects of who I am.

Loving and accepting myself has helped me do the same for others, regardless of how they identify, look, or live. Mom instilled this in me, too. At her school, she started a group, Gender Creative Kids, where once a week she hosts a lunchtime discussion for friends, allies, and 6- to 11-year-olds whose gender expression or identity doesn’t feel like it matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Mom has gone to bat for these students to the administration, weathered backlash from less progressive parents, and gone above and beyond, even making house calls to students struggling with anxiety and gender dysphoria. I'm an ally; Mom is an advocate.

Whether through touch, acts of service, or words of affirmation, I’m able speak in love languages that many men have silenced or repressed.

It’s largely thanks to her disregard for gender norms that I’ve been able embrace so many qualities outside the heteronormative register—namely vulnerability, sensitivity, tenderness—and I find myself seeking depth and intimacy in relationships with important men in my life. I tell my dad and guy friends that I love them. I cherish my uncle’s bear hugs, and my friends' kisses on the cheek, and the time I spend holding my grandfather’s hand while he rests in hospice. Whether through touch, acts of service, or words of affirmation, in these relationships, I’m able speak in love languages that many men have silenced or repressed.

Perhaps this is because growing up, no thought or feeling or conversation was off limits; “women’s” issues never felt frightening or taboo to me. I took a coworker out to dinner for what we called “Period Summit,” an IRL AMA where I learned all about menstruation from her. (We’re also going to reverse roles during “Dick Summit.”) DoSomething.org, the company where I work, ran a national campaign called Power to the Period, where we activated young people to donate period products to homeless shelters. Mom dedicated her 60th birthday to the cause, asking friends for tampons and pads rather than gifts.

It never much occurred to me that my activities or interests had a relationship to my masculinity or sexual preferences.

It's a great privilege that my expression of self can just be authentic rather than performative or repressed. Same with the fact that I grew up with two supportive parents and a nurturing school and community. I was never teased or bullied. I am very, very lucky.

Today, more and more parents are raising their kids without gender from birth. Mom and Dad certainly weren’t that explicit or intentional in their gender-fluid or non-gendered parenting lens, but I’m grateful that I grew up without many of the traditional and prescriptive notions in our “blue for boys, pink for girls” society. It never much occurred to me that my activities or interests had a relationship to my masculinity or sexual preferences. Mom set boundaries and taught lessons, sure, but mostly she just let me be me. I got to be my own version of a boy, so by the time I got to be a man, I wasn’t about to let anyone else define that for me.

Make this one simple email tweak to be more inclusive. And here are improvements gyms can make to be more LGTBQ+-friendly.

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