Tuesday, March 30, 2010

clap your hands if you believe

(My good friend Rose-Anne and I have been writing tandem weekly posts about the same topics. You'll be able to read hers here. Enjoy!)

When Rose-Anne reminded me that this week's tandem post was going to be about gender, I knew I was in trouble. (Gender trouble! Get it? No? Here you go.) That might seem counterintuitive, given that the only reason we’re writing about it at all is because it’s something I’ve written about before; next week we’ll be covering a topic more prominent in Rose-Anne’s writing. Anyway, given that this is my topic, why was I concerned about it? I have some haphazard credentials in this area: a few classes taken in college, a shelf or two of books that I've mostly actually read, Kate Bornstein's signature and lipsticked kiss in my copy of Gender Outlaw, and an organizational role in Genderqueer Chicago, a weekly safe-space community discussion group. I even have a business card. I spend a lot of time thinking about gender, so writing about it should be no problem. Right?

Well. You know how if you say (or write) a word over and over to yourself it begins to lose its meaning, to become a collection of nonsense syllables without any content? You sit there, and you say "Wow, 'tongue' is such a totally weird word!" and then you forget about it until it happens again with something else. Gender is sort of like that for me. Talking about gender is sometimes difficult enough, but writing about it is almost always like trying to make sense of the word "stoop" after I've said it for the hundredth time in a row: in other words, virtually impossible. The problem is that, for all the time I've spent thinking about it, I actually have no idea at all what gender is. I mean, I sort of do, in that I know some of the potential definitions, and I have some fairly clear ideas as to what it isn't--sexual orientation, for one, or some sort of penis/vagina binary--but if you asked me what it really truly is, what lies in the deep dark heart of the word "gender", I don't think I could tell you.*

Gender as a theoretical concept is one thing—and an important one, I believe; as one friend told me, you can’t create change until you can imagine it—but what really matters right now, what makes gender a big deal and worth talking about, is real life. In real life, people get harassed, beaten, killed, and commit suicide because they have and exhibit understandings of gender that differ from those of the people around them. But in real life there’s also room to play and joke and push boundaries and meet new people and be more considerate towards others and laugh and cry and dance around, and that can all take place in the realm of gender too. Because gender is on some level invented and possibly imaginary (or so I sometimes think of it), it’s an area open to exploration and learning. Being around people who are willing to re-imagine their gender lives in radical non-socially-approved ways has made me able to believe that other boundaries are more permeable also, and that there is space to live in between what I should do and what I might do.

One of my best friends, who is trans, consistently uses humor to diffuse the ire leveled towards him; when somebody asks him what he is (note the dehumanizing phrasing of that question), he simply raises his forefinger, upon which he has penned a mustache, puts it to his upper lip, raises his eyebrows, and walks away. He jokes about a Glitter Revolution, one formulated around play and acceptance, and he often carries a pouch of glitter with him that he will willingly sprinkle you with if you ask him nicely. He also told me one of the best stories I have ever heard, which I will pass on to you now.

He was on the beach, looking at the waves, spiffed up in a tie and collared shirt. A small child ran up to him and, as children often do, asked him if he was a boy or a girl. He smiled at her and told her, truthfully, that some people are more than just boys or girls. Her eyes got enormous and she leaned forward and whispered, as if she could barely believe her luck: “Like fairies?” “Yes,” my friend told her, “like fairies.” With that he reached into his pouch and blew some glitter towards her from a raised fingertip, and she ran off down the beach as fast as her legs could carry her.

I hope she remembers that some day and laughs. I hope she grows up believing that she can be more.

*Nor am I going to try; there are plenty of people who have written far more eloquently and knowledgeably about gender than I could ever hope to, and I suggest you read their words if you'd like to know more. If you don't know where to find them, write me a message and I'll get back to you.


Rosiecat said...

Oh, a, my tandem-posting buddy! This gave me chills. I'm actually really glad that this was hard for you to write because my piece was hard for me too. Gender is a hard concept to pin down--it seems happier to exist in a fuzzier way in our collective imaginations.

I count myself among the guilty here, but seriously, what is it about us that drives us to know whether a person is a man or a woman? Why does it matter so much? I want to see a person as a human first, but the whole gender thing drives me to distraction. Help!

a said...

The thing is, I don't know if I really want to pin down gender. I don't know if it's an idea that actually exists in a crystallized clear form, and I think trying to force it to be one might limit our possibilities for working within in.
I don't know why people feel the need to do that, but it seems fairly universal. I am not sure whether it's possible (or practical, or actually desireable) to completely uncouple your noticing of gender--in the form of either more standard presentation or of gender ambiguity--from your first interaction with a person. I think perhaps what matters more is not basing assumptions around that noticing, more like how we deal with race, disability, etc. People are people and we all have differences, and it's important to be respectful of those, but you can't pretend that they don't exist either. I'm not sure I'm saying this right. Sigh.

Lauren said...

I *love* that beach story.

a said...

Lauren: ME TOO. Like, the best ever. Love it.