“Perhaps gender happens between bodies, not within them.” – Indra Windh (with Del LaGrace Volcano), “GenderFusion”
Such a simple thought with so many complex ramifications.
I read that quote today in another essay from Queer Theory, which continues to be a wonderful read, though I’m currently attacking a Judith Butler piece in which she predictably takes seventeen words to say things that could have been said in four. But I digress.
I remember the exact moment I went from tomboy to femme. It was when I attended my first queer women’s event – a weekend up North with Tip of the Tongue, the queer women’s group I joined when I was first coming out and which I ended up running for almost seven years. (Gah. What a thought. I feel old.)
Seriously – I walked in, and my gender flipped instantly. No, I didn’t change clothes; no, I didn’t adopt new mannerisms. I just appeared in a new context.
The prior context included my mainly straight crowd of friends, and the gym I mentioned in a recent post. Within that context, I was the boyish one. I had long hair, but I didn’t perm it or dye it or style it. I wore high heels and lipstick, but I didn’t wear foundation or mascara or lipliner or blusher or eye shadow or eyeliner. I painted my nails, but I didn’t get a French gel manicure every two weeks. I dated guys, but I didn’t want to marry one and buy a house and have babies and put up with sexist behaviour and please my parents. I swore. I talked about sex. I had sex in ways that were not strictly missionary position. I liked being on top, even if sometimes that meant letting someone think they were. I lifted weights. I left home at 18 and moved in with a friend, instead of waiting to get married and move in with a husband. And so on, and so forth. I was a tomboy. Sure, I happened to pull off a reasonable facsimile of femininity most of the time, but I was nowhere near as good at it, or genuinely invested in it, as most of the women I knew.
Then I met 35 lesbians in a cabin in the woods. And I had long hair and lipstick (not so much the high heels that weekend; practicality has its merits after all) and nail polish, and I liked masculine gals. What did that make me? Femme, of course!
It was kind of baffling, really. All of a sudden girls were opening doors for me and stuff. They liked that I had shaved my legs. They wanted to drive me places and carry my things and take me on motorcycle rides and watch me put on my lipstick, as though it were an erotic mystery written in a foreign language. It was… weird, man. Just plain bizarre.
Of course it was also pretty nice. It felt fun to play with these things – things that sometimes felt irritating to me when men did them, but that in this case felt more… I dunno… egalitarian. We were engaging in a wink to heterosexual behaviour patterns, queering the equation, playing with the erotic codes of a sex pairing not ours, imitating but not duplicating, dancing in steps that were not meant for us. I kissed a cute boyish dyke that weekend – or maybe she kissed me – but neither of us were stuck in a particular role that dictated who got to touch whom how and when and with what degree of insistence. It just flowed. It was transgressive, ironic, delicious. It was queer.
As time went by, I discovered a deeper understanding of my own experience and definition of my gender. Yes, I have a gender (a fluid, multifaceted one) independently of my relationships with other people, and it expresses itself through my body in thousands of tiny ways. Just to take two examples, conveniently located fairly far apart on the “spectrum”: one day a couple of weeks ago, I was feeling kind of yuppie boyish, semi-casual but a little dapper, so I wore a shirt and tie and a sweater vest and jeans and combat boots. A couple of days later, it was hot out and I was feeling pretty and languid, so I wore a tank top and skirt and heels and touch of lipstick. Simple, ya?
It would be simple if this happened only in the privacy of my home – a single point. (And even then.) But the next dimension, the line, is about how others perceive the gender signals that I feel to be congruent with who I am on a given day. And that’s not simple at all.
In a tie and a sweater vest and jeans and combat boots, I’m soft butch (to my dyke friends), a gender ally (to my trans friends), a mannish dyke to be sneered at or ignored (to straight folks, aside from the occasional dude who gets a little thrill out of the tie), and a stubbornly contrary feminine daughter who insists on dressing to raise eyebrows like all those lesbians she’s friends with (to my parents). In a tank top and skirt and heels and lipstick, I’m femme (to my dyke friends), potentially campy depending on my behaviour (to my trans friends), straight with too many piercings but whatever maybe she’s adventurous in bed so let’s catcall her (to straight folks, the latter piece to the men), and that’s a little dressy for dinner but you look lovely darling, and why didn’t you bring your boyfriend oh never mind he has blue hair and lives in San Francisco and has three other girlfriends (to my parents).
But it doesn’t end there, oh no sirree. Here comes dimension number three, in which we square things.
Because it is also true that much of that gender is played out not in my embodied and performative self as I am perceived walk down the street, but in the way that embodied and performative (okay, Judith, I don’t always hate you) self interacts with other embodied, performative people out there. In addition to my own understanding of my gender, gender happens when someone is attracted to me, or vice versa, or preferably both at once. Gender happens when someone is gallant or graceful. It happens when someone sizes me up depending on my clothing, my body language, my voice, my gait, my speech, and decides how to treat me as a result. Gender happens in that space between us – in what we each see and what we decide to do about it, and most importantly, why.
This space is where I eventually discovered the limits of butch/femme. Oh, it still holds a deep appeal for me – I just need the freedom to move in and out of it as it suits me, unsurprisingly. (Don’t get me started on my encounters with butch dyke sexism.)
Sometimes I want to be the curvy gal in the halter top straddling the back of a hot dyke’s motorcycle. But sometimes I want to be a fag with my lovers, pink bits irrelevant – whether we’re two female-bodied guys, or one plus one male- or trans-bodied one. Sometimes I want to be high femme, and play the gentleman while I’m at it, hold the door for my date in my dresses and heels. Sometimes I want to be relatively neutral. Sometimes I want my partner to be femme, regardless of my own gender that day; I want to tell them they’re pretty, stroke their smooth skin. Sometimes I’m like a teenage boy, stammering when confronted with the powerful pull of dangerous curves and sharp shoes and chiselled cheekbones. Butch/femme is still strongly erotic, but so are many other gendered dynamics – and being stuck in just one of them feels maddeningly restrictive. This is about my own gender, but now it’s also about how I choose to experience my gender in relation to others.
And it doesn’t end there, either. We’ve got the first three dimensions of our gender – 1) alone, 2) alone and perceived by others, and 3) in relation to one another. But now we get to the really fun part: dimension number four, the tesseract.
Because there aren’t just two or three of us interacting and creating gender as it stands and bends and flexes and breathes between us. The gender that exists in the space between two or more people also exists between them (as a pair or group) and the people outside their interaction – like the second dimension multiplied. One can watch a solo gender, but when one is watching the gender that arises in the space between two solo genders, one sees something different. There’s a new relationship created between the watchers and the watched, the audience and the performers, however unconscious any of them are of their role in the show.
My solo gender, plus lover or partner of any other solo gender, creates gender between us. A watcher creates gender too. Add that all together, and we need to consider the new experience of whoever might be seeing us in the midst of our performance… from within their gender du jour to boot! In that case it looks more complex still. Nummy!
Butch on butch? Dykes! (to straight folks and queers alike). Butch with masculine (with all the complexities and inadequacies of that word) man? Depends on who’s looking. With straight guys, they’re not sure, but it’s a little weird, maybe intriguing, maybe we’ll call him/them “faggot” depending how closely we look and how homophobic we are. Butch with feminine (with all the complexities and inadequacies of that word) man? Depends on who’s looking. With straight guys, maybe we’ll call him/them “dykes” depending how closely we look and how homophobic we are. With dykes, they’re not sure, but it’s a little weird, enough for a double take, she looks like one of us but he’s – oh never mind, this is too complicated. Femme alone is straight by default, but femme with butch? All of a sudden I’m a lesbian to both the straight folks and the queers, except maybe the dykes who think all femmes are bi, or the queer guys who know a fellow flexible sort when they see one.
And so on, and so forth.
It’s pretty strange, knowing that my gender morphs into a new state of being depending on what cloth is covering my skin that day, who I’m standing next to, and who’s looking. It’s one thing for gender to rise in me when I wake in the morning or dress to leave the house; it’s another for it to bubble up between two people; but it’s an entirely different one to have that gender flicker between any number of people who may cross paths with one another on a given afternoon. My gender may be seen as three or four or ten different things by people in the exact same instant without me ever knowing.
In other words – my gender is completely out of control. Mine, theirs, all of ours. Or perhaps it’s under control from so many people’s differing perspectives at once that control itself becomes meaningless.
I take great comfort and pleasure in that.
“Vast sliding movements over different positions on the gendered spectrum. Slippery changes. (…) It’s not simply that I disguise myself well; what they don’t recognize is that I cannot be discovered behind these appearances. If anything, I am the differences between them.” – Indra Windh