Tag Archives: Gender/ Sexuality

David Bowie – mirroring the times on gender

This morning I woke up to news of David Bowie’s death and felt a profound sense of personal loss. As a child of the seventies, Bowie had been a part of my life almost from day one.

One of my earliest memories is of seeing Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and falling completely in love. I was about three years old, and already having a complicated relationship with gender, which manifested in my continually removing the pretty grips my mother put in my hair and “losing” them in the garden. I can still recall seeing David Bowie’s made-up face on the TV, trying to work him out. I remember the thrill I got when I realised he was a man. David Bowie whispered something to me about gender difference that was compelling even at that tender age.

[image: Ziggy Stardust perches with mic on edge of stage, wearing a playsuit - black and white image]

I look back across his life and see that Bowie was both a gender pioneer, and a mirror of the times. In one of the earliest media clips of Bowie, he is challenging the expectation that men should conform to gender stereotypes, as part of “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men”. It really is worth a watch, if only to see the kinds of conventions he was up against at the time:

A window opened up in the late sixties and seventies around gender liberation and queerness and Bowie jumped straight through it, dazzling us with the way he flaunted conventions of gender and sexuality. We will always be left to wonder how much of his gender variant expression and open bisexuality was a calculated performance and how much was an expression of his authentic self; but whichever it was, he did an immense amount for the visibility of bisexual and gender variant people, and gave hope to young queers like myself.

But, as if to prove that progress doesn’t just roll smoothly onwards, the 1980’s happened, with a new conservatism, a backlash against the LGBT community, and of course the AIDS crisis. At this point even Elton John was married to a woman, and Bowie started showing up in suits, the image of respectability. He then claimed that coming out as bisexual had been “a mistake” that was bad for his career. But there was a knowingness in his cultivated image even then; he made us look at ourselves and where we had got to. If even David Bowie is wearing a suit, god help us!

I was a teen in the 80’s, and this social regression at such a formative time made who I was seem almost impossible. I hid myself under roles as conventional as Bowie’s suits, and bided my time.

The gay world recovered considerably from the crisis of the eighties, but I’m not sure gender variance did in the same way, because while Elton John is now happily married to a man, a figure like Bowie becoming as iconic and successful while turning gender performance on its head seems even less likely now than it did in the year of my birth.

But the 2010’s have given gender variance a resurgence, the hint of new possibilities. And there was Bowie right in the middle of it all again, cross-dressing with Tilda Swinton in a perfect image that encapsulates so much about the gender story of both these icons:

 [image: Black and white image of Tilda Swinton dressed as David Bowie and David Bowie dressed as Tilda Swinton]

And then there was that amazing V&A retrospective on Bowie in 2013 reminding us of what had once been possible, whispering that perhaps it could be again.

It’s no surprise then that this has also been the decade when I came out fully about my own gender. Visibility begets visibility, makes it possible to be seen and at least partially understood. Bowie did not show me the way this time – rather, we were both riding the same wave. Many social movements follow this pattern – revolution, backlash and regression, and ultimately, integration. Whatever his motivations, Bowie was part of that revolution, inspiring generations and showing us a different way. At the very least he was a public, visible symbol of an important change that was happening.

Bowie also had many very problematic moments that we 100% need to acknowledge, such as sex with an underage groupie and a drug-fuelled brief fascination with fascism. And if you want to know if it’s still okay to admire aspects of Bowie after reading this, try this article on “How to be a fan of problematic things“.

Intriguing and compelling to the last, I feel huge loss for this man who showed me an image of masculinity that was a million miles from the buttoned-up rigidity of my military family. Thank you, David Bowie, for showing me other ways of being a man.

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In my head I’m still a lesbian

When my partner came out as a trans* man, I had not expected so many eyes to be on me and my identity. I want to support my partner, I believe in him and I accept who he is . . . but wait, does this mean I now have to be redefined myself? Because I’m not quite sure I want any man (sorry dearest) to define who I am. Not that he’s asking me to, but other eyes are on me for sure.

The thing people don’t seem to get is that he hasn’t really changed. He’s always been a man, so why do I have to change now, just because he’s acknowledging it more openly? The reality is, the lesbian community is full of all kinds of genderqueerness and trans-masculinity, and it always has been. That’s why I feel comfortable here, and lesbian has been the word I’ve used to describe myself, a word that more or less comfortably fits me. If I was looking for a partner tomorrow, I would be looking in the lesbian community, and I would be continuing to fight to make this, my community, more trans-inclusive, queer friendly and acknowledging of the complexity of gender. Maybe lesbian is not the right word for me, but it’s been around me for a long time, like my own name, and it fits me in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so; it speaks to the kind of person I am, not just my relationship choices.

When my partner came out, we had to lay a lot of stuff on the line. It was painful. I had to make it pretty clear what I am and am not up for – I’m not prepared to pretend to be part of a straightforward cis heterosexual couple; I cannot squash my own queerness to assist in his passing. Hard as it was, I had to say I could not live stealth, and that he would have to face the fact that my queer presence in his life was always going to make it more difficult for him to pass. He did not ask me to do any of those things, but knowing what was ahead of us, it needed to be spelled out.

Last week we went to a straight wedding, and my partner wore a suit and tie – he looked so beautiful, so very comfortable in this second skin. I had pangs of guilt – maybe if I’d worn a dress, rather than trousers, jacket and a shirt, we would not have drawn attention. But as it was, we only drew good attention; we stood out, but we’re so happy and comfortable in our queerness it did not seem to matter, and people accepted his pronouns without a blink.

Thank heaven my partner chooses me along with the complication that go with my own queerness. He was very clear that for himself being stealth is not the way he wants to go. He’s also never identified with a differentiated “butch/femme” dynamic in his relationships, so why would he suddenly start now? Like me, my partner has always been attracted to genderqueer people, and the reality is there is no huge gap between his identity and mine; it’s not a simple binary – him over there in the boy camp and me over here in the girl camp. Our relationship will continue to be more homo than hetero.

And I can say all this and still be sure he’s a man. It’s me that’s the ambiguous variable in this equation, and there are no easy labels for me anymore.

I’m changing too, and realising my queerness has more to do with gender than sexuality, but I still feel gay – sometimes I feel like a lesbian, sometimes I feel more like a gay man. I can’t tolerate my queerness being invisibilised by people who think I became straight overnight, such as the person who emailed me saying I need to leave a lesbian group because of my partner’s transition, or the others who are saying that my partner is transitioning in order to conform to heteronormativity. Just because he and I now express different gender identities, we did not overnight become some epitome of straightforward, binary categorisation.

I remain lesbian-identified; if others want to describe me as bisexual or pansexual, I don’t object to those labels but they are not labels I chose for myself. And I cannot accept anybody trying to police my identity, any more than I accept people policing trans* identities.

I do fully accept that I am in a relationship with a man. I will not do anything to undermine my partner’s identity or suggest he’s any less of a man than other men. We don’t define ourselves in relation to each other; our identities stand on their own.

Being trans* in the lesbian community

Since coming out as genderqueer, I can’t tell you how many of my friends have told me that they, too have gender issues, issues that are entirely separate from their sexuality. Lesbian friends, not all of them remotely butch, have admitted they never felt like a woman. Straight but “gay-looking” friends have opened my closed mind to the fact that it was a gender issue, not a sexuality issue, I was picking up in them.

Fellow dykes, when you walk down the street and see a straight woman who “doesn’t know she’s a dyke” what you’re seeing may be their gender, not their sexuality. Time to open our minds – gender and sexuality are two entirely different things; that’s why femmes exist.

So why does the lesbian community lock gender issues so firmly in the closet?

For me, the message came through at my first ever lesbian event; I made good friends with a trans* woman and then we found out she wasn’t welcome; the event had a “women born women only” policy. I soon learned that many women’s spaces are trans* excluding. Even when they’re nominally inclusive, the amount of hostility to trans* women from a vocal minority in the community makes them feel completely unwelcome.

My friend wasn’t an activist. She was quiet and shy, like most of my trans* friends. She didn’t know about the policy, because it wasn’t advertised. She was a woman who liked women; she thought the event was for her. When she found out, she didn’t kick up a fuss, she just left, devastated and bewildered. Most of the people there didn’t agree with the policy, but they didn’t fight it either. Everyone just carried on enjoying themselves in a trans* free space, like white South Africans who didn’t really agree with apartheid but were still more comfortable sunning themselves on white-only beaches and not having to deal with people who are different.

There’s this whole bullshit, garbled theory to justify trans* exclusion, based on “if we say it’s not real, we’re right and all these people with all this complex, unique experience – well, they’re wrong.” Oh, and science is wrong too. And if we never talk to those people or allow them into our events or conversations, then we never have to examine whether our ideas really hold water (hint: they don’t).

If you want to get really technical, the “trans-critical” theories are a bizarre mash-up of a) the post-modern ideas of Judith Butler (who is trans* accepting, intersectional and inclusive, as it happens) and b) some essentialist ideas about sex and biology being destiny. So far, so not very radical. A simplistic and essentialist model of binary, biological sex trumping all other considerations becomes the clumsy crayon with which we’re expected to draw our identities, (and police other people’s).

But I understand their fear, because I feel it too. Opening your mind to trans* issues shakes the foundations of everything we believe about sex and gender; however radical we may think we are, really wrapping our head around the multiverse of trans* identities is one giant leap beyond anything non-intersectional feminism has to say. But as Judith Butler puts it:

“the feminist framework that takes the structural domination of women as the starting point from which all other analyses of gender must proceed imperils its own viability by refusing to countenance the various ways that gender emerges as a political issue, bearing a specific set of social and physical risks.   . . .That feminism has always countered violence against women, sexual and nonsexual, ought to serve as a basis for alliance with those other movements since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins anti-homophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism.” Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, p.9

In simpler words, (because Butler’s words are never simple) ignoring gender variance as a real thing and ignoring the inherent risks and oppressions connected to any kind of gender variance, is likely to undermine feminism (and reinforce patriarchy). So Trans* exclusion is brilliantly doing patriarchy’s work for it, assisting in the oppression and marginalisation of gender non-conforming individuals.

For me, I quickly learned to keep my own gender issues under wraps, but I’m fed up now of cutting off bits of myself in order to conform to one group or another. I hereby resign from the binary and the either/or in all its manifestations. And I still belong here.

Life’s a drag

Some folks talk about how trans* issues can lessen when you hit puberty, as if that proves they’re only transient and should not be taken seriously. When I hit my teens, that time when our social selves are at their most powerful and it’s all about fitting in, I did indeed lurch uncomfortably across the gender divide. For a brief time I went all-out with skirts and make-up, even though it felt completely incongruous, even though as a child my gender identity was mostly male. As I’ve said before, it was male socialisation I soaked up as a kid, where female socialisation seemed to slide right off me like I was made of teflon. But then I became a teen and something switched; I became self-conscious in an entirely different way. I tried so damn hard to be a girl, experimenting with skirts and make-up and jewellery. I even enjoyed the girly dress-up in a way, but there was always a conscious act of performance involved . . . dresses and make-up were like drag to me.

It was confusing; because I couldn’t be the boy I’d always been. Hormonal and social changes rendered my true nature all but invisible. Years passed of radical swings between crew cuts and motorbikes and long hippy skirts that tripped me up. My friendships and relationships were with men, and at first I enjoyed being “one of the guys” but the older I got, the more I found myself being pushed into traditional female roles. Not only was I being shoved into a box no woman should be shoved in, I was also finding myself misgendered – the label on the box was “woman” and that was not how I identified.

I started to question my gender in my late twenties with a counsellor who really didn’t get what I was about. Many cisgender people simply don’t allow for the option of being trans* as an explanation for gender questioning – they look at sexuality, mental health, gender roles, feminism, anything but believing in something outside their own experience. My counsellor was no exception – she honed my feminist beliefs and my permission to be non-conformist, for which I’m grateful, but she missed my core identity.

My soul expanded when I met my first trans* woman – let’s call her Karen. The “Karen effect” is why we need trans* people out and proud and fully present in every corner of our world. I met Karen at depth, and I knew her to be a woman. Not in the way she looked or the things she liked or any trite old stereotype; something deeper and instinctive told me she was so much more of a woman than I was.  I can’t tell you what a woman is or what being a woman really means; I have no crude description of femininity or woman-ness for you, but our instinctive selves, our child selves know this stuff that our “civilised” brains obliterate with their tyrannical rigidity.

When I met Karen I realised that if there was a line, and I don’t believe that it’s anything so simple as a line, between man and woman, Karen was nearer to the woman side of it than me; despite her five o’clock shadow, despite her square jaw, or the ill-fit of her vaguely feminine clothes.

Karen blew my mind wide open and suddenly I was learning that we are given a label at birth based on spurious criteria; that many children are born with indeterminate genitalia; that chromosomes don’t always match appearances, and that our brains don’t always neatly match our bodies. I began to wonder if perhaps someone made a mistake in assigning my gender as female; perhaps I was a boy on the inside and that would explain me.

She set a spark in me and then extinguished herself. Persecuted out of existence, Karen disguised herself as Nigel once again, even though pretending to be Nigel had nearly killed her. But as Jeannette Winterson’s mother would say, “Why be happy when you can be normal?” I hope she’s found some way to survive, but I know she cannot thrive living that lie. When I think of Karen’s story, I feel fury at the transphobic fiction that people like her are seeking some sort of gender conformity. Her road was the hardest road there is and the world was not ready for her to take it, even though taking that road and telling her truth would have enriched the world’s story beyond imagining.

My story shrank down then to a more manageable size – coming out as a lesbian (I was already out as bi) was a more socially acceptable half-truth for me. My clever new tag-line was “I am a woman, just a different kind of woman”.  I entered a rich and gender diverse community and it felt a lot like home. And yet we don’t speak enough about gender in the lesbian community – we barely even talk about butch/femme any more, we just say that gender is socially constructed and we are the way we are because of our sexuality. Well, I’m not buying it any more. Gender is a whole heap more complicated than that. We seriously need to open our minds. I’m just beginning to open mine.

Coming out of yet another closet – from lesbian to genderqueer

It’s time I came out of the closet, again. Just like I’ve been told many a time while arguing with trans excluding radfems online . . . I’m not really a woman.

Let me explain . . . I don’t know what my chromosomal arrangements are, I imagine few people do for sure. I do know mother nature gave me breasts and periods, so presumably ovaries and a uterus although nobody’s ever gone in and taken a look. I don’t have a dick. I don’t look like a dude. But right from the start I was socialised more male than female, and I believe this is about how I looked at and experienced the world . . . my brain (or heart, or soul) led me down roads intended for males to walk.

An early photo has me standing in a flat cap and braces and I look like a cute little 4-year-old boy. My sister liked dolls and make-up; I liked climbing trees and getting mucky – but what does that really mean? Liking ungirly things shouldn’t make anyone, including me, question my woman-ness. But it’s deeper than that – something pretty fixed in me made me look to males rather than females for my social cues. Something more than just the prevalence of male role models and the invisibility of female icons; beyond social construction, beyond feminist ideas, beyond sexuality; something I’m going to daringly call an innate gender identity.

How we “do” gender is made up by society as it goes along, as evidenced by the fact pink was a boy’s colour not so very long ago. But something inside us makes us follow the lead of whichever gender our identity points us toward. We’re social animals, designed to “download” whatever environment we’re born into, and it’s becoming increasingly clear we naturally tune in to gendered information. The possibilities for how we tune in – how our unique selves meet the gendered world – are endless, but can be broadly (if a little inaccurately) chopped up into male, female, both or neither, and these instincts may not always match our bodies.  It’s unique for each of us, and no simple binary explanations quite cut it. Some scientists may say it’s hormones in utero shaping our brains, but I don’t need a science experiment to tell me who I am. I know who I am, and that should be enough.

I’ve wanted to wear trousers, play with cars and climb trees since I could walk. It has nothing to do with me being a feminist. It has nothing to do with me wanting to subvert the stereotypical gender roles in society. It has nothing to do with my sexuality, which is about who I am attracted to, not who I am. Yes, I’m attracted to women, but contrary to what some anti-trans folks might say, that does not settle the issue of gender identity, although for a long time I tried to believe it did, and having come out of one closet I built myself another. How can anyone possibly say that as a kid I liked to play with tools and shoot bows and arrows because I’m a lesbian? It doesn’t make any sense. I was drawn to boys’ things and boy’s social rules because part of me thought I was a boy, it really is that simple.

But hang on, we feminists know gender is socially constructed, right? All that stuff about “boy’s toys” and “girl’s toys” is sexist rubbish that needs challenging. The arguments are pretty persuasive, and I agree with them. Check out books like Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and suddenly it becomes clear that all qualities and behaviours we think of as innately male or female are easily implanted in human children’s uniquely “plastic”, adaptable and socially-orientated brains.

But if social construction is so powerful, why did it miss me completely? How did I escape such a dominant force? It wasn’t my feminist leanings, at the age of three, that made me throw my sister’s dolls across the room in disgust. Some people say my being a lesbian explains it – but how, exactly, does that work? Isn’t that just a convenient blurring of gender and sexuality? What made me reach for trousers or throw away the make-up my auntie kept insisting on buying me? What made me resist the powerful conditioning that was happening to all the girls around me? Could I perhaps have an ineffable quality that is drawn to boy’s things and boy’s social rules?

Ok, but once again, we know gender is socially constructed, right? Well what if we lived in a society where it was socially constructed that boys always wear bananas on their heads? I truly believe by the age of three I would have had the intense desire to wear bananas on my head. Something inside of me reached into the social world and looked for my cues from males instead of females. It wouldn’t have mattered what the boys were doing, I wanted to do it too. It has nothing to do with what I actually did – I wasn’t born with an innate desire to shout, show off my strength and torture my sister’s barbies, it was simply that boys did that kind of stuff and I was programmed to copy them. If boys wore blue lipstick and played hopscotch I would have wanted to wear blue lipstick and play hopscotch. As it was, I found myself wanting to open doors for women and win at arm wrestling. I absorbed a million social messages that weren’t intended for me and an awful lot of the messages I was “supposed” to receive simply bounced off me, to the exasperation of my female relatives.

If we had lived in a century where, as in nature, boys dressed for display and women for camouflage, maybe I would have been sequinned and feathered and rainbow from head to toe. I had boyish tendencies, and whatever society chose boyish to mean, I think that is what I would have wanted to be. And I just want to make an important distinction – I don’t think I ever said I was a boy, the messages for me were not quite that strongly implanted. But if I had, I sincerely hope (although I doubt) that my parents would have respected this, because children are perfectly capable of knowing themselves. If I can feel this way, I have no problem believing others feel it more strongly, and can only thrive living as their true gender.

But people are not left to figure out their own realities; society moves in and interprets their reality for them. Layers of complex socialisation become part of our gender stories and we can never separate nature and nurture, nor is there any value in trying. As a child, I was given the label “tomboy”, as if this resolved everything neatly. It didn’t, but for a while I was satisfied with that label. Later, I hit on “lesbian” and it more or less fit, but inherent in that word is the assumption that I’m a woman, and that my difference has nothing to do with gender. But I’m not a woman. I’m not entirely a man, either, as it happens; I don’t have any plan to transition, although I fully support those who do. But I’m tired, so tired of my gender being missed, I’m tired of passing for cisgender, even though it has many privileges. There’s probably nothing I can do about it but open my mouth and say how I feel, although coming out to a community that is so scared and confused about trans* issues is more than a little frightening.

Labels never quite manage to live up to the human need to express and describe, but if you want a label for me, for the moment I’ll settle for genderqueer.