On gender identity, cliches don’t cut it

The most recent issue of the New Haven Advocate included a blurb about “Part-Time Ladies,” an event that will take place in the Yale Women’s Center on Tuesday as part of Trans Issues Week at Yale. This event will involve a panel of heterosexual crossdressers, male-bodied individuals who dress or live as women but who are distinguished from drag queens by, among other things, their romantic interest in women.

The Advocate’s brief synopsis is titled “Is that a Salami in Your Skirt?”; it concludes with the sentence, “Make-up tips on demand, and we have a feeling no question could shock these ladies”; and is accompanied by a bizarre picture appearing to make a joke out of genderbending. The blurb’s flippant tone and translation of gender identity into terms of sexuality are indicative of a pervasive ignorance about transgender issues and gender identity.

The article is infused with traditionally homosexual undertones, tossing in the word “fab” in addition to the over-the-top title and the reference to “make-up tips.” I trust that the Advocate did not intend this to blatantly offend the panelists by crudely mocking their gender identities, but rather as an attempt to make the event sound fun and campy. However, the article’s inclusion of that campiness, an important element of gay and drag queen culture, is inappropriate in this instance. A heterosexual crossdresser does not necessarily want to mock her/his gender identity, and therefore the camp so essential to drag queen culture winds up being simply offensive. A translation of all genderbending into homosexual terms to make it humorous ignores the huge variety of identities and sexualities among non-normatively gendered individuals.

The article’s tone reflects a common misperception that non-normative gender identities are always a result of an individual’s desire to heterosexualize her/himself. It’s not necessarily because s/he likes men that a biological man wants to identify as a woman. As these crossdressers prove, gender and sexuality, though inextricably linked, are not one and the same thing. Instead of directly challenging correlations between homosexuality and genderbending, the article’s tone and its statement “hetero crossdressers (they exist, you know)” perpetuates the tendency to automatically explain gender “deviance” in terms of homosexuality.

We seem unable to discuss biological men wearing dresses, for example, without that safety net of homosexuality and without the camp. God forbid we take their gender identities seriously — because after all, making fun of individuals who don the garments and appearance traditionally reserved for the “opposite” sex allows us to pretend that we don’t all perform gender. It enables us to believe that we don’t all wear the clothes we wear for specific reasons and to make specific statements. However, performing in alignment with gender stereotypes of femininity and masculinity in no way means that one is not performing — it’s simply easier for that individual to pretend that she/he is not. It is arguably this lack of awareness of our constant gender performances, not the performances themselves, which causes huge problems.

What, for example, is the template for manhood? Possible criteria, based on stereotypical signifiers of masculinity, include never crying, having a penis, facial hair, playing sports, developed musculature, a Y chromosome, short hair, and drinking beer. Few men, however, fit all, or even most, of these criteria. There is no one consistent way to “be a man” — it must be continually performed, in different ways depending on context. Singling out these heterosexual crossdressers as abnormal or a spectacle implies we’re not all doing something similar — when in fact we are, but we’re just not acknowledging it as openly as they do.

An androgynous individual could be feminine when perceived as a man and masculine when perceived as a woman. Depending upon whether she/he is taken to be male or female, she/he is often also labeled with regards to her/his sexuality, personality, and politics — assumptions which could range from “what a man-hating lesbian” to “what a flaming homosexual dude.” That is a prime example of social construction. Recognizing this constructedness does not deny that we each have a physiology, but it affirms that it is ludicrous to imagine that our bodies naturally determine and restrict our behaviors, our personalities, our politics or our sexualities.

I am inclined to thank the Advocate for providing such a perfect example of the many misconceptions floating around — even within the queer community — about gender identity and non-normative gender. As with any social movement or identity politics, language matters immensely. Therefore, we must begin in our use of language to recognize our own preconceived notions about gender and gender identity, and to accommodate more fluidity of gender, sex and sexuality. Events such as “Part-Time Ladies” and the rest of Trans Issues Week can hopefully teach us all a thing or two about that.



Loren Krywanczyk, a junior in Silliman College, is a coordinator of Yale’s LGBT Cooperative.

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