Friday, November 30, 2007

Challenging the Premise

I'm walking along Sixth Avenue in the West Village. There's a person walking in front of me, short hair, down jacket. A panhandler, trying to drum up business, calls out, "young man! Young man!" As I walk past he says "Young lady...uh, young man!"
Hm, I think, time for a haircut.
The 'young man' in front of me turns and I realize she's a woman.
"He wasn't really helping his case, was he," she says.

No indeed.

For about two years in Seattle, in the early nineties, I had really long hair. During college my appearance was usually in the control of whatever director I was working with, so I hadn't gotten to indulge the experimentation many people do in college. When I graduated, and was not always subject to the needs of a play or director, I started to play a bit. Contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom, I actually worked more with long hair, and got cast in more interesting roles, in part because of the hair. (Yes, that's me up there, in Ireland in '93.)

As with any change in appearance, though, a side-effect was dealing with new reactions from people, especially strangers. Remember, this was Seattle in the nineties, so people frequently assumed I was a straight guy in a grunge band. It was not uncommon though, for people to mistake me for a woman. It was usually if the light were dim, or if they saw me first from the back, or if I was wearing earrings that dangled just a bit too much. I mean I wasn't swanning about in frocks and eye-shadow or anything. Not that I have a problem with that, mind you. Just not really my thing; off-stage at least.

Shut up.

One night I was leaving my 24 hour grocery store around three am; On the other side of the parking lot (I'd say at least one hundred feet) there were a couple of guys about to go into the store. One of them saw me, stopped and said, "Hey... come over here." His tone was flirty, friendly, in no way threatening, but even if I hadn't had a nice fellow waiting for me at home, I wouldn't have gone over to say hi. Somehow I just knew he thought he was talking to a woman. Maybe I was wrong and he was flirting with a guy, maybe I was right and we all would have a chuckle when I went over... but I wasn't really interested in putting it to the test. Especially not at three in the morning.

Most of the time, however, when this happened, the illusion rarely lasted long; people would get a better look, or I'd speak (I sing bass-baritone, for those who haven't met me), and they'd realize their mistake. Then they would usually scramble with great embarrassment to apologize. Apparently if someone, in all honesty and with no intent to offend, mistook me for a woman, I was supposed to be offended.

I get it, of course. I mean, come on, I grew up in this society too, let's not play dumb. People would worry that their mistake would tell me that I was looking ambiguous, or, more importantly, that I wasn't manly enough. That was what was supposed to offend me. That hapless, perhaps near-sighted panhandler in Greenwich Village has me thinking about this again, and making some deeper, more complicated connections.

Fact is, I was quite effeminate as a kid, a classic sissy in the "plays with dolls, dresses up like a girl during make-believe, always gets picked last for any sports teams on the rare occasions he couldn't avoid them all together" kind of way. My family never tried to change me, though I think the 'pretending to be a girl' part was cause for at least some consternation. A few years ago Mom shame-facedly asked if I remembered her giving me a little state trooper's outfit when I was about six. I have no recollection of this whatsoever, but I howled with laughter. The idea that this life-long Quaker Pacifist Feminist thought a law enforcement uniform would straighten me out still makes me snort. Not sure Mom thinks it as funny as I do, yet.

Obviously as I aged though, I, like most guys, was terrified of being pegged as a sissy. I didn't strive to be overly butch (not being good at sports would have always been the fly in that ointment), but I certainly tried to downplay any unfortunate habits or displays. I was lucky in that I was surrounded by a small community of people who a) didn't believe that sports was the only measure of a man and b) believed there was nothing wrong with a guy liking art, music, theatre and even (gasp!) dance. It has to be acknowledged though, the point being made was that none of these things made you gay. The assumption that gayness was to be avoided went unquestioned.

Also to be avoided were any guys who weren't able to butch it up at least to minimum levels. Guilt by association is the Lingua Franca of high school, after all; you're only as cool as your geekiest friend. I didn't challenge this assumption at all either. Then when I started college, and started meeting guys who were openly gay AND flamboyant, I was even more uncomfortable. Why did they have to fulfill all the stereotypes like that? Didn't they see that they were ruining it for the rest of us? It's unfortunate of course, but were they really surprised they were bashed, discriminated against, ostracized, since they just refused to act normal? How could I ever think of coming out if it was immediately going to throw me into bed (ahem) with these flamers? Yes, I had started to question a lot of this thinking before I actually came out, but I can't overlook the fact that the final step that pushed me out of the closet was the discovery that not one, but two 'normal' guys on campus, guys I had crushes on in fact, were gay.

Once I was out, there began to be a new dynamic to this debate. Many people hastened to tell me they didn't have a clue, that I "passed." A few folks also made a point of telling me they had always known, that I was completely incapable of hiding it. This was when I began to realize just how slippery the whole concept of manliness was. Butchness is in the eye of the beholder. I recognized I still felt a bit of pride when someone told me I passed, and I felt resentful when someone insisted I didn't. That passing was the goal went unchallenged.

I can't claim to be completely over this either. I still feel the internal buzzer go off ("thanks for playing!") for especially swishy mannerisms, or fussiness, prissiness or bitchiness. I like to believe this is no worse than disliking rudeness or arrogance, but am not yet giving myself a free pass on that count. I know that I still buy into the idea that anything too swishy connotes frivolity, and men are supposed to be serious business, even when they're funny. I no longer feel personally implicated by other people though, and I guess that's progress. I definitely believe now that every one, regardless of mien, deserve equal rights and equal protection to live their lives, which is definitely progress. I just might not find myself dating them very often. On the flip-side I am definitely turned off by anyone trumpeting "straight-acting" as a desired quality. Even if someone decides I fit this definition, it's safe to say he and I will encounter other problems pretty soon. In a attempt to address this head on I make a habit of wearing four earrings anytime I have a blind date; if this is going to be a problem, better we know now, right? I'm not sure if this is me embracing my inner woman/drag queen, especially now when tough straight guys all over the place have way more holes in their heads than I do. Hell, now the young folks seem to be putting grommets in their ears (seriously, is that a towel rack?), but my little hoops do still send a lot of the gay boys running for the hills, shrieking and flailing their hands.

In recent years I've felt more comfortable saying essentially "this is another way of being a man." Rather than worrying about fitting the definition, I assume the definition includes me, along with RuPaul, Bill O'Reilly, Andrew Sullivan, and Prince. I still make concessions, of course. I still prefer to be ignored most of the time in the city, especially in my macho Latino neighborhood. Still not swanning about in frocks and eye-shadow. In my own head though, I'm just not worried about passing anymore. Most days. The process of getting comfortable in one's own skin, I guess it never really stops.


Joe Jubinville said...

What a funny incident with the panhandler, and its double switcherooney.

There are so many complicated currents in this stream, Patrick... it occurs to me that I respond to androgyny in one way, gay culture-informed flaming in another. I think androgyny has a timeless appeal (homophobic reaction notwithstanding) that spans history. Gender bending, toying with the emblems of the opposite sex - Mick Jagger in lipstick and eye shadow - is one thing. Drag is another. One somehow enhances, in a mysterious and titilating way, masculinity, the other anihilates it. The same is true of women. Lily Tomlin's male Las Vegas entertainer is grotesquely funny... but grotesque. The illusion is so comprehensive that sex appeal is no more. Conversely, Helmut Newton took a photo of Sigourney Weaver dressed in a man's suit and cropped hair that takes the actress' androgenous elan just far enough to up the ante without obliterating it. Shakespeare recognized and played with this aspect of human nature. It's all about the tease.

I think I've strayed a bit from the heart of your theme, but that sometimes happens with interesting, branching, blog topics. To wind up, there seems to be a range of gender attributes that have the potential to cross the boundaries to stimulating effect, if they don't go too far. Metrosexuality reigns. I think the same principal obtains as you move to the center of the spectrum. I suspect that uber-females, say a Jayne Mansfield if your cultural history reaches back that far, or Pam Anderson more recently, ring some serious chimes with a smaller segment of the male population (male posturing notwithstanding) that one would expect. I expect the same is true of say, a three-hundred pound NFL linebacker's appeal to the average women, or gay man for that matter.

I tried to grow my hair out a couple of times in my youth, but my normally fast growing hair seemed to slow to such a crawl as it approached my shoulders, that I ended up losing patience. Yours, in the photograph, is positively preraphaelite! Shakespeare would have hired you to play Ophelia. I like your currents locks best.

Patrick said...

Joe, I don't think you stray from the central theme at all, especially since I'm not sure there is one. This entry meanders even more than usual, since I'm exploring lots of interlocking and inchoate thoughts. I love the directions you take it.

Your distinction between androgyny and gay-culture flaming is a very good one, helping me to clarify a lot of my thoughts. And I agree about the performance of gender, both in people's daily lives and in actual stage shows. The grotesquery of Lily Tomlin's Lounge Singer, or Ru Paul's super-model are fascinating to me. I appreciate the ways they suggest how gender is a performance for all us, that to some extent we choose the signifiers we're comfortable with, whether we think of it that way or not. You're right though, the performances of extremes do take away the sex appeal in a lot of the cases.

Your Sigourney Weaver story reminds me of an incident years ago in Seattle. At a Halloween party, two beautiful women I had helped dress and make up as men (both in tuxes) kissed each other. It was a simply little kiss on the lips, but we ALL screamed and made them do it several more times. For some reason that combination of beautiful women dressed as elegant men turned everyone in the room on, regardless of gender or orientation. Not sure how much of that was shaped by our love for these two women as well (both probably Kinsey 2s incidentally), but it was fascinating.

You're right, I think Jayne Mansfield (who I am familiar with) is an extreme of the image, and I would argue she's just as constructed as Ru Paul or any glamorous Drag Queen. The tough guy image of Schwartzenegger is a version of the corresponding male image, a construction, and extreme. Both actors probably felt comfortable in their respective roles; constructed doesn't have to mean forced or artificial, but there is an outer image being created and inhabited by someone. This triggers thoughts of mine about mask-work, but I need to stop before I go on forever.

Shakespeare, god bless him, yes, his exploration of gender is wonderful too. I've played a woman onstage only once so far, and it wasn't in a Shakespeare play, but an early one by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife). It was a great experience, and scary in ways I would have never anticipated. With more an more all-male productions of Shakespeare cropping up again (I think they go through cycles), I might get to play some of his heroines yet. I've often thought I was FAR more likely to be cast as Lady MacBeth, than I would ever be as the man himself, since I just don't have the imposing physical presence I think he needs. I'm ambivalent about taking good roles away from female performers, I'll admit, but if I could sink my teeth into Lady M. just once, I'd be delighted.

Thanks for enriching and deepening this discussion for me. And while I bet there are a variety of images you would wear well, I have to say the two photos I've seen of you are smokin'.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

I can relate to about 90% of this post. Except I NEVER played with dolls and dressed like a girl, lets just make that clear! Haha! I am still dealing with the feeling of being happy if someone did not know I am gay, and a little hurt if they did. At my age, most did suspect because I never dated or spoke about a relationship.

To be honest, I am attracted to straight acting guys, not that I think they are better than fem guys, just that the male-ness of a man is my turn-on. I don't mean a butch gym slab of beef either, he could be an accountant. Some people say I am being a hypocrite for thinking that way. However I ask then why is 95.9% of gay movies, books, erotica, porn that makes a profit, about straight acting gays or actual straight men. I think at least I am being honest with what I like. We never hear about a site called "hot sissy flamers in a dress".

Joe Jubinville said...

Interesting thread... but it's odd Steven, sometimes I find "straight acting" gay porn stars trying so hard to butch it up coming off a bit ridiculous. I think if they just relaxed and let themselves be gay, they'd actually be hotter. Maybe it's an acquired taste. A chacun a son gout. What is masculinity? I know I'm probably out of the loop in this, but I find gay guys to be hotter than straights. It's something to do with resonance and an implied intimacy. To me a well-put together gay man is the sexiest creature on earth.

Patrick said...

Steven, oh yes, how we are perceived in the world, and who we are attracted to are two very different things. And if there's one thing we should learn from coming out, we can't help who we're attracted to. I don't think it's hypocritical to acknowledge one's attractions, I just know in my own case I had to learn not to let my discomfort or distaste for certain personas lead me to bigoted thinking or behavior.

No question traditionally male personas are the ones dominating popular culture, both gay and straight. That image (or range of images) must speak to a sizeable majority.

However, there are websites out there for guys who are into 'hot sissy flamers in a dress', though that particular name may not be taken yet. She-male sites (their name, not mine), fem boys, twinks (which can mean pretty boys to plenty), TV/TS sites, they all are out there, and they all get a lot of traffic. When I look in the ads section of the Village Voice, there are PAGES of she-male escort ads. There are whole sections just for Asian pre-op transsexuals. There clearly must be some demand for all those ads.

I think part of my evolution involved not looking down anyone who didn't fit the traditional roles, nor should I assume they 'chose' to deviate from it. I used to divide people into 'good gays' and 'bad gays', and it wasn't ethical behavior I was looking at. I just don't want to deny my non-gender conforming brothers, sisters and undecideds any longer. And I have to accept that other people put me in that camp from time to time, whether I know it or not. It can vary with location. I've had different responses in NYC, Seattle, Dublin, my hometown, tiny towns all over the place.

When it comes to who I date, I've had more guys on the butch end than fem, though it has varied some. We are attracted to what we're attracted to.

john said...

I have to say that I'm ashamed to have avoided the more effeminate guys I've met--and my reasoning was that if I hung with them, I would be associated with them and would therefore be pegged as gay.
I got to hang out with a bunch of frat guys and guys who played all state high school football during my college days. I can remember one instance when a guy I knew from classes had openly come out (my friends didn't know him from Adam) and one day on campus he tried to start up a conversation with me in front of my buddies (he was effeminate). I can remember being very short with him and brushing him off. My friends had a chuckle at his expense. To this day I regret that I was rude. If I could apologize to him, I's one of my social regrets. I have many blunders that I made in order to keep myself in the closet. Little things that I regret.

Jess said...

I always liked guys who were themselves. Some are relatively butch, others not at all. So what? If they're good people, that's what matters! (Well, okay, in my dating days, being good in the sack helped, too! *wink*)

Really, I know all too well the pressure to be "normal." I grew up here, too, but, once I got a grip on the anxiety born of that pressure, I realized that I had to live my life in a way that made me happy and had to just be who I am.

Java said...

Interesting and thought provoking post here, Patrick. I thought that was a woman in the picture until you said it was you. I tend to look at hair, though.
I have been struggling with gender identity recently. I'm not sure where I am. I've got a female body and desire intimacy with males. But I don't identify with the female mind, or traditional female behaviors very closely. I understand the way men think better than with the way women think.

Java said...

(Darn, I messed up that posting. Here's the rest of what I was saying)
I understand the way men think better the way women think. I’m not very feminine. Mostly I am happy with that, but there are details that still befuddle me.
When I was young I had a body that was hard to mistake for anything but female. I’ve gotten older, a lot …um, thicker (yea, that’s it) and until recently my hair was quite short. I had many people mistake me for a man. My voice is low enough to sound like a high pitched male voice, I guess, because I get mistaken for a man over the phone frequently. Ironically my husband (a tenor) is mistaken for a woman over the phone. It doesn’t really bother me much.
The whole concept of gender-typical appearance and behavior has changed over the past generation or two. It is much more flexible now. It matters less, overall. This seems to be a trend and I expect it to continue. Gosh, in 50 years we may not be able to visually distinguish males from females. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, IMHO.

Patrick said...

John, yes, I think that those social blunders and unintentional wounds we inflict are some of the worst aspects of being closeted. So much fear and shame gets tied up with it all, and it eats away at us. Who knows, maybe you'll cross paths with guy at a reunion or something, and get to clear the air with him. If you do, I'll bet he'll a)have no recollection of it at all and/or b)he'll have plenty of stories where he did the same thing to someone else. There's always someone more 'incriminating' in our eyes, when we're in the closet, and it's probably worse the more effeminate we are or fear we are. And the funny thing about passing is that we will often be privy to those homophobic comments from our friends, who are unaware they're hurting us. I've had that experience a lot, though in recent years it's always been with strangers.

Jess, it sounds like you had a good clarity about attraction more or less from the get-go. I find guys who are just at home in their skins the most appealing too. Like Joe, if a guy is super-masculine in a forced, unnatural way, I'm going to feel like he has a moat around him.

Java, sounds like you're thinking about some fascinating things of late. You feel you understand the thinking of men better than women; does this lead you to think you are male yourself, or are you comfortable with who you are, and simply conscious of the ways it puts you outside the traditional female image? It's funny how we have to navigate what feels right for us and how it's perceived by others in two distinct ways, isn't it? As a kid I was so afraid of what I identified as my feminine qualities, and it wasn't until I owned them that I began to see they were feminine only as defined by my culture, in this time. Switch cultures or time periods and none of them would seem unmasculine at all. I would fit right in as a manly man among the ancient Celts, for example, and even in Shakespeare's England, most likely. I wonder if you're right, and we'll eventually move to a place where male and female images are essentially the same. France under Louis XIV came pretty close to that,seems to me, even if the women still wore dresses and the men didn't.