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If You Build It: They Will Gender It


Things are so much easier to recognize if they can come in boxes.

I am one of those people who believes that gender is a construct.  I know, there’s biology, but even that is not nearly as narrow and defined as we are led to believe.  The number of folks with XXY or other chromosome combinations, with differing genitalia is really an undercover secret in a culture that likes the normal that they invented or imagined from the past.

Things are so much easier to recognize if they can come in boxes.

It’s so hard to be alive and awake all the time. This of course, is one small aspect, perhaps the kindest, of why we keep stereotypes.  It is exhausting to live a life not on autopilot.

I, too, assume each and every day that I will awake in a land that speaks English in most of the establishments I visit; where we drive on the “right” side of the street, where a pencil will still write and traffic lights don’t change their meaning.

These constructs as they exist though, are insidious and have been used to injure people and even as we name the injuries, we sometimes recreate the very systems we look to overthrow. The #MeToo movement has been powerful.  In conventional gender terms, finally women’s (and men’s) words are being believed. Powerful men are no longer free to use their power and influence and pretend that it is a sexual agenda and not one of dominance and subjugation.

Yet this is the place where I most want gay men to help break this paradigm.  One of my best friends talked about how he and others from his era, could tell stories on both sides of the #metoo movement. In an effort to embrace being gay, they overrode consent, age and/or power differentials.  This would be an opportunity to name real issues around how we approach dating, owning our desire, rather than our desperation or fear about not doing it right, or sometimes, utilizing our inherent power.  How could this shatter what we are terrified to admit?

Honest talk can free from us constructs that provide the checklist or letter of the rules without the spirit.  So often the statements about political correctness cite something that I think is real: where we live up to a checklist of behavior rather than actually treating other humans respectfully. This does not mean I don’t believe that politically correct is really just politeness: using someone’s own terminology is just the right thing.  But I do think that real dialogue gets shut down if we are too careful.

The other question I have that comes from my friend of Mara Ahmed is what power women may have within the confines of what we might see as traditional roles. Specifically she referenced how women, most often the mothers, are the ones who are the boundary breakers and fill in the gaps in communication.   There are skills too that we learn under these paradigms and should we to throw them away knowing that not all women are nurturers or that these roles can be confining?

I have come to conclusion that gender, the thought construct, as all constructs, whether overly binding or not, creates positive as well as negative results.  We as humans have a gift to make lemonade out of lemons.  So, then, those who are trans may put on the cultural attributes of gender, and feel more aligned with their true selves.  Yet, even this landscape is fraught with the peril of injury and of empowerment.  One of my transwoman friends said something about not wanting to lose her strength in the process of transitioning.  Then there are those who belong to the world of genderfuck.

There is the aspect of how the transgressive (think drag) uses the props of traditional femininity or masculinity to construct a self-referential system that calls into question notions of gender.  Using the system there is a reference back to the, or a knowing wink at, the lie and props of gender. Drag intends to use the props for positive powerful imaging of femininity/masculinity as something of power.  Yet, here too, the constructs of a culture that rewards narrow roles and unequal power dynamics leaves pain in its wake.

RuPaul has made a name and accessed considerable power in today’s current culture precisely through using drag.  Nevertheless, there was considerable controversy over whether transwomen would be allowed to be part of the Drag Race as well as other comments that have been deemed transphobic.  The streets outside Stonewall didn’t create this arbitrary divide when battling against the police; nor did the police check to see what the protesters meant when using “she.”  Alex Jung in his piece for The Vulture concisely relates the flawed logic that comes up under this transphobia:

One of RuPaul’s famous quotes is, “You’re born naked, the rest is drag.” It’s a populist way of saying that gender is inherently performative.  In his mind, trans people are essentialists, whereas drag queens are not. But this is also where there’s a contradiction, because if it’s all drag, then why does it matter whether someone is a cisgender male or a transgender woman? Why can’t trans women subvert gender too? That’s where Ru’s idea of drag is also inherently essentialist — it requires believing there is an origin point of maleness with which to fuck. What if you simply didn’t think that existed at all?” 

While RuPaul appears very recently to have changed his tune, it is difficult not to believe that this wasn’t a form of self-hatred and about someone now in power literally creating the rules to exclude those who are most oppressed but also deeply resemble the speaker. In other words, a denial of a continent of self.

This distinction about genderfuck reminds me strongly of Patrick Califia’s statement that you can fuck with gender but you cannot fuck without it, which literally haunted me for 2 decades [I consider Patrick Califia one of the smartest, bravest, and humble voices dealing with sexuality from within the LGBTIQ community that it has been my pleasure to know]

I have come finally to the conclusion that sexuality is not inherent in gendered roles, but is instead linked to the power of life longing for itself. However we have built a model of sexuality, once again a set of assumptions, that if I look a certain way and portray a “masculine” role to your “feminine” role then we can “assume” from our interaction markers of desire.  These markers both mask the vulnerability inherent in dating and, by utilizing previous history and connections, create an easy entrée into attraction and arousal. Once I had this realization, I was able to see what the Pansexual movement has been aiming at in terms of calling out the difference of desire that is not tied to gender constructs of boy/boi or girl/grrrl[I identify as a lesbian, but also recognize that I could identify on the spectrum of genderqueer.  However, I would add that in general, the women I date would not, and self-identify as cisgender females]

This understanding, the growth of a stronger genderqueer movement, and youth, who in fact, live their lives as fluid in terms of orientation and sometimes gender, provide me a true hope for a new frontier.  The task for this generation when addressing sexual harassment will be the complicated paring down of the injuries committed within the old context while holding onto and growing new constructs that fit the world we want, not the one that currently exists or did exist: to not become essentialists in answer to address the wounds created  by that same essentialism.


Reilly Hirst is a poet, philosopher and activist living in the Rochester, New York. She (insert pronoun here-she/xem/amphibian) started writing at age 10.  Published in Patrick Califia’s book Bitch Goddess, Reilly has also done doctoral work in public policy, written academic articles as well as precedent-setting briefs for protecting the community blood bank system involving AIDS blood bank litigation, and is now the food columnist for the Empty Closet(second oldest running LGBTQ newspaper in the country).  In her “spare” time, she writes and reads poetry, and gets out, like a lot.



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