Monday, August 6, 2012

Zen and the Art of Gender Maintenance

I’m contemplating gender today.

I didn’t make up the title of this post. I stole it from a chapter of My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein, or as many young trans people know her, “Auntie Kate”. She’s well qualified to write books about gender, having lived as a man, then a woman, then neither, then back to woman again.

I like to read in the bath, and I happened to grab My Gender Workbook on the way to the tub this afternoon. Flipping through it, I had the thought to take an inventory of all the things about me that can be classified as male or female. The first thing on my list was that I’d just watched My Little Pony, which is a cartoon for little girls but most of the MLP fans I know are male. According to Auntie Kate, “transgender” means “transgressing gender”. My Little Pony, by that definition, is a transgender show.

Is it an accident that half the people in my house identify as transgender and the other half identify as bronies? We’re all transgressing gender, one way or another.

I wanted to give up on my list after that, feeling the exercise to be a bit futile. But I couldn’t help thinking about it. When you’re transgender, the gender of everything you do is scrutinized. If you’re transitioning to male, you better make sure everything you do is sufficiently masculine lest your authenticity be doubted; the converse is true for those transitioning to female. But what gender can be assigned to Ocean Breeze body wash? Is it feminine because I lather it up with a purple bath pouf? What happens if I put on Old Spice deodorant after? What gender are Spongebob toothpaste, a Star Trek t-shirt and Homer Simpson boxers?

My mind drifts back to childhood. I loved my Barbies. I had dozens of them. But I also loved toy cars and swingsets and baseball, not softball, and Warner Bros. cartoons and the Beatles. What gender is all of that?

What gender is my black and white Ikea desk, or a bright yellow ukulele, or a can of black cherry seltzer, or a Prince CD? What gender is Prince, a person who changed his name to a symbol combining male and female?

Now my iTunes switches over to an early Genesis song called “The Cinema Show”. What gender was Peter Gabriel in his fox head and red cocktail dress? What about these lyrics:

I have crossed between the poles

Once a man, like the sea I raged

Once a woman, like the Earth I gave

But there is in fact more earth than sea

I love those lyrics. I love the idea of feminine energy and the idea that there is more giving than raging, more earth than sea. But in geology we learn that the earth rages more than the sea and the sea’s rage comes from the earth and moon. If we cannot neatly sort the movements of earth and sea, how can we neatly sort woman from man, members of the same species? We begin, in the womb, with the same genital configuration and we end in the grave with only bones. Some religions try to assign a gender to God, but how could a God of only one gender breathe both masculine and feminine life into the world?

These are the thoughts going through my head this afternoon, as I wonder what gender I am. Am I a man because I don’t want to be a woman? Am I a woman because I don’t want to be a man? I find the idea of maleness far too constricting, but the same is true of many cisgender men I know.

I think the thing I miss most about being a kid is that I could just identify as a kid. I don’t think my gender has changed since then, but I’ve outgrown kid as an identity. So what am I now?

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