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?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Yesterday was Esther Day

Did you tell someone you love that you love them? I hope you did, even if you’ve never heard of Esther Earl. I hope you get that chance every day.

Esther was a teenage girl who attained some modest internet fame through the Nerdfighters community, a bunch of proud geeks led by John and Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers Youtube channel. Being a bit shy about internet forums, I’m not directly involved with Nerdfighteria myself. I know it through my friends Chelsea and Vanessa, who “introduced” me to Esther at the 5th anniversary party for the Harry Potter Alliance on October 10, 2010 – about two months after Esther’s death from cancer at the age of 16. And exactly one year after my mother’s death from a heart attack at the age of 51.

On a normal day, Esther’s story would have made me think, made me contemplate the meaning of life. It would have reminded me of Kevi, a boy I babysat for a few short days before his death at the age of 13. I would’ve been sad, on a normal day, for the loss of a bright and vibrant young girl.

But on that day, 10/10/10, I was affected on all those levels and more. I’m not a highly religious person, but I believe my mother sends messages to me when I am alert enough to notice them. Usually, she sends messages through music, because that’s the way she bonded with me when she was alive. That night, when Harry and the Potters sang “You Were the Best We Ever Had” and dedicated it to Esther, I knew my mother was there, too. I knew she wanted me to hear Esther’s story and the message within.

Esther’s message, as she told it to the Green brothers when they asked her what she would like her birthday to represent, was simple: Tell the people you love that you love them. Not the mushy, Valentine kind of love, she specified, but the simple friends-and-family love we so often forget to express to each other.

The name “Esther” means star, and her friends started a fund called “This Star Won’t Go Out” in her honor. TSWGO provides funding to families in Massachusetts dealing with childhood cancer. You can buy TSWGO bracelets to benefit the fund.

For me, “This Star Won’t Go Out” has become a personal mantra. I suffer from depression, a life-threatening chronic illness similar to cancer in that it drains its victims’ energy, throws life into chaos and takes all of one’s strength to fight. Sometimes that fight can be won. Sometimes it can’t. Esther reminds me to keep fighting. My middle name, Aster, which also means “star”, is inspired by Esther. She reminds me that life is too precious to give up on, and love is too important to take for granted. When I think about Esther, I think about how determined she was to enjoy her life and her friends in the face of terrible pain. And I remember not to let her star- or mine - go out.

Esther's Youtube channel
This Star Won’t Go Out