The Androgyny Within
It was a humid Spring evening in my college dorm, and I was beautifully, spectacularly high. My boyfriend and I had gotten blazed and were lounging in my bed listening to music and talking to each other in fits and delirious starts. Then, although I cannot for the life of me remember what triggered it – a passing touch, a particular song – my partner’s demeanor suddenly changed. I witnessed his transition, seamlessly, from the masculine boyfriend I knew into a purely feminine creature. His body language, manner of speaking, even the way his eyes looked in the light, seemed to shift before me. And this person who, hours before, had roughly dominated me, now splayed herself before me seductively and expressed a desire to be touched and seen in a way that the partner I knew never had.
In a masterstroke of elegance and poise, I…panicked.
In my last post I asked you, dear reader, to reflect on what the gender binary means to you, and how it might be improved upon or discarded entirely. The above story is one of those moments where I had to face, quite literally, how uncomfortable gender non-conformity made me, and how my perceptions of gender-fluidity, especially in men, could harm the people I cared about. I am not proud of how I reacted, but nor do I judge myself too harshly, because these are not easy conversations to have.
I consider myself an avid, outspoken, angry feminist, and nothing makes me angrier than the perception that feminism is only for women. The precept I discussed last time – that actions and behaviors are attributed to one gender or the other, and that masculinity is superior to femininity, and thus all actions and behaviors are ranked with the same hierarchy – is just as damaging to cis-gendered men as to anyone else.
This manifests in a multitude of ways, from an aversion toward household chores to feelings of isolation from women to an inability to confront and express emotions. The first issue might be in inconvenience, but the last causes long-term damage. When we are confined from expressing ourselves in all our complicated, messed up glory, our emotions don’t evaporate, they simply dig deeper, turning into a poison of our own making. This poison is often the direct cause of violence, domestic abuse, and self harm.
And each of us has probably had a hand in encouraging it. If you’ve ever mocked someone for crying, equated someone’s feminine clothing to personal weakness, or even just failed to defend someone when you noticed they were being teased in this way, you are inadvertently encouraging men to close themselves off and shut themselves down. It’s not an easy thing to face, but nothing could be more vital than leaving people room to express themselves without judgement. We have to choose our words carefully, express love instead of suspicion. In the end, we are all harmed by the presumption of masculine dominance.
Last time I asked a question that I hope some of you have spent some time on:
Who might you be if you tossed the binary out the window and created a gender all your own?
What if masculinity and femininity were simply points on a graph? What if a love of baking or bubble baths was a desire divorced from gender entirely? If, in fact, gender is a personal sensation that exists independently of both behaviors and genitals, then what is it actually?
Scientists have asked this question for a number of years, and the answer is both complicated and always changing. Personally, I see it as a three-dimensional graph, something wider and more varied than a simple sliding scale. On one axis is our genetic alignment: X & Y chromosomes, internal and external sex characteristics. On another is presentation: how do you style your hair? what clothes do you wear? do you paint your nails? And the last lives in our attitude, our demeanor, our body language and inflection, the choices we make with the gender we’ve been assigned.
It is impossible, despite my own idealism, to remove ourselves from the lifetime of conditioning our culture has on gender perceptions. But when viewed analytically, those perceptions become choices we make, a selection of the elements that serve us and an elimination of those that do not.
It was a beautiful act of trust for my college boyfriend to show me the feminine side of himself, and I regret that I wasn’t prepared to welcome it at the time. I’ve since come to recognize the kernel of desire that flared amid my wash of uncertainty and fear. I’ve since had other male-bodied partners who nervously showed me gender-non-conforming desires, and I was able to encourage and support them through those difficult moments of vulnerability. I’ve since spent many long, grueling hours picking apart my preconceptions about sex and gender so that, hopefully, no one ever has to feel silenced or shamed in my presence again.
I also know that, since then, my college partner, although he still uses masculine pronouns, has come out as gender fluid and, based on the last time I asked after him, is living his best life on the west coast wearing pigtails to work.