Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gendered Up

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You were born that way, so what? The next time I hear that given as an argument for bigots to throw open their arms and accept us I'm gonna kick somebody in the LGB Teeth.

The only reason for equality that interests me is that we live in a democracy where that's supposed to be the bottom-line for everybody. So cough up my rights, and do it now. No apologies. No justifications. I don't even need your respect. Just give me that "liberty and justice for all," and the more liberty the better.

It's not just a matter of political style. When you start thinking about how changeable our natures actually are, the more the "born that way" logic tends to fall apart. Sure, we may have some small immutable core, but we screw with it all the time. Especially when it comes to gender.

The other day, during a trip to the Laundromat in Queens, I saw this chick come in and plant her little Chihuahua on the counter. The miserable creature's ears and tail were all fluffed up and dyed some neon pink. There were little pink patches on the feet like shoes, and a pink smear on the tiny muzzle. The coat du jour was a pink and green striped confection with a tiny green pocket.

Hunched on the counter, the dog reminded me of a baby dyke forced to wear a dress to a relative's wedding, and not just any dress, but some spirit crushing thing with bows and ribbons and plenty of pink frills that she replaces at the first available moment with jeans and a tee shirt, boots if she has them, and a piece of bubble gum that she pretends is a chaw of tobacco erasing all that nauseating cotton candy sweetness.

The more she gets pushed one way, the more she retreats the other, and maybe even becomes super butch. In college, as my Southern family ratcheted up the pressure to become marriageable, the more I went around in fedoras and ties that weren't particularly natural to me, either. It took me ages to find my gender comfort zone.

I was lucky they mostly let me alone as a little kid. I remember being five or six and overhearing a neighbor tell my mother, "She walks just like her father." I guess she meant I had the rolling swagger of a fat Kentucky man who, like most Western males, walked as if his spine was fused together.

When I think of it now, even that incipient butchness could have taken a different form. Suppose I'd've been from India. If I walked like my dad there, I may well have had swaying hips that to American eyes would seem positively feminine. The first time I met South Asian guys, I thought they all were gay. That's culture.

Gender changes with age, and class, too. In Delhi, New York, fourteen year old girls are often ultra feminine with painted faces and nails and short skirts. At a married forty, they're lumps of androgynous flesh in supersized pants. Put them in a dyke bar and your gaydar would go haywire.

The further you go down the social scale, the more aggressive the femininity in the young of our species. My sisters wore makeup like war paint. One of them got in girl fights, and when she was pissed took her fingernails down my back in bloody streaks.

The first drag queens I knew reminded me of her, and likewise scared the crap out of me. I'm not sure if it was the blue eye shadow and big hair, or that they fought outside the one gay bar in Lexington, Kentucky, sometimes with switchblades.

When I see groups of transgendered women that all wear skirts and makeup and uncomfortable shoes, I want to ask, "Of all the ways you could have chosen to be a woman, why for heaven's sake pick that?" You've got my skin under your fingernails.

I'm not questioning their gender, just the expression, though I shouldn't judge. Plumage is natural enough, if not in Chihuahuas. It's the changing nature of it among humans that gets me. And brings me back to my original point.

It is nonsense to demand acceptance in the human race because we were born transgender or lesbian or gay and can't change. After all, for most of queer history we contorted ourselves into the conformist box, even if we paid a high price.

What protects us from having to now isn't some new understanding of biology and birth or heterokindness, but years of activism, and that "all" at the end of liberty and justice, the "all," of the self-evident truth we're all created equal. The promises didn't change. We did. Instead of hoping for rights, we began to seize them.

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