What you see is not always what you get. This is news to no one, so why is still such a problem?
The past few days I’ve been watching my sister’s show The Grapevine. It’s a one-of-a-kind program, offering a round-table discussion by Black millennials on popular issues in our society today. The topics vary from episode, and the panelists are as varied in their opinions as you can get. I do recommend that people watch the show, not only as a shameless plug for my sister and her production team, but also because shows like this, produced by and directed by Black people – especially Black women (!) – are important for future generations to see. Shows like this demonstrate that Black people are capable and quite willing to comment on popular culture, that it is okay to harbor opinions on the world around you, even if these opinions are unpopular, so long as you are willing to engage in a dialogue. There is only good which can come from unlike-minded people meeting together to discuss issues, coming to the table, hopefully, with the understanding that no opinion is completely right or completely wrong.
What I am going to talk about today will likely be the first of a long string of threads, spread out over time as I get my thoughts together on the messy topic of gender expression in general and masculinity / masculine culture in particular. This thread has as its impetus an episode of the Grapevine on Caitlin Jenner and the issue of transgender dating. The cast was somewhat split on the issue of when a transwoman should “reveal” their transness. One of the cast members – a cisgender man – found the idea of someone “masquerading” as someone else to be inherently offensive, especially someone whom the man found initially attractive.
What is attraction and what are the parameters by which we determine a person’s attractiveness? In the realm of heterosexual sex, attraction seems to be determined by the perception of another person as being of the opposite sex. There are markers which we ascribe to one another and to ourselves which represents the two polar sides of our gender binary. Femininity is often described as lightness, frailty, and weakness in the classical sense and we as a collective West have worked tirelessly towards redefining the feminine, loosening it here and tightening it there, so that this loose amalgamation of markers, of characteristics, which inherently mean nothing but together, somehow, mean something. Yet, the masculine remains as it has always been classically – dominance, virility, strength and rampant desire. The adage, “boys will be boys,” highlights an essentially reticence, or perhaps acceptance, of the way we have constructed and solidified the masculine gender identity – as well as those who are allowed to perform masculinity.
Gender expression and sex, however, are not the same. Sex is the biological, gender the psychological. Sex is that which remains hidden under clothing, the physical genitalia of a person which one cannot directly perceive – usually – from the outside. Sex, like race, is an imposed identity, and, like race, sex has very little to do with the ways we interact with ourselves as creatures. Just as our skin color is but a biological representation of a genetic sequence, so too is our sex.
Gender expression is different. It has little to do with our sex, but has everything to do with how we perceive ourselves as individuals. Unlike sex or race, it is not outwardly imposed, but internally ascribed. A person’s gender identity is what determines their pronouns, which is why we use she to refer to transwomen, and he to refer to transmen. When a person is genderqueer – meaning they do not consider themselves neither male or female, either because they do not feel comfortable in either identity or because they see parts of themselves in both – they are referred to by the neuter they pronoun. It is not a subject of debate whether or not a transman is to be referred to as she or he, for we do not ascribe sex to persons, but genders.
The conversation in the news about North Carolina passing a law which openly discriminate transgender people is the issue of trans visibility. Trans rights activists are slamming the bill because it puts trans people in the firing line, particularly transwomen, who are frequently targeted, beaten, raped and killed. The other side argues that the excuse of transness puts the lives of women and children in danger, opening public bathrooms up to anyone who wants to walk in and have their way. Yet, there is something basically foolish about this side’s stance – there is a fear that women will be targeted in women’s bathrooms by men claiming to be trans, but what really doesn’t make sense is that if a rapist wanted to rape someone in a bathroom, it wouldn’t really matter if they are trans or not. There is no barrier which denies a person entry into a public bathroom, nor is there a doorman. Yet, there is the idea that because a woman may have a penis, she is automatically just as dangerous as a man. Male genitalia seem to be the artifices which enable rape, and it seems like only women and vulnerable children are capable of being sexually assaulted.
For one, sexual assault can and does happen to people of all gender expressions, trans, cis or genderqueer. No one is immune from being assaulted, no one is immune from being raped. Secondly, the notion that rape is a male phenomenon is a multifaceted issue, far grander than the issue of gender expression. For one, there are female rapists, and plenty of them. The sexual assault of young boys is common in our culture, yet we are prone to look away, to say that boys cannot not enjoy sex, that young girls are incapable of consenting to sexual encounters and men are incapable of not consenting. This is not rooted to sex at all – there is nothing in the female physiology which makes them psychologically more vulnerable to sexual assault, just as there is nothing in male physiology which makes men always willing to engage in sexual acts. The issue is rooted in our conceptions of gender, and the ways that masculinity as it is constructed and performed are deeply flawed.
Men are raised to see themselves as sexual beings. Fathers scold their daughters for being promiscuous while applauding their young sons for deflowering young girls. We praise the virginity of young women while at the same time encouraging the virility of young men. This may seem somewhat unfair yet harmless, but this is but the beginning of spiraling effect which such behaviors create in young men. We teach boys that they are superior to women, that they have a certain ownership over the female body, and teach the complement of this to young women, that they are inferior to men, that they are should aspire to be the possessions of young men. The degrees to which these rules are laid bare varies from parent to parent. Mothers who encourage their daughters to be good wives and mothers instead of industrious workers contribute to the issue of gender inequity just as fathers who discourage their sons from taking ballet. As children begin to explore what they like and do not like, they are trained, nonetheless, that certain behaviors, those which may seem natural to them, are unacceptable. They begin to internalize that there is something wrong for they act they believed to be so harmless, to be something fun, is in turn something drastic, something for which they are now being punished.
The thing is, women and men, naturally, as just as sexually oriented as one another. Men do not like sex any more than women, and men are just as capable of being disinterest in sex as women. Yet, the machinations of gender often necessitate the performance of certain roles. A man who isn’t in the mood for sex feels the urge to perform, for men are inherently lascivious and eternally horny. A woman who wants sex feels the need to control herself, lest she play the masculine role, which in her female body, results in her being seen as a hoe.
We are now reaching a certain point in our culture where these gender binaries are beginning to crumble, but the rate at which this dilapidation is occurring is still slow. That is also not to say that in the past there have not been men and women who have gone against the grain of gender expression at all, but these individuals were often specific to their cultural contexts. An example of drag culture, popularized in the 1980s, but stretching far back into the early 20th century. Drag queens have been pushing the boundaries of gender, switching their expression on and off at will and with varying degrees of expressive opacity, but their cultural relevance has remained nonetheless marginal.
What fascinates me, however, is the question of to what, necessarily, are we attracted? Given this binary of masculine and feminine, we are programmed socially to understand that certain individuals possess certain characteristics. The masculine is often ascribed to the men, the feminine to women. Yet, are we attracted to sex or are we attracted to gender expression? Do we find the idea of someone’s genitalia the reason to engage romantically with another person, or is it their particular expression of gender, or perhaps something else entirely, which draws our attention? This is what confused me as I watched this episode of the Grapevine, this heterosexual preoccupation with genitalia. I suppose it is not so confounding, considering that the end goal of most romantic encounters is intercourse, an act which is complicated by the unexpected appearance of the same set of genitalia which you possess, but how, necessarily, does this lead to violence? Why are transwomen being killed by their pursuers, men who were attracted to them because of how they looked and what they believed?
A common answer to this question is the menace to one’s masculinity. Men feel as if their masculinities have been threatened by their seemingly homosexual attraction to what seems to him to be another man. This triggers in the man an instant loathing of homosexuality which is part and parcel to what it means to be a man. There is nothing less manly than an attraction to another man, and the revelation of a person’s male genitalia, which in our minds, also, erroneously, means a person’s manhood, means that a person’s masculinity as it has been carefully crafted is therefore flawed. Yet how does this equate to violence? How does surprise or perhaps even deception necessitate or even validate violence against another human being, who has done literally nothing wrong? They understand that their genitals do not define them, that they are more than a walking vagina or penis.
In this case, the man is attracted to the transwoman because she passes fluidly for a woman, because she is a woman. He is attracted to her performance of feminine qualities are they are constructed. However, the man is also attracted to the woman because he perceives that she has the womanliest of all feminine characteristics, that which in fact not really related to being a woman.
We must take steps to redefine our masculinist culture, for it breeds a society which offers no answer to the question of why it is okay for men, in their own confusion, to lash out against transwomen or women or even other men, solely because their masculinity, those transient and nebulous machines, permits a man’s descent into madness.