As an adolescent, drag queens scared me. I felt like queens were a cliche of gay culture that painted a threatening or stereotypical picture of what it meant to be gay to my parents and friends. Now I know that those fears were based in a sense of personal dis-ease as I tried to reconcile my own sexuality, gender identity, and performances of gender with cultural expectations.
Trying out drag for the first time was both liberating and revealing. Under the mask of Dina Brown, what came out at first was all the repressed anger I had in my life. Dina gave me an outlet to express the rage I’d kept bottled up trying to keep a veneer of pernicious positivity and people pleasing in my daily performances as “myself.”
After I hit bottom and got rid of secrets in my life (learning to reach out and ask for help, an ear, or a second opinion has been a real liberation) the role of Dina changed for me. I found I could dress up and go out as Dina and have this feel like a familiar second skin, rather than an externalized character.
This too has led to challenges. I’ve found that when people encounter a man in drag, they often expect to be entertained or more insidiously, they feel one’s body is suddenly fair game–as though this is surely a bawdy joke, costume, and caricature, and as such an invitation for physical aggression, groping, or invasions of personal space. What in any other context might be considered sexual assault or harassment, is “all in good fun.”
Drag in many ways becomes a mirror, onto which people quickly project their own issues with gender identity. It has been profound for me to experience firsthand how much misogyny exists within the gay community. I suppose it was naive for me to assume that gay men would somehow be universally more evolved about gender. There is a disturbing link between misogyny and transphobia within the gay community as well. Gender and sexuality are so frequently lumped together in Western culture, when in fact beneath the surface there is a tremendous spectrum of variables that warrant separate consideration.
- Biological sex, internal conception of gender, external performances of gender, cultural codes/expectations of gender, sexual desire, sexual fantasy, sexual identity, and cultural codes/labels for sexuality… how do you nuance your own gender and sexuality beyond male/female or gay/straight?
- Have you experienced disconnects between your own senses of gender and sexuality and the norms of your culture or community? What challenges or opportunities have resulted?
- In the background clip on this page, I touch on a theme of disparaging or fearing the feminine in the gay male community (“No fems.” “Straight acting.”). These statements imply a collectively accepted sense of what is masculine. Whether gay or straight, men in American culture seem to be quite constrained in their performances of identity. Whatever your gender identity, how do you perform or play with these ideas of masculinity in your own life?
Share your thoughts and comments in the -“gender bending” blog feed below, and I’ll keep adding mine as well.
Spirituality by way of Dustin Hoffman and TOOTSIE
In this American Film Institute Archive clip, Dustin Hoffman recalls the process of developing the external appearance of Dorothy Michaels for Tootsie (1982) and the concatenating effects of realizing his internal sense of self did not match the external reality of what even the studio’s elite hair and makeup teams could provide.
This clip points to several different personal and cultural questions I seek to explore in The Skin I’m In. We all likely agree at this point that judgments of beauty, femininity, or masculinity are not absolutes but rather culturally constructed. But it is one thing to know this intellectually and quite another to a) feel at peace with these metrics or b) to transcend their use as the driving measures of self or others.
If self is not to be fully found in our tyrannical minds or our ephemeral bodies, then where does it reside? Explorers of nonduality would say this question is itself a trap, as it remythologizes the existence of a singular, finite, knowable self.
Making this film and dividing my identity into multiple personas, each just as real and just as “me” as the next, has certainly helped me to understand the ways in which each of us restricts and binds ourselves through personal and cultural narratives.
But on the flip side, once we see that none of our experiences, diagnoses, personalities, hopes, resentments, possessions, and appearances can fully describe “self,” but rather serve as nodes or mapping points for the experience of consciousness, we begin to glimpse the infinite possibilities for adventure, experimentation, and play in life.
It is this sense of freedom that I think many of us are pointing to via the (albeit feeble) term “spirit”–a realm I held at arm’s length for some thirty years because “spirituality” seemed fettered to religion and dogma, not a path to possibility and play.
‘Tis true that a good play needs no epilogue, but it seems fitting to close a post on gender, performance, and identity with some Shakesepare:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
–Jaques from Shakesepare’s As You Like It (Act II Scene 7)
Simon Moritz – What I Learned From Gay Sex: Misogyny and Homophobia
A former student of mine shared this great blog post by Simon Moritz, a Paris-based grad student, writer, and queer activist. Entitled, “What I Learned From Gay Sex: Misogyny and Homophobia” it explores the internalized misogyny and homophobia many gay men inflict upon themselves and others in their struggles with performances of “masculinity” and conceptions of manhood. An excerpt:
Typically we say that “fag,” “sissy,” “nancy,” “nelly” and “fairy” are homophobic words, and although they certainly are used to perpetuate homophobia, they are not homophobic in and of themselves; the usage of any of these words as slurs usually targets people with male-sexed bodies who do not act sufficiently masculine. They prize masculinity by demonizing femininity. Read full article here
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard Schools Opposition Leader on Misogyny
In the wake of an American presidential debate where canned sound bytes are scored and tallied daily, and a Big Bird quip is enough fodder to make Americans twitter, skit, and meme for a week, American citizens and politicians alike could take a lesson from Australians about the level of free, substantive discourse afforded by its Parliamentary system.
Opposition leader Tony Abbot tried to pin the fallout of a parliamentary sex scandal onto Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and she was having none of it. The specifics of the case resonate strongly with my thoughts on this Dina Brown page about misogyny (being endemic not only to culture at large, but within the gay community as well). Married Speaker of the House Peter Slipper (who has since resigned) allegedly sexually harassed a gay male staff member with text message exchanges (now a matter of public record) rife with denigrating references to women and their genitalia. Get more of the grizzly details from Jezebel.com’s Tracie Egan Morrissey.
All the details of the scandal aside, the real power and takeaway here come from Gillard’s masterful speech on misogyny and sexism delivered on the floor of Parliament. Watch the full speech below, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and share your thoughts in the comment feed.
How to be a Trans* Ally
I thought this poster from Wipe Out Transphobia was really helpful not only for being an effective trans ally, but also for thinking about identity more universally. The point that “gender identity is not sexual identity,” applies to anyone. In the end, we are all “trans” to whatever degree our sense(s) of self or performance(s) of identity differ from culturally-constructed/popularly-accepted “norms.”
Freud, Bowery, Greer, and Gender Bending the InStyle Hollywood Makeover Tool
One of the perks of being a media maker and cultural critic is that I can procrastinate online and call it “art” or “research.” Here’s what happened when Dina Brown got her hands on the InStyle Magazine Hollywood Makeover tool back in 2008. Can you recognize the “celebrity hair try-ons?” Talk about perpetuating the culture industry!
I like to think I’m subverting the machine a bit, but I have been thinking a lot lately about how so much male drag, my own included, still subscribes to such a specific performance of gender in culture. That’s one of the reasons I highlight Leigh Bowery as a queer hero of mine in THE SKIN I’M IN. He (along with the artists who documented and interpreted his performances like Fergus Greer and Lucian Freud) pushed ideas of drag and performativity out of easily understandable binaries into the realms of the surreal and the unconscious.
I KNEW HIM becomes campaign video for RAINN.org
I KNEW HIM, a 2007 video of mine that challenges preconceptions of rape and sexual assault has received some interesting and important recirculation this winter. The video played the festival circuit and was nominated for the Iris Prize, the world’s largest LGBT media prize, back in 2007. Then this month, in light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s gender-neutral redefinition of rape, RAINN, the Rape and Incest National Network picked up the video as part of a new online outreach campaign.
The video has since been discussed and reposted in a range of online community contexts including the interdisciplinary University of Minnesota-based blog The Society Pages.
It’s heartening that the piece has become a tool and a catalyst for cultural debate, a phenomenon distinctly afforded by the Internet and the digital age.