Sunday, June 28, 2015

Does This Ambiguity Make My Butt Look Big?

It’s a quiet, lifeless Wednesday night at the downtown sex club (hey, we know the dj) and my boredom leads us across the street to the gay bar known as Zippers where we accidentally stumble on the city’s one and only weekly Drag King event. I plant my feet firmly in the first row of the show. It’s a combination of curiosity and envy that won’t let me leave.

After watching three of the most convincing women-dressed-as-men lip-sync and cavort to my favourite pop songs, their hips gyrating, their bow-ties bobbing, my friend pulls me out the door by my arm as I plead with her to stay a bit longer.

No way!” she grumbles. “There’s no hot guys here. We’re leaving.”

Hey, I want to do this someday. Do you think I should try out?” I ask as we get outside and light our cigarettes. 
She smiles affectionately and assures me if any woman would be amazing at this, it would be me. 

Drag Kings: It’s not only the macho stage name and "clothes that make the man" but facial hair, breast-binding, crotch-packing and crisp, strong movement 

My first taste of an audience’s big-eyed reaction to gender play was when my twin sister played macho biker boyfriend to my blonde bimbo role in the grade six performance of The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf. I was told in rehearsal to not play the bimbo so well. Too convincing, the teachers say. On opening night, Hayley rode in the school gymnasium on a real motorcycle in her leather jacket and sang and flirted with my character with the suaveness of Uncle Jessie.

I recall the expression on my friend’s face that night at Zippers was being witness to some sort of anarchy. On the mom-and-dad faces in the school audience twenty-two years ago it was an expression of delight. 

A huge part of me gets drawn to drag because of the necessity to parody and play with gender fluidity and to cause the audience to question gender and its boundaries. Because gender so importantly needs to be played with.

I’m not only talking gender identity -- one’s private sense of which gender one identifies with -- I’m talking expression; the way in which we externally convey our sense of identity to others. It’s in the form of communication; mannerisms, clothing, haircut, makeup, voice, scents, and accessories.

I've learned the hard way to never assign gender identity to others, to never assume sexual preference because of the way one is dressed or the way one flips their hair. Gender expression and gender identity gives no indication of a person’s sexual orientation. Got it?

As fluid as I think we should get, I’m still learning there are firm boundaries with the binary system: Butch women, a culture of females who display masculinity should not be confused with the kitschy and campy performances of Drag Kings pretending to be men for eight minutes.

My whole life I’ve observed society's reaction to Butch women as females who are "ugly", "undesirable" or "failed": 
I just don’t get it. It's like they're trying so hard to NOT be pretty.” we’d say with our expressions of arcane. Perhaps we didn’t know that men don't own masculinity and women don't own femininity.

The misunderstood perception of Butch women is that they are trying to be men. They’re not. Their style of masculinity is intentional, baby, and it's what makes them attractive and appealing. Butch is not to reject womanhood, nor are Butch women in the process of transitioning, or confused about who they are. It’s an expression. It may not be your version of what “pretty” is but it’s a type of beauty, it just happens to be in a minority.

"Butch women are beautiful because they carve into our culturally empty space a different and powerfully confrontive way to live as women.” (photo and quote from Butch: Not like the other girls, SD Holman ) 

With gender expression I’ve realized sometimes a subtle adjustments makes all the difference: growing in my thick eyebrows, wearing men’s deodorant and throwing away the push-up bra. The same works in reverse; asking a hetero- cisgendered man to wear vanilla-scented perfume, or a delicate pink bracelet under his cuff or to grow his hair just 2 inches longer may make him feel uncomfortable. It’s not always about how you look or what message you’re trying to convey -- it’s how it makes you feel.

“To recommend that women become identical to men, would be simple reversal, and would defeat the whole point of androgyny, and for that matter, feminism: in both, the whole point is choice.”  
-- Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, American author

I am an example of someone whose gender expression has become more fluid as the years have gone by: having long hair, plucked manicured eyebrows and femme attire is something that feels a bit like 'drag' these days and I can feel myself moving towards androgyny. I still use my looks to attract men. It’s just now the types of men I attract are the ones who are more suited for me. As far as who I am attracted to, it took me a while to realize I am attracted to androgyny.

I identify as a woman but I feel very comfortable when I can express gender as male. And I hope for more pop-cultural gender-benders like Jagger, Bowie, Prince, Madonna, Annie Lennox, Grace Jones, Ruby Rose and Lady Gaga to finally start normalizing androgyny without it being a “quirk” of their character. 
Does it really matter that people like Caitlyn Jenner and me speak up about our right to express gender? Can’t we just shut up and keep it to ourselves?

Yes, it does matter. 

Because if you get to wear your pretty dress out to a party or wear a tie to work then I want to too.
Because like everyone else, I want to belong.
I want what I feel inside to reflect what shows on the outside.
I want to attract a partner who sees me, who understands my individuality, who likes my style.

Choosing to pose for a Vogue magazine spread transcends attention-seeking. Caitlyn Jenner’s reasons may be as simple as the reasons you choose to pose for a family photograph or make a music video. Because I bet when she finished her shoot and she saw her image on the playback screen of Annie Leibovitz’s camera she thought: Hey, that’s me. That’s finally me.

My Annie Leibovitz came in the form of a talented Toronto-based photographer named Robert McGee. He didn’t know it at the time, but he played a profound role in this time of my life when I was ready to show the parts of myself that have always been a mystery. And for that, he will always have my grace and gratitude. He captured something no one has ever captured before, something I can only articulate as “self-recognition”.

Ah, there you are. Pretty + Handsome. (photo by Robert McGee)

The friend who dragged me out of Zippers that night sees my recent photographs and calls me up on the phone:

How’ve you been Ponyboy? You gonna do your Drag King night, or what?”

I chuckle and promise I will get around to it someday. I thumb through my closet with my phone nestled between my ear and my shoulder as we continue chatting. I touch that great pair of ripped jeans from an ex-boyfriend, the cut-up muscle tee from my boss and a quick glance in my mirror shows my underarm hair has been growing in pretty thick these days.

My reflection still shows deep mystery that I'm elated to explore. So if the stage-name Ponyboy isn’t already taken, then I think I’ll go with that.

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