This week a group of boys in England wore skirts to school in protest of a “no shorts” policy. Oregon drivers can officially circle “X” on their licenses as a gender choice. Myra Breckenridge is no longer the only transgender name we know, not by a long shot.
I’d like to be able to say “This is what it means to be female. This stuff is what it means to be male,” but I can’t. I have no idea what it means to be anything except what I am in my own head. The smattering of gender trappings learned and rejected by a child of the 1950s – clothes, makeup, being safe, who may hit whom, bathroom protocol, war mongering – have blurred in the intervening decades. Women throw right hooks in the movies, but it is always accompanies a frisson of surprise. Husbands raise kids while their wives are bank managers. Ditto the frisson. Do women wear hats and hose, men put on ties, to go shopping on Saturday afternoon?
As a forty-five year old mom I had no problem marching my six year old daughter into the boys’ department of Filenes. Mid-riff baring shirts, skimpy shorts, and underpant revealing skirts found in the girls’ department were not going to happen for her no matter what common culture said was appropriately feminine dress. Rugged, skin covering clothes were practical for a kid given to skidding on her knees. So were pockets. Was this cross-dressing? Would there be long term effects?
During college orientation at URI in 1972, a boy asked “Are you a liberated woman?”
“Come to bed with me and prove it.”
The exchange was mostly about gender, even though it was cloaked as sex. It was about framing as a dichotomy a question that was really multi-faceted. It seemed typically masculine, this bestowing of and either-or choice, ignoring the wealth of possibility in between.
One night, sitting with Dad when he knew he was dying, he said, “you can either be independent, or you can learn to blend in and be happy. You’ll never find a husband if you don’t.” Interesting assumptions, just like the boy twenty-five years before, as if the only choices were immersion or independence, husband or loneliness. Who needs a caretaker? Why should gender dictate choices?
I hadn’t discovered any of the hard boiled lady detectives yet, nor any of the gender fluid starship captains of Melissa Scott. John D. MacDonald had famously said that he didn’t like women in his novels because they slowed the action down. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness and a handful of similar short stories, raised the question of why gender matters at all.
I’m writing a book with a protagonist whose gender is undisclosed. I started thinking about this character in the early 1980s when I was living in a country where the cultural trappings of gender are different, but no less rigid than in the US. The character needed to be separated from the binary of social propriety. Perception of gender in the States has changed, broadened, become more polarizing. Today, lack of gender is itself a political statement. Why is there this pressure to adhere to one gender or another as if they were political parties? Why not be unenrolled or independent? What would that look like? Why let others define a limited field of choices?