performing gender; gender as performance. the freedom of #queer

In my previous post I said that, “Performing who I am is completely different to being who I am. Being who I am was a way of existing in relation to an identity, created for me by others and mostly myself, that was claustrophobically passive, comfortable; an existence in which I was the receptacle of life’s whims, a victim. Performing who I am allows me to have agency in who I am in relation to a world I have the power to influence.” This applies not only to my identity, but to my gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression as well.

Human beings need to label other people in order to know how to react to them, while protecting themselves. And this need exists not only in other people, but in myself as well. This has led to me taking on labels that limit me; it has led me to create a box for myself, although alternative, that has stifled me. Because believe me, choosing a box of otherness is as stifling as a conventional box. Boxes of otherness and the conventional boxes are both societally approved and thus stifling.

I was reminded of this when I got my first ‘real world’ job in the last 12 months. Before this very corporate job, the jobs I had allowed me to work and associate with others on the fringe of society. Entering the corporate world threw me into a world where I was confronted by what I used to see as ‘civilians,’ ‘normal people.’ The interesting thing I learnt, and continue to learn, from this experience, is that the safety created for others by labelling me is not the only safety that exists in this relationship. Responding to others from the label they created for me was a safe space for me as well. They interpreted me and cast me as ‘a dyke,’ and I played into that, becoming ‘a dyke.’

My history with how I identify myself in terms of sexual orientation (my exploration of gender expression and gender identity only really emerged in the last year) has been, on the whole, a very passive one. I’ve taken on the readymade labels, climbed into the box that society has provided for me.

As a teenager I had almost no thoughts about myself in relation to anyone, male or female, in a sexual context. I was, to all intents and purposes, asexual. I had crushes on the older, head boy types, and longed to be like the beautiful, sporty, popular girls. In retrospect, I’ve realised that it was the other way around: I longed to be the head boy type and had crushes on the girls. But my complete lack of awareness of myself in any relation to other people prevented any sense of who I was sexually, let alone my sexual orientation. I also spent puberty in the small town of Welkom, where awareness of homosexuality was almost non-existent. I had no gay role-model.

University was an eye-opener, a catalyst for my sexual awakening. English lectures were littered with gay lecturers and the theme of homosexuality. I started becoming aware of an existence other than the straight and narrow I had been brought up with. This was a very exciting and freeing time for me. I came to realise my crushes on girls for what they were and I played around intellectually with the idea of being gay or bisexual.

My first partner, as well as my first kiss, at the age of 22, was female. I gladly accepted the label of ‘lesbian’ in that I thought it answered my feelings of alienation and difference in relation to other people. And this identity was concretised by the psychiatric institution which was almost literally my home for my self in my 20s.

How blind I was to trust psychiatry with forming my view of my sexual self: the psychiatry of the paternal, the psychiatry of Freud and Jung, the psychiatry that labelled womens’ sexuality ‘hysteria,’ the psychiatry that institutionalised two generations before me to cure the ‘mental illness’ of homosexuality. How could I believe that through the psychiatric gaze I could view my identity and gender identity as anything but pathological? While modern psychiatry wooed me with their acceptance of homosexuality, they demonised anything outside of the hetero:homo binary, labelled me as suffering from the symptom of mental illness they call ‘gender identity disorder,’ a ‘symptom’ of my broader diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. Instead of ‘curing’ my ‘madness,’ they brainwashed me believe that my truth is mad. What other definition of madness is there other than the madness created by institutions and societies that instil a deep-seated doubt in your most intuitive certainties about yourself and your place in the world? Any madness – if that even exists – is preferable to the psychiatric-induced madness that you cannot trust your own thoughts, your own self, your own truth.

But I did trust them. I did take their labelling of me on board. What other choice did I have? I was suicidal, a danger to myself, I couldn’t trust the thoughts in my head as they were irrational and clouded by illness. So I embraced the identity of ‘the lesbian.’ And it worked for a while. I felt at home for the first time in my life in the world of women. But I was haunted by feelings of difference yet again. I felt attraction to men and did not identify with the complete absence of men in the lives of my fellow lesbians. I did sleep with men and couldn’t understand the stigma around a generally gay women who slept with men. I dealt with this contradiction by referring to myself as being ‘emotionally lesbian, physically bisexual.’ If this sounds confusing, it was. The options (labels/boxes) of straight, gay and bisexual provided to me were not identities I associated with. I didn’t feel comfortable inhabiting any of them.

And then a year ago I was introduced to the concept of ‘queer.’ As a student at university I was of course aware of Judith Butler, but for some reason never read her or any of the queer theorists. Being introduced to the queer identity completely transformed how I thought of myself. It was like being told I did not have to colour only inside of the lines. The freedom this identity has given to me is akin to realising that the world is not flat.

It has given me the freedom to feel comfortable in my seemingly contradictory feelings. By colouring outside of the lines, realising there were no lines, that they were simply societal constructions, allowed me to investigate and explore my sexuality in ways I never thought possible. I realised that there are, as Quentin Crisp and Oscar Wilde said, no homosexuals, no heterosexuals, only homosexual and heterosexual acts. Queerness makes possible the multitude of experiences I wish to have.

But it’s not as simple and base as sexuality. Queerness opened my eyes to elements of myself that I thought were linked to my sexual orientation, namely, my gender identity and my gender expression. I had always thought of myself as a butch lesbian. Queer identity allowed me to realised that my comfort with butchness had nothing to do with my orientation, that my identification as androgynous, as transgendered (crossing the gender divide) is an integral part of who I am, completely independent of my orientation.

And it was the epiphany of the existence of gender identity and gender expression that brought the gift of performing my gender, exploring my gender into my life.

Instead of being frightened of my femininity and blinkered-ly expressing myself as butch – which allowed a measure of safety and prevented me from exploring myself more fully – I began to have fun with playing with my gender expression. I donned a dress last month for the first time in 14 years, and rather than being afraid that this would destabilise my identity, it became a platform for pushing myself out of my comfort zone, thereby allowing me to explore the infinite experiences I had been denying myself. Instead of living with a fixed and enforced identity, performing my gender allows me to express how I identify from day to day, from hour to hour, allowing the fluidity of my identity the freedom to exist in a fluid, performative space.

I am having so much fun playing with gender constructs, with people’s views of gender, with my own views of my own gender. Performance of gender has enabled me to push myself to places that previously scared me and has allowed me a much greater knowledge of who I am. Or at least has allowed me to realise, with joy, that I can be so much more than I am, that I am fluid and unfixed, that I am, in short, living outside of the boxes and labels. And yes, I hear you say, ‘queer’ is a box. But for me, it is a box in the way the universe is.

Another important aspect of performing gender is that with performance, there is an audience. An integral part of who I am is the deep need to have an impact on the world, to open people’s minds to the infinity of possibility, to deconstruct the status quo. Performance has allowed me to do this.

I wore a mauve mens’ shirt to work one day, as opposed to my usual black or blue. My colleagues celebrated my rare display of femininity. I responded that I’m just very good at accessing my inner gay man. It’s very entertaining watching the men in the office in their split-second debate about whether to wish me a Happy New year by hugging me or shaking my hand. On holding doors open for others: I hold doors open out of a completely romantic belief in gallantry. The fact that it also allows me to shake people up is only a bonus. I am that “delicate little petal” holding the door open for other “delicate little petal”s and a very large number of very butch men. The latter only realise I’m a woman until after they’ve walked through the door. Watching their brains slowly reboot from the malfunction is priceless.

It’s interesting how gallantry is seen as exclusively male territory. Why are people so insistent on gendering everything? For example, putting my gallantry down to me ‘being a dyke’ or ‘wanting to be a boy.’ Nothing is gendered. There are just rituals, characteristics and roles that I choose to perform because I feel comfortable with them, and because they’re fun.

The only thing more infuriating than the narrow-mindedness of mainstream individuals is the narrow-mindedness of non-mainstream individuals. I mean really, if you’re lucky enough to explore ideas, beliefs, sexualities, etc. of those other than the ones you were conditioned to accept as ‘you’, why would you jump straight back into another box of your own making? It’s as boring as eschewing Christianity in order to become a Satanist. Why close yourself off to the endless possibilities of experience? Why, when you are given the gift of not identifying as exclusively ‘straight’ would you identify as exclusively ‘gay’ and enact the stereotypes neatly provided for you by society?

I would be the first to admit that I am a shit-stirrer, that I enjoy being contrary and being a discomfiting influence in the lives of others. But it’s not simply about being contrary; not simply about being controversial. I don’t revel in being a rebel. That’s juvenile. I revel in pointing out the rebellion that exists everywhere which very few notice. And this is something I’m very passionate about. Because pointing out the contradictions present in everything allows a safe space for difference. And in a world where difference is feared, hated, demonised, rehabilitated, imprisoned, institutionalised, beaten and raped, being someone who actively lives and performs difference allows me to undo some of the damage that is inflicted upon individuals who do not conform to society’s ideas of what a human being should be.

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