I wrote the following article about eight months ago and yet in that time so much, I think, seems to have changed. I say ‘I think’ as maybe I haven’t changed, merely the words I use to express how I feel and how I identify have changed.
Here’s what I wrote:
I work for a charity that supports trans people, their families, friends, and employers. From time to time in the office my colleague and I debate many issues around transgender. I introduced a new term to her lexicon: genderqueer. Genderqueer is a term I apply to myself. I will explain what it means to me and why I choose to use it. We also debate who and what is trans and who is part of the transgender community. Is a drag queen a trans identity? For me, the answer was simple: yes. But then I met opposition…
I primarily identify as genderqueer. Genderqueer is a term that has as many meanings as there are people identifying as such. ‘Queer’ is the antithesis of identity politics. It is the identity of non-identity, but paradoxically an identity in its very definition. However, to simplify, I think it is fair to say that the core idea behind genderqueer is that there is more to gender than the binary of male and female.
As a drag king I frequently get asked to participate in research questionnaires and interviews. This has got me thinking about what kind of king I am. I sometimes wonder what separates me from my drag persona, and the answer I arrive at is: ‘a stick on beard’. On the streets I frequently pass for male and disturbingly, maybe because I have the tendency to mince, I even receive abuse as though I was a (gay) man. Being genderqueer, and therefore visibly queer, is not a cop out. It is not about being too scared to go the distance and cross to the other side. It is like living in constant limbo and constant transition and being comfortable with that.
There’s not a lot of us drag kings, at least not many whom get up on stage and perform regularly, but there seems to be real interest in drag kings at the moment and I’m not entirely sure why. I think people are interested in the idea that ‘girls’ are playing with gender. Perhaps it’s because they dare to step out of rigid binaries and through their performance tease notions and stereotypes of masculinity. The drag king’s performance is bawdy and pantomime-like, complete with fake moustaches, ‘packing’ in our trousers, and being disturbingly similar to a Carry On… . For the female bodied to do this is in many ways a grave insult to masculinity and for some critics a clear example of Freudian ‘penis envy’ – but who would envy a penis you can’t detach?! To send up masculinity in a patriarchal society is like the non-Christian sending up Jesus. In contrast our culture’s sending up of femininity is bizarrely fair game. Carrie Bradshaw in ‘Sex and the City’ is just as much a masquerade of femininity as a drag queen. I know that the drag queen doesn’t represent “true” femininity, after all, I’m female so I should know… but hang on… if I don’t feel female, despite my body telling me otherwise, how am I to know what femininity feels like? Perhaps then the drag performance is as much a “true” performance of gender according to the person performing it as my gender is true to me.
Drag acts perform gender for our entertainment. They can also offend. I know of a drag king who managed to offend an audience of transmen. Their gripe being, “what does a drag king know about having a penis?”. Well, what does a transman know about having one either? But does the absence of a fully functioning phallus reduce either group’s innate sense of maleness and masculinity? Owning a pair of breasts (which I am rather ambivalent about) doesn’t make me any more of a girl than someone who doesn’t, and having hairy legs doesn’t make me less female? But does binding my breasts and (proudly) owning a larger collection of neck ties than shoes make me any more of a man? The web of innate feelings and social expectations is bewildering and suddenly I need to wee…
It feels sometimes that my gender comes down to which toilet I choose to use. It comes down to whether someone calls me “Sir” or refuses my ID because the name (and therefore implied gender) doesn’t match up with the person standing before them. Inside I don’t feel particularly attached to the F on my passport, but to have it exchanged with an M would feel equally wrong. Perhaps then, the only reason why I’d prefer the latter would be that passport control would be probably be faster to get through.
I suspect that I might be alone in dreaming of the day when I can boycott M or F boxes in favour of a T box, or even a D box (for Don’t Know). I don’t feel comfortable in either category. Changing my name will at least remove some of the assumptions that go along with a traditionally female name. And I will not be unnerved in my decision by the idea that now if I have a male name and prefer the male pronoun (I’d be more of a fan of gender neutral pronouns if they weren’t so difficult to use) that I am all of a sudden a “man” and should therefore like “male” things like sports and that I can no longer enjoy “female” things like being bought flowers by my partner.
I’m not sure if I’ve managed to clear up what I meant by genderqueer and how that relates to me. My name is Rory. I like whisky and I like baking scones on a Saturday afternoon. A lot of people like football. I don’t.
Taking regular shots of testosterone may well be something I decide to do in the future, but for the time being it is not the right thing for me. I am constantly working on my gender and my experience shouldn’t disqualify anyone else’s. We should respect our individual choices. For years we have all in one way or another, been marginalized for being different. I think we should debate and have open dialogues about ourselves and our relation to each other and to the rest of society. I feel we should unbuild the hierarchies of gender, so that none of us, with our different expressions of gender, transgender and transgressive gender, are excluded and disqualified.
So, what’s different now?
I’m now referring to myself as male. I ask people to use the male pronoun in reference to me. I still identify myself as FTM but instead of drag king its trans boy (I’ll grow up into a man when I start taking T.)
Being genderqueer? Well, I still identify that way, more or less. However, I do get upset/annoyed when people use the wrong pronoun. Weekends with my family are all the more traumatic now, with little effort made by them to address me in the way I ask, potentially rolling back months of affirmation from my lovers and my friends in just two short days. Sunday night, back in the arms of my partner, crying, “I wish I was a butch dyke, it’d be so much easier”. Really? I don’t know.
I’ve stopped drag kinging, in the main because it seemed silly to pretend to be a guy on stage with a stick on beard, yet in my day to day life be male but without the fake facial hair. I’d like to continue performance, especially around gender, but the idea of becoming a drag queen doesn’t appeal to me at all. I guess perhaps it’s all a bit too early yet for me to be playing with feminine stereotypes.
I do think I have drifted more towards the transsexual side of the gender spectrum (if such a thing even exists). In my experience it seems easier for most people to relate to someone as either/or rather than a mixture. After publishing the above article, a trans woman wrote to me saying that genderqueer was a stepping stone, a part of her transition. I suppose she is right in many ways, but even if I stop using that term, I think I will continue to feel queer in my gender. Gender, it seems, is not just about the individual, but is a conversation between the individual and society. So for now, it is important for me to establish my male identity.
Looking towards the future: early in 2009 I will legally change my name. I have had so much fun choosing a new one. Names, like labels, mean so much. They can be throwaway, but for me, a name says a lot. So, shortly I will be Rory Finn Alexander Smith, the “red king of Finland, defender of men – who also works beating metal”. Hmmm, that’s not really me, is it?! Importantly for me I’m also making the changes that I’ve wanted since I was a kid and the changes that will hopefully avoid strange or embarrassed moments with shopkeepers, bar staff and bouncers whom ask ID for me. More and more I want an M on my passport than an F – but that can wait until at least I start growing a beard of my own.
I am excited and I am apprehensive about the future, and how the next twelve months are going to pan out for me. There are lots of questions and worries that pop up in my head at night. Hopefully I will still have a job. But should I need to get a new one, will being visibly trans make job hunting harder, despite the legislation that has been introduced in the UK over the past ten years furthering trans and LGB employment rights? I’ll keep you posted.