I was born in Queen Victoria hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. The doctor slapped a gender into my body and told my mother, “You have a boy.” In South Africa during apartheid, where even homosexuality was criminalized, there were only two possible outcomes for gender: “boy” or “girl.” What I could not have understood as a child was that all kinds of other roles would grow out of being labeled a “boy.” I started learning at a very young age that “boys” were actually not allowed to be like “girls.”
Then I won the annual flower decorating competition at my all white elementary school. I can still smell the scent of the Magnolia and Honeysuckle blossoms in that arrangement. This transgression of gender norms was truly remarkable because of the hyper-masculinity that intersected with the racist-capitalism of apartheid, etched even on my feet by special boots to build my arches for mandatory military service. I don’t remember being bullied in the schoolyard for my prowess at flower decorating, but I do remember the profound shame I felt for transgressing the way “boys” were supposed to be. I did not need to be bullied. I’d internalized gender norms enough to simply bully myself.
After winning the flower decorating competition, I remember becoming deeply fearful of other “boys” and would often lurk by myself in the schoolyard. I was afraid that they would notice I was different and harm me.
This experience of gender oppression came long before I discovered my attraction to other “boys” at age 11. I knew instinctively that being “gay” was yet another transgression of the way that “boys” were supposed to be. In the face of this truth, I spiraled inward, and was finally able to muster the courage to come out at age 27.
Oppression around sexual difference is cocooned in this larger narrative about gender. That narrative divides the human race into two genders, privileges “men” over “women” and devalues the “feminine.” I don’t believe anyone can be genuinely free until we break the chains of this patriarchal gender binary and allow the gifts of being “feminine” (or “masculine” or any combination) to animate our physical bodies naturally and be expressed authentically.
The New York Times recently hosted a debate with the questions: “Does it still make sense to think of trans rights as part of the gay-rights movement? Or at this point, is it a different campaign with different goals?” I’d encourage you to read what the debaters wrote. I’m not sure that the queer community fully understands that our struggle for liberation is fundamentally interconnected, and most importantly, rooted in the feminist struggle against patriarchal oppression. The pursuit of homonormativity by the gay rights movement in the late 80s resulted in a consolidation of gay identity that concealed the centrality of gender in queer liberation. If you read queer literature prior to the 80s, it centered on gender liberation.
The sheer power of this larger narrative about gender can be seen in how sexual relationships were constructed in the Biblical world. Growing up in a conservative Christian community, I spent a lot of time reading books interpreting the so called “clobber passages.” I was seeking a way to reconcile the Christian beliefs I’d been taught with my own experience as a human being. The most important work I discovered was Martti Nissinen’s Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historic Perspective. Nissinen is professor in Old Testament studies at the University of Helsinki in Finland. In the Biblical world where understandings of sexual identity simply did not exist (homosexuality is a modern construct), condemnations about homoeroticism were actually situated in a larger narrative about gender. Nissinen writes:
The fundamental starting point was that men were the active, penetrating partners and the subjects of sexual relationships, whereas women, as passive, receiving partners, were their objects. This same role distinction was in effect also in same-sex sexual relations…Transgressions of role boundaries, whether by a man or a woman, were severely condemned in Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and Jewish societies…This explains why the feminization or effeminacy of a man was an expressly moral issue…In the material of this study, the distinction between active and passive partners matches the distinction between male and female roles. In men’s homosexual relationships the passive role was that of a socially subjected person. It was virtually identified with a female role. [i]
A restrictive gender binary, not the modern understanding of sexual identity, is the real context for the Bible’s condemnation of certain sexual relationships (not just same-sex ones). This patriarchal gender binary continues to blow through history like a hurricane, lacerating all of our freedom. Chad Kautzer writes in Radical Philosophy, “Conventions accrue, building layer upon layer over time, taking hold in patterns, images, and built environments; they are infused with normalizing discourses that make social patterns and relations of domination seem like natural laws.” [ii] “Masculinity and Femininity, for example, are not natural categories: They are social roles within a social order…masculinity and femininity exhibit a certain kind of logic that we find in every institutionalized form of social domination. Because gender is a way of hierarchically ordering human relations, the characteristics associated with the dominant group function to justify their domination.” [iii]
In an interview about his book The Penetrated Male, Jonathan Kemp writes that “the male body is [still] heavily policed, and the penetrated male body becomes the problematic site of fear/desire, a dumping ground of all our fears about homosexuality/ anality/ feminization/ psychosis.” [iv]
Masculine identity is constructed through a rejection of femininity, defined through a radical difference from and opposition to, the feminine. Culturally, homosexuality is perceived as and understood as some kind of lack of masculinity — the homosexual as ‘female soul trapped in a male body’, the cross-gender model which has dominated our understandings of male-male desire. In this sense, hatred of homosexuality and hatred of women are both products of the kind of Alpha-male patriarchal capitalism that is rampant in today’s world…The penetrated male body performs an action or gesture which the ideal of masculinity disavows, indeed violently punishes.
Transgender singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons composed a powerful transfeminist manifesto in 2012. Set in the alienating world of male supremacy and corporate capitalism, Hegarty gives voice to the thoughts and feelings of women still submerged in patriarchy:
My eyes are coral, absorbing your dreams
My skin is a surface to push to extremes
My heart is a record of dangerous scenes…
When will I turn and cut the world?
At the end of the video, in a poignant moment, the woman who turns and cuts the world draws strength and hope in the gaze of a transgender woman. When the gift of being “feminine” can animate all bodies naturally and be expressed authentically — without fear, then women, transgender people and queers will be closer to genuine freedom.
All of us really.
“When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex,” writes Judith Butler, “gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequences that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine, a male body as easily as a female one.” [v]
Winning a flower decorating competition as a young “boy” or coming out queer will no longer transgress the patriarchal gender binary that exposes so many of us to emotional, psychological and physical violence.
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[i] Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, Fortress Press, 1998, p. 129–30
[ii] Chad Kautzer, Radical Philosophy: An Introduction, Paradigm Publishers, 2015, p. 80
[iii] Chad Kautzer, “Notes for a Critical Theory of Community Self Defense,” Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense, Edited Scott Crow
[iv] Jonathan Kemp, The Penetrated Male, Punctum Books, 2013
[v] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1990, p. 6