“When I look at a girl, all the girl’s in the choir, for example, what strikes me is that being a girl comes natural to them. They don’t have to think about it. It’s what they are. If I were a girl like them there would be nothing special in dressing or acting as one. But for me there is something special about being a boy who dresses as a girl. I’m attracted to girls, I identify as a girl, I feel like a girl, especially when I’m dressed as one, but I am not prepared to go the whole road and become a girl. In a strange way, that ambivalence is an important part of who I am.” – Peter talking to Kate in the first chapter of Girl, Boy, Whatever!
As I embark on a third book in the Boy & Girl series, Girl, Boy, Whatever! I cannot help but revisit the way the ineluctable pair boy-girl or male-female necessarily orients all questions of gender, even for those who refuse the division. I hesitated a long time about writing a follow-up to In Search of Lost Girls. Why? Because the older Peter gets, the greater the pressure on him to chose between girl or boy when in fact he would prefer to put off that choice for ever. Unlike his namesake, Peter Pan, he has no NeverNever Land to fly away to, outside time, where he can remain eternally young, basking in the gender ambiguity that pre-adolescence affords. He has bought some time by living with the Lost Girls in Lucern and by the use of experimental hormones, like magical fairy dust that spares him from becoming a man. But that borrowed time cannot last. Especially as other forces conspire to oblige him to return to England, to cease using hormones and to conform to the male body he was born with. In 1960, when the story takes place, people were even less tolerant than today. A boy became a man. That was that. A boy who dressed as a girl was not only an ‘aberration’, but a threat to the unchallenged certitude of every man about his gender.
A brief detour via China
The left hand is cupped, palm upwards. At a casual glance it appears empty, neglected, insignificant even, yet, rather like the silence that whispers all secrets, it is full to the brim, pregnant with energy. The right hand is raised, in motion, slicing through the air, powerful, dynamic, determined, the fruit of intention. It attracts attention. It makes a statement that forces admiration. Yet, paradoxically, in that assertion it is spent and in need of replenishment. In Chinese lore, the former is yin, the latter yang. Female and male. Neither can exist separately. Without the overflowing energy of stillness, the arrow of movement cannot fly. Returning to the Western world, the vision is different. Male and female lead no such inseparable coexistence. On the contrary, they are distinct if not antagonistic.
The words we use
Female and male. The two permeate our way of seeing the world. They underlie our language, our thoughts, our being. In Western thinking, we see them as separate, distinct. She or he. Certain religions make a doctrine of what they see as the god-given distinction between the two. They even go so far as to use brute force or torture to ‘rectify’ any confusion or ambiguity.
Language gives us only ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’. However, the word ‘it’ conjures up not so much the ‘in between’ or ‘indeterminate’, an alternate, multiple gender, rather the inanimate, the neutral, the neuter, the genderless. Various recent linguistic constructs seek to propose alternatives, but they lack the adhesion and ease of use of the existing personal pronouns. Like water, language invariably flows in beds born out of long use and as such work against change and transformation. In addition, the paths followed often depend on the language spoken.
The other side of the Channel
In French, every object, every noun is either masculine or feminine. A dress is feminine, ‘sa robe’, whether it is worn by a boy or a girl. The gender of the object masks the gender of the wearer. In English, the word dress is associated with the gender of the wearer, ‘his dress’ or ‘her dress’. However, the word ‘dress’, despite the absence of an article to flag the gender, is associated with girls and women. This is also the case in French, although the gender ascribed to words is often arbitrary.
Contrary to what one crossdresser said, many clothes have gender. It is the inherent feminine nature, culturally speaking, of certain clothes that makes them attractive to the crossdresser. ‘His dress’, as Peter calls it in Boy & Girl when he dons his sister’s clothes, immediately signifies a transgression which if translated into French would require a circumlocution to express. To what extent do these differences in language colour our attitude and understanding of gender? More generally, how does the deep-seated division perceived between what it means to be a man or a woman influence our perception of the world? Does it not engender an either-or, black-white logic that carves a hard and fast line through a world that, in reality, is a multitude of shades of grey or rather a rainbow of brilliant colours? Much of the confusion lies in mistakenly thinking that gender is synonymous with sex as defined by genitalia.
A binary strike
I can’t help feeling uneasy about the idea of a women’s strike, like the one that took place recently in Switzerland. Not that I question the need for political action to redress the balance between women and men. There is an absurdity if not a violence in the feeling of superiority that many men bask in and the advantages they take for granted. Yet all those for whom the clear-cut division between male and female is problematic must necessarily feel uncomfortable with a women’s movement that gets its identity from that very division. One of the participants at the demonstration had put on his best dress, high heels and makeup to support the cause. What better way to show your solidarity than by dressing to celebrate your womanhood? Yet, in reality, her presence was frowned upon by a number of women present, or at best ignored as an unfortunate embarrassment. Why? Because that ambiguity is seen to challenge the clear-cut division between man and woman on which the movement is founded. When you are trying to make a point, as the women’s strike was seeking to do, clear-cut arguments and easily identified divisions are more readily communicated and defended. Nuance and ambiguity are necessarily weaknesses in a polarised political landscape. The would-be woman completely misjudged the situation. What she saw as an occasion to proclaim her attachment to femininity, was in fact a political movement opposing men and women in a struggle for domination which had no time and place for expressions of gender ambiguity.