excerpt from “Unhinging Gender from All the Rules”

(from remarks first delivered at the R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center’s fundraising dinner, 2005)

small square of portrait of Eli by Riva Lehrer, a hand grasping at a shirt

….I don’t want to be the token trans person here on stage tonight. I don’t want us to forget that the history of gay, lesbian, and bi peoples is woven with trans and gender variant peoples. I don’t want the T to be simply an afterthought in the alphabet soup. And so I ask you a question, a real question full of fierceness and compassion.

Who among us in this room has not broken a gender rule? The sissy boys, the femme men, the ones who swish just a little. The men who aren’t seen as “real” because they have sex with other men. The butch women, the stone butches, the bulldaggers. The drag queens and kings. The trans people who cross the supposedly immutable lines of gender assigned at birth, the cross dressers, transwomen, transmen, genderqueers. Those of us who have taken up androgyny or thrown away gender altogether. The queer femmes who wear high heels and make up with abandon and pride, who won’t give them up for any political ideology, including feminism. The women who aren’t seen as “real” because they partner with other women. Who among us has not broken a gender rule?

I know I’ve broken more than one. I’m remembering a time in San Francisco, strolling down Castro Street, checking out the bears, those big burly men with full beards and open shirts. One of them caught my eye. I held his gaze for that single extra moment, watched as it slipped down my body. He asked, “Are you a man or a woman,” not taunting but curious. I didn’t answer. What could I have possibly said, this tomboy turned butch dyke turned genderqueer turned FTM? I walked away smiling, my skin warm. In another world at another time, I would have grown up something entirely different, neither boy nor girl. Needless to say, I have broken a few gender rules along the way, and I know I am not alone.

I am not claiming that we are all transgender or even all gender transgressive—we aren’t. The differences and tensions among us are many: sexism dividing gay men and lesbians, bi people repeatedly being called fence sitters, trans people shut out of gay and lesbian spaces. I have no interest in ignoring or whitewashing the specific experiences of trans folks. For non-trans people the relationship between being female or male on one hand and being a woman or a man on the other goes mostly unnoticed, but for trans people those two things—biological sex and gender identity—come together in a myriad of ways in our bodies, jangling, grating, contradicting, demanding attention. We can tell you what it means to change from one gender to another or to mix them up, the pain of that and the joy. No, I’d never claim that we’re all trans. And yet at the same time I am saying that this thing we call gender comes with an endless array of idiosyncratic rules that impact all of us and that as queer people we break those rules all the time.

Who among us hasn’t paid some sort of price for our disobedience? Maybe we’ve lost a job, been denied a promotion, or been totally qualified but not called back for the second interview. Maybe we’ve got harassed on the streets or kicked out of our parents’ houses. Maybe we’ve felt shame or embarrassment or self-doubt about our genders. Maybe we’ve taken grief from inside our own queer communities. You know what I mean, just read the personals. The men who say, “masculine only or no queens,” the women who say, “butches need not apply”; “straight-acting” (actually meaning “gender normative”) seems to be a highly sought after trait. Some of us have been bashed or even murdered for breaking the rules, for saying, “No, this is what a woman can be, what a man can be, this is how we can step outside the gender binary altogether….

copyright 2005, Eli Clare