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The Swish

As a junior in college I took a course in “personality.” It was one of the many upper-level psychology classes I was to take that year. A few weeks in, the professor started talking about the Thematic Apperception Test. The TAT is based on an observable rule of human behavior: You can always trick people into telling you the things they are suppressing. You show the subject an ambiguous image and they will insert their own issues into the story they tell you about it. I knew all of this and even though I did, I raised my hand to volunteer.The teacher sent me out of the room, I came back in, and he showed me a picture of a boy sitting in front of a violin.

“Well, he looks sad,” I said. “I think he really wants to play football but his mother is making him play the violin. He wants to do something butch.”

At this point my classmates started laughing. And I kept talking until I realized that hearing the program’s resident sassy gay guy project his own gender issues onto a TAT card was funny to them. It would have been funny to me, if I hadn’t been the one losing the game. In front of a packed auditorium.

And now, years later, I am ready to admit that that moment wasn’t just a funny thing that happened. That it was a little disconcerting to me to learn that going to college and coming out and having just the MOST gay sex anyone’s ever had and reading queer histories and going to GLBTQ Student meetings didn’t actually change how I saw myself. I still had no idea where I belonged.

I knew genderqueer people, but felt like they didn’t understand the infinite regress of my gender. I wanted to create an identity of such HIGH DRAMA and SUSPENSE that I would always be the thing I was playing and also something else. I wanted to be the manly queer, the guy who always wears flannel and never shaves, but who also occasionally wears this GIGANTIC women’s fur coat — I wanted every facet of myself to be a comment on another facet. I wanted to be a living art piece and monument to my own hot, indigo genius for self-creation. But above all of it, MY GOD I didn’t want anyone to think I was just another gay guy.

So I’d like to talk about gender, about my own gender, because not talking about these things leads to us ONLY talking about them. Leads to giving strangers access to your deepest emotional truths in a packed auditorium.

When I was a little boy, I had a few films that were very important to me, movies I had recorded on VHS tapes, but which I would still watch whenever they came on. Legend. The Princess Bride. The Breakfast Club. I had my Mannequin tape, but I also had my backup Mannequin tape, to make sure I would never be without Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Women like Shelley Long and Kim Cattrall were Gods in the pantheon of my childhood. I discovered these things on my own, and assumed I was the only boy in the world who loved them. Years later I would get little bit pissed that the songs on my mom’s old workout cassette — “It’s Raining Men,” “Jump (For My Love),” “I Will Survive” — had been a staple of gay culture for decades, and not just something I discovered in rural Texas.

All of this fits into my “Growing Up Gay” Narrative, a fake story about real events that I see reinforced everywhere I turn. It is there in Running With Scissors. It is there in every movie where a little boy plays with a doll and this is shorthand for his gayness. This is the standard “I Always Knew” version of emerging queer identity.

This narrative doesn’t take into account the childhoods of many queer people. It erases people who grew up with socially approved gender interests, whether because that felt natural to them or it was what they liked or it was simply what one did, and it sets a false standard of queerness that sees gender fluidity as naturally irrepressible, something that marks the lives of real queers. This erases the lives of queers who do successfully repress their gender fluidity and their sexuality, all of the queers who lead double lives because they don’t see any other options. These people are real and exist in the world — and their lives aren’t made easier by erasure. (OR Duran Duran.)

But, while I certainly CERTAINLY want to be sensitive to these people, I also know that some of them tout their “gender appropriate” childhoods as evidence that they are the “right” type of queer. “Yeah I have sex with guys, but no kissing on the mouth, no femmes or fatties, str8 acting, macho, butch UB2.” I will spare all of you the details of my own Anthropological Field Work in this area, but suffice to say some of these people are quite different when the lights go down real low.

I AM WINKING AT YOU, BEATDOWN.

My point is, the things I loved as a child are totems of my queer identity and my gender. Both of which are mine, both of which I own, both of which shouldn’t be used to judge anyone else’s experience or “authenticity.” It is also intended to illustrate that Gender is Performative, that The Swish, as I call it, is an artifact of the particular experience of being a gay man.

The Swish is complicated! Sometimes it can feel like gender appropriation! Sometimes it can eclipse the experience of transpeople, sometimes it can be used to cover up some pretty shitty behavior on the part of gay men! But, it is also the target of heteronormative ire. It is also a political act. Because being effeminate makes you a target, no matter your sex, sexuality or gender. There are queer people who wish very much that The Swish would disappear. Who use the privilege of their gender conformity to snipe at those of us who are genderqueer or genderfluid. Who will get in your face and tell you that you are holding back queer rights in the society at large. And to them I quote Faye Dunaway as Miss Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest: “Don’t fuck with me fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”

I am infinitely amused by and conflicted by The Swish. And I’m torn between seeing The Swish as a clever bit of political gender play and a cultural code that evolved out of the restricted nature of queer spaces.

Not being able to automatically identify potential romantic partners is a real problem for queers. It leads us to waste time searching for sexual partners who are all around us. It forces us to invent elaborate forms of semaphore, use coded spaces like a gay bar or a chat room to look for sexual partners. But if we guess wrong (or if we are a little too right) we might be murdered for it.

Intimate partner violence is terrifying for queers. That a seemingly rational integrated personality you had sex with, who seemed to love it, who seemed to really be good at it, doing that thing you like with the Scarves or the Paddles or the Clamps without even having to be asked (which is, like, SO APPRECIATED, not having to go through that big fake thing where you sit down at the coffee table, put the fur cuffs and the doctor scrubs between the two of you, and start winking), who responds with vigor and enthusiasm, might flip shit and try to kill you. Might, in fact, succeed in killing you. It has been over 15 years since the death of Scott Amedure, the Jenny Jones guest who revealed his love for a neighbor on the show, and was then murdered. Schmidt went to prison, and Amedure’s family sued the Jenny Jones show. What is less known in that there is evidence that Amedure and Schmidt had sex before Amedure was murdered.

So, The Swish is a pretty good indicator that the person you are eyeing across the bar might just have his emotional shit worked out related to his queer identity. He might not have his bills paid on time or any books in his house, he may be a toxic sinkhole of a person, but at least he isn’t going to kill you for giving him pleasure he doesn’t understand.

The Swish can be useful in other ways. It can create instant solidarity between strangers. It can tell someone that yes, you really want directions, this isn’t some elaborate come on. Sending back food at a restaurant is never complete without an, “oh honey, I don’t want to be a pain.” When Christian and I go out and the wait staff assumes he’s gay and we’re a couple, I lean over, lightly pick something off of his shoulder, and say, “can I get the mashed potatoes instead of the home fries?”

“What are you doing?” He asks after they’ve left.

“I’m getting lunch prices at six o’clock. Now lie back and think of England.”

“Ewww.”

There are a lot of places where The Swish is detrimental. Family reunions, where members of my extended family ask if I have a girlfriend, and I bite my tongue, remembering that I want some of their stuff when they die. Public spaces. The hardware store I started working in as an overnight stocker in college! Before every shift I’d stand in front of a mirror, preparing to perform my appointed gender. I had the supremely bizarre experience of sitting in a room and listening to straight men talk about gay men without knowing that one had infiltrated their midst. At lunch I would hide in the display tubs and have long conversations with Myles, who never liked to talk to me at work, especially the break room. When he said “I love you” to me when I was around other people, I would reply, “that sounds about right.” I tried to explain that he should hear that as “I love you too” but he didn’t like it.

Guys, you know? So emotional.

I understand that I am talking about two different things as if they are one: Gender and Sexuality. I do this when discussing myself because in my mind they are a unit. This is why we have gender signifiers that are strictly performative. Butch. Femme. Swishy. Macho. A person can act butch or dress femme, but we understand that this is separate from who they are as a person. Am I Garland Motherfucking Grey when I wake up in the morning, rolling out of bed with a sassy one-liner about every side being the wrong side today? No. It takes me a few minutes to ease into it. Does that make it any less real? Does part of it being a choice mean that it is a choice that is not always mine to make?

Sometimes I enter into situations where I have to watch my posture and my lisp and the deep, oaky timber of my East Texas Country Redneck voice. Sometimes I can avoid a lot of trouble and humiliation and harassment by just shutting the fun or interesting parts of my personality down for a few minutes. One night at the hardware store, I caught myself delivering a long, droning lecture about the history of fashion editors at Vogue. I realized I was delivering this lecture in monotone. It was something that fascinated me, and it was what I reading about at the moment, clocking out and going home and watching archival footage of Grace Mirabella talking about Diana Vreeland on The Charlie Rose Show, but I couldn’t tell the full story. Because I was tailoring the story to my audience, and none of them gave a shit.

Thinking back on all of this, I am reminded of the scene in Angels in America when Belize says, “all this girl-talk shit is politically incorrect, you know. We should have dropped it back when we gave up drag.” I’m reminded of all the things big old queens like me remember when we’re trying to make a point. Because I’m slowly settling into my gender, interacting and engaging with the different competing factions. Because a large part of my gender is this really high-concept satire of masculinity my male friends call my “personality.”

When I interact with other men, I can feel all of the intelligence leaking out of my head. I try to remind myself that I am here in an anthropological function — I am here to study but not to interact. And then someone, ANYONE says something about how masculine and macho and “one of the guys” I am, and I just give myself over to it, like a half-finished pint of ice cream or the ocean. Because when this happens the part of myself that desperately needs homosocial validation takes over. When I am confronted with the parts of male culture that are homophobic, I try to hold a mirror up to their behavior, concretize it, show them what they are really doing.

I have a friend who I’ve known since high school who uses the phrase “no homo” all of the time. About everything! But he likes me! Personally! And we spend time with one another, and he has learned not to say “no homo” around me. Not because I politely asked him to stop, not because I told him I wouldn’t hang out with him if he didn’t stop. Because I started using the phrase. I started saying things like, “I want to milk you like a cow, No Homo.” Or, “let’s get naked and wrestle around in bacon grease, No Homo.” That’s when it stops being a joke for straight guys. When you make it visceral.

This is my gender. A patchwork of coping mechanisms and learned behaviors that subtly alter my Gender Performance, causing it to resemble the last scene of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, when the T-1000 is cycling through all the people it has ever killstabbed with it’s knifehands. Confusing! But also BADASS.

28 Comments

  1. Marley wrote:

    Extremely badass! As is this post.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  2. scrumby wrote:

    LIES!!! Duran Duran makes everything easier!

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  3. MKP wrote:

    Thank you THANK YOU for this post – it articulates a lot of the questions I’ve been silently asking myself recently. I’m resisting the urge to overshare, but I’ma bookmark it so I can refer to it in the near-future when I try to lay out my own “performative gender” observations.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  4. D. wrote:

    Huh.

    I’ve sometimes wondered…

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Kathy wrote:

    Echoing MKP, thank you. Beautifully written — and badass.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Robin wrote:

    Any post that ends with a delightfully specific T2 Reference wins! The prize is inclusion in my imaginary syllabus for my imaginary gender studies class at Internet University.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink
  7. KC wrote:

    Garland Grey, I just love you so much. This piece ROCKS and today has been a big gay red-letter day for California so I am basically having a little pride parade here in my kitchen. Yay!

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  8. mulierosity wrote:

    Wow. This rivals Sady’s “Dirty Girls and Bad Feminists”. How do you people write so well!

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  9. SMadin wrote:

    This is an amazing post. Thank you.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Garland Grey wrote:

    @Mulierosity While I am honored by the comparison, I must confess: my work is poorly written, but well-edited.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  11. Kaye wrote:

    Not poorly written at all- quite the contrary! The choked-up feeling in my throat attests to that.

    And, as others said, badass.

    Aside: did you see the Vogue doc “The September Issue”? I mention this because of your mention of Vogue. The movie has some really interesting stuff.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  12. Brad Nelson wrote:

    Man Garland don’t sell yourself short you are the MAN (who holds up the mirror to other men).

    This is wonderful and you are wonderful. Also, because I am very self-involved, I was a bit cooked by my own reflection here. Which is nice to feel.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 12:23 am | Permalink
  13. Will wrote:

    The problem with the word “performance” is that it implies that everything we do is in some way fake, which I don’t think is true — constructed, perhaps, maybe even affected, but those constructions and affectations become habits. Just as alcohol consumption could be considered “performative” in a sense, as you “pick” your drink (let’s say whiskey) you don’t LIKE it at first, but you make yourself appreciate it, then you like it. Or, you know, smoking. Not that I want to compare gender and sexuality to life-robbing vices, or anything. I’m just saying — a construct, a performance, an affectation — they are as real as they are intended to be.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  14. Lilith_bcn wrote:

    “Intimate partner violence is terrifying for queers”. Only for queers? Womans around the World are been raped, beated, abused for their boyfriends, husbands, ex-, fathers, the people who is supposed to take care of them, without nobody doing nothing to stop that.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  15. Samantha B. wrote:

    Oh, I so want to hear your monotone lecture on the history of Vogue fashion editors, although if it comes out pro-Wintour, you will lose me fast. (Well, fashion-wise. Editorially, I have crazy huge respect for her. The kids in that magazine can WRITE.)

    At any rate, this is an incredible piece of self-interrogation. I know I felt a huge sense of relief as a cis-woman when I read “Whipping Girl” because it gave me a come back to friends and relatives who’d always mocked my “girliness.” Most of my women/girl friends have always tended to define themselves, as many smart women do, in resistance to feminine stereotypes, and there’s always been a part of me that innately conforms to them, at least as far as dress goes. (In college, I used to have a rule to wear jeans at least twice a month so as not to seem prissy. But if you have to set such a rule, eh, you probably are.) And it’s always been something that’s generated a lot of cracks and commentary, not necessarily of a vicious nature. But in retrospect I’d certainly say that there were aspects of policing there. It was something I had to regularly defend, at any rate. I suppose we’re all performers, and we’re all negotiating different audiences. But it’s worth noting that absolutely zero, zilch of us ever win when we can’t allow for fluidity (which, sadly, is a fuckload of the time.)I mean, why the fuck did my women/girl friends care if it wasn’t destabilizing to their self-definition in some fashion?

    As an aside, your posts always make me miss the process of essay writing, because they always have the feel of a topic that’s peeled away as you go along. I always thought that process was so valuable for self-discovery. Or maybe you’re just that cool, off the bat. Either way, your candor gets two Ebert thumbs up and all 5 Michelin stars.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  16. Sady wrote:

    @Lilith: I don’t think that’s at all what Garland meant to say. If you read the site regularly, you know that he’s concerned with violence against (heterosexual, in your examples) women. But he’s talking specifically against intimate partner violence between queers, and the way that homophobia contributes to it. It’s a conversation that’s deeply necessary, and we can have it without taking the other out of the equation. In fact, if anything, conversations about heterosexual partner violence against women tend to dominate the feminist blogosphere. Maybe folks need to check their privilege in that regard.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  17. Evie wrote:

    This almost made me cry. However, I am at work, so I had to take a few moments :)

    But wow, Garland. This was amazing.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  18. bluebears wrote:

    Love this Garland. There’s so much to absorb, I’m going to have to go back and re-read later, when I can really give it my full attention. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  19. alanna wrote:

    ” I had my Mannequin tape, but I also had my backup Mannequin tape.” Garland, I think this is where I fell completely and irrevocably in love with this post.

    I don’t really have much to add to the conversation; just a big thank you for your wonderful writing. As a cis woman (one who last wore a skirt when she was a bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding two years ago, so…) this is a great read – a funhouse mirror that reflects my own relationship with gender, but also twists it all around and upside-down.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  20. One night at the hardware store, I caught myself delivering a long, droning lecture about the history of fashion editors at Vogue.

    AHAHAHAH! Who the fuck were you lecturing?

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
  21. Garland Grey wrote:

    @Samantha B: Wintour is more of an ARTIST than Mirabella, a better businesswoman than Vreeland, but she’s still a horrible person.

    @CP Someone mentioned The Devil Wears Prada and the floodgates, they opened.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  22. Samantha B. wrote:

    @Garland Grey, sure well more of an artist than Mirabella for sure, but I tend to agree with Tavi Gevinson that Wintour doesn’t take a lot of aesthetic risks. How many models *can* you pose against a white backdrop? In a variant on a sheath dress? And the young designers she chooses to support: often drearily safe types like Narciso Rodriguez and Phillip Lim. Undoubtedly, too, she has promoted staff largely because of their social connections (see: Alexandra Kotur, who has zero eye to speak of.)That’s all part of Wintour’s being a better businesswomen, I suppose. But I miss the Vreelands of the world who we’ll realistically never see again, at least in this country at that magazine.

    What was that about opened floodgates?

    Friday, August 6, 2010 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  23. Laura wrote:

    “Wow. This rivals Sady’s “Dirty Girls and Bad Feminists”. How do you people write so well!”

    Exactly what I was thinking. Tigerbeatdown is CONSISTENTLY engaging to a huge degree, and then I read articles like this one or ‘Dirty Girls’ where I suddenly have the answers to questions I didn’t even know had to be answered. A single article that makes me reconsider whole aspects of society. Fantastic :D

    Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 5:52 am | Permalink
  24. becky wrote:

    i love this. that is all.

    Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  25. Tawny wrote:

    Thank you. For real. =)

    Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  26. HeyyyyyyyPunk wrote:

    This sorta enlightens my own experience with coming out and examining my identity. For most of my life before I came out I behaved somewhat macho. I would respond to an insult with a combination of wit and threats of physical violonce, which I could make good on a majority of the time, if I so chose. I was always very involved in athletics (and I similarly had to listen to the guys on the swim team “talk straight”). I avoided what I saw as the vanity of fashion, shopping, pop music etc.

    After I came out I noticed myself starting to speak with more “sass” (I hate that word), embrace modern music (namely Lady Gaga), watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, and act generally “gayer.”

    Now I’m confused as to which is the performance! If either! I still prefer Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto or Rush (I know, leave me alone) to “It’s Raining Men” but I haven’t figured out how to get gay guys to notice me. The two gay guys I know are/act pretty swishy and they manage to find plenty of dates in an intensely closeted area, whereas I have met no one.

    True swish does not feel natural to me, although like Will suggested, I’m sure I could acquire a taste for it. Maybe I should try some o’ that “gender fluidity” stuff you were talkin’ bout, or summat.

    Sunday, August 8, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink
  27. k not K wrote:

    As a former tomboy who now goes for “gamine” with a pixie cut, sheath dresses, fancy earrings and diaphanous blouses… and also lowers her voice half an octave while facilitating meetings, so the architect boys will listen to me… this rang true in some weird ways.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  28. Ally Garrett wrote:

    I know something is great when before I have even finished reading it I have sent links to about five different friends.

    I salute you Garland Grey.

    Monday, August 16, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink