“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.”
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.