“What’s the Big Deal with Gender?”

At 9 am this morning I dragged into the orchestra office nourished only by art history readings and a neglectfully burnt bagel. I settled into an office chair as my friend got ready to change shifts with me and we chatted away. She hung around for a few minutes and nervously asked if she could ask me a question. Ask away! I predictably said. “What’s the big deal with gender?” she asked. I woke up.

First, I smiled. “I’ve been talking about this more than usual lately. I would be happy to oblige. Do you mean in general or with me?” “Both” she said so off I went. I told her about how gender is ultimately a social construct and how we really perform genders. My friend is a successful beauty pagent competitor so I attempted to link in gender performance with the pagent performance. I mused about how the pagent focuses on behavior and looks that fit into a traditional notion of femininity and it’s up to the participants to meet these standards if they seek to win. I hope I did this without any offense. My academic indulgence betrayed me as I went on to talk about individualized concepts of gender until I reigned it in with “I usually just tell people I’m sparkley.”  This was the perfect forum to try out my newest theory.

There are many radical queers that I love in my life. They have extensive knowledge of queer history and theory and have well-developed theories of their own. They understand the impact and repercussion of gender structures on a deep level as well as navigating it in their own lives. As it was what I was told, I was starting to believe I was one of the most radical folks around – until I fell in with these kids. It has always been easy for me to engage in debate with people who hold different viewpoints than I do. My dearest friend and debate partner in high school was extremely conservative and we would spend the whole bus ride to tournaments tearing through the tough stuff. The bus would eventually stop, we would put it down, shake hands, and get ready to perform. I wonder if he knows how much I learned from him. I say this because I have had difficulty lately participating in conversations about gender and have had a hard time articulating why. When my friends talk about politics I can talk about my views all day long, have them tell me its ridiculous and still peacefully fall asleep at night. But when the validity of gender is put on the chopping block, I trip over my words and cry upon hanging up the phone. Why?

I realized recently that when you’re talking about gender, you’re talking about people. I fully believe and embrace that everyone has their own gender(s) or no gender. I respect everyone’s right to construct that as they want and navigate society as they want. Gender is complex and personal and political and infuriating and a big soft blanket of reassurance at the same time. There are as many genders and not genders as there are people. And it is socially real. In my recent conversations, I’ve gone back and forth with folks about gender performance and its role in society. Gender performance, for the uninitiated, is the acting out of behaviors that society likes to gender. For example, my performance is a playful rendition of masculine femininity. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s tough to hear that gender isn’t real when it is in my world.

Maybe we’re just picking over the wrong words.

My friend and I discussed this and how she had never thought about the idea of being uncomfortable with her gender before. I love hearing this not because I want people to be uncomfortable, I just want them to think about it. She expressed frustration over not being able to u

nderstand how it feels to be gender variant and why other people would criticize you for doing so. As we talked, I saw her grasp my perspective and watched her draw an analogy that was personal to both of us. It was spot on.

I appreciate my friend for having the courage to ask me tough questions. The world that I navigate most of the time is full of artists and musicians who have their heads in books and their asses in rehearsal. They don’t usually stop to question gender but when they do they usually ask me. Gender ambassador to the classical world? I’ll take it.

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