Blurring the gender line: When the frock just won’t fit
The idea that we should have but two options when it comes to our gender presentation, male or female, has always felt ludicrous to me. We are told from a young age what is appropriate to say, wear, think and act out, depending on the physical mapping of the tissues which flesh out our underwear. We are told that the road is forked and, if we choose not to follow the path we were spat out onto, the only possible alternative to our pre-assigned gender is radical surgery which realigns our bodies wholesale so that they fit the opposing prefabricated mould. It seems to me to be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Gender is a performance, a role we can play any way we chose, so it stands to reason that new genders are often fashioned in a theatrical context, test driven in the spotlight. But sometime the frock just won’t fit. Sometimes the body beneath will not meet its obligations to play the part it has been assigned, or its apparent opposite. This refusal to pick a side of the fence, this rejection of the either/or mentality which plagues human thought is the third gender, and it has a long history in performance.
Jackie Curtis, one of Warhol’s infamous trinity of queens, whose pastiche of femininity moved beyond drag, was a benchmark moment. Her plays and acting work suggested some madcap alternative to definition, which satirised both genders and made the apparent divide seem endlessly amusing. Without ever trying to pretend to “be” a woman, Jackie made up her own gender, part gangster’s moll, part movie queen, part Artful Dodger and set a template for political, comic gender parody. There’s a line to be drawn from Jackie right through to today’s celebrated slew of “gender fuck” performers, the likes of Jonny Woo and A Man To Pet, who pay no heed to the rules of passing as female (or male) onstage, who tear up the rule book and use the tatters as confetti.
Likewise, the Cockettes a theatre troupe from 1960s San Francisco made their gender an amorphous, interchangeable thing with a rolling line up of men, women and children, bearded drag queens and pregnant ladies, on stage, en mass declaring that of all the things these countercultural revolutionaries wanted to throw out of the window, gender was most definitely top of the list. Their anarchic onstage antics have been credited with inspiring everything and everyone from Vogue photographer Steven Meisel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, via several generations of club kids.
Probably the most prominent of all the current inhabitants of that “shimmering grey area”, is Justin Vivian Bond, whose proposal of a gender netural pronoun, “V” caused such a stir that it made its way onto the website of The Economist last year. V’s fellow New Yorker World Famous BOB, a burlesque artist and FTF (female to female) drag queen, has similarly realigned her gender multiple times. Often being read as a man in drag due to her statuesque beauty, BOB has made this confusion as much a part of her schtick as her pin-up girl persona.
I myself land somewhere amidst this pot-pourri of performers, having learned a great deal from them all, watching them onstage and on film. I am very grateful to have been born into such a lineage, with such fascinating role models to follow. I like to say that I am transdrogynous, not only do the existing genders not fit me, neither do the alternatives. But I am happy for that, as Penny Arcade said, “This is a time when everything happens in the cracks”.
This is what my own work is engaged with, life at the limits, on the line between gender, class, and believer/blasphemer. These are obviously complex issues to work out, and I have chosen a complex medium to work it out in. I stage works with my own body because it is my own body I am trying to restage. I theatricalize gender because we all do exactly that every day, whether we recognize it or not. I perform personae as if to say to my audience that they can slip between the cracks themselves, as easily as they can slip into a cocktail dress. Or out of it.
With all of the drag queens, drag kings, actors, gender illusionists, flamboyant pioneers, radical androgynes who have paved the way with literature and lipstick, I feel part of a fascinating secret history, which is now making its main stage debut. With the turning tide of fashion, and the increased acknowledgment of trans people in international law and the media, I am calmly confident that within my lifetime we will see multiple gender identities become a cozy part of the charming pell-mell of life. And if I am deluded and wandering in the wilderness, at least I know I am in excellent company.
LaJohn Joseph’s autobiographical theatre show Boy in a Dress is at Ovalhouse theatre until 3 March
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