Expanding Notions on Gender: A Journey

About a year ago I started writing this essay as something my friends and family could read to better understand my creative work. Thanks to them, it has led me to a deeper understanding of the multiple facets and notions interwoven in my exploration.

In the process of a recent moving meditation, I heard an inner voice proclaim, “I am feminine.” Not to be outdone, another inner voice (yes, I have multiple inner voices) charged, “I am masculine!” Then a third asserted, “I am femininely masculine – or am I masculinely feminine?” And with that, like my own parents of three boys did countless times, I blurted “Enough!,” put the voices in time-out, and moved on with the task at hand.

“I am femininely masculine – or am I masculinely feminine?”

Despite the annoying effort of having managed an argument within myself, the experience highlighted something I’ve been exploring for a while now: the distinction between sex and gender and the degree to which gender variety is accepted (or not accepted) in our culture.

Looking back, I can see that gender exploration has been an integral part of my creative work for nearly 10 years, with threads of it trailing back to my undergraduate work. Along that journey, I have come to discover that most people in our culture aren’t aware of a distinction between sex and gender. So for the sake of clarity, let’s refer to the World Health Organization’s definition of the two. “Sex is the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women,” whereas “gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.” Some have further simplified the distinction to  sex=body and gender=brain/mind. Going further, I personally lean toward the notion of sex as biological and fixed (save for the intervention of modern medicine and sex reassignment surgery), and gender – thanks to Judith Butler – as a performative act.

70s-picOnce introduced to the separation of these definitions, I was able to build more of a connection between – and context around – many of my childhood and adult experiences. I realized that even from an early age, I was unintentionally bucking the gender norms. At three or four, deep in the mid ‘70’s, I had soft looping curls of blonde hair. I remember getting compliments on it, wrapping it up in a towel turban, covering it from the heat of summer, and running around the local park pretending to be a supermodel. I also remember running to my mom, upset because once again, another child had asked me if I was a boy or a girl.  (While I don’t remember the occasion specifically, I suspect my flowing locks were shorn shortly thereafter.) At six or seven, much to my brothers’ dismay, I became adept at bathtime towel-to-evening gown transformations. Conversely, near this same time, every Sunday morning I would religiously don my dusty cornflower blue-violet velour suit with white pearl snaps (did I mention it was the ‘70s?). I would walk up to anyone in the church foyer with a proud chest, tug my jacket hem and assuredly state, “I am a prince!”

Fast forwarding through the awkward juvenile and high school stages of development (a whole topic of richness to discuss another time), it wasn’t until I turned 25 that I felt a responsibility to own my man-ness. At the time, I hardly knew what that meant. And even now, while I have a bit more of an idea, I still can’t say I am entirely sure. However, I have asked an assortment of questions along the way that have provided insight. Fifteen years ago I wondered, “What does it mean to be a man?” Eight years ago, when I was heavily into my thesis research and considering Jung’s theory of anima, I explored expression through a drag alter/persona and asked, “How does embracing my internal feminine energies amplify my authentic self-expression?” Since then, the pendulum has swung closer to center and the current questions are, “What does it mean to be a male (sex) who fully and equally embraces his masculinity and femininity (gender)?” and “How can that gender expression be authentically manifested?” It is a query that has led me to look outside of myself and toward anthropological, cultural and art historical references for answers.

“What does it mean to be a male (sex) who fully and equally embraces his masculinity and femininity (gender)?”

In his extensive research, Will Roscoe reveals a four-gender cultural construct within many pre-Colonial native North American Indian tribes. Specifically, Roscoe states that “in North America, individual, acquired, and ascribed traits outweighed sex-assignment in determining gender identity. *1” More to the point, in assessing the division of labor by gender basis, he finds that “Gender is a property of activities and objects as much as a trait of the individuals…. *2” In other words, the work a person of a tribe performed and the objects with which they adorned themselves were stronger signifiers of gender than the person’s biological sex. Reducing this down even further, and recognizing that sex = male/female and gender = man/woman, it appears that a biological male (sex) could be identified as a woman (gender) based upon his/her social role, clothing/adornments, and work performed. By this notion the tribes would have four genders: male man, female man, female woman and male woman. Roscoe also details in his research how these third and fourth gendered individuals – the female man and the male woman –  were often referred to anthropologically as “berdache” and more contemporarily as “two-spirit.”

“In North America, individual, acquired, and ascribed traits outweighed sex-assignment in determining gender identity.”

Bringing this notion of four genders into the modern world, I find myself now looking at people anew as I walk down the street. Consciously setting aside my initial assessment of their sex (and presumed sexual orientation), I now focus more on their gender attributes and expression. As noted in Roscoe’s observations above, I choose to look at a person’s gender signifiers first – clothing, hair, adornments, and even posture – and then bring awareness to their sex.  It has become an awareness game of sorts, and has rendered a few surprising insights. Although the process still involves assigning labels to people, it has generated an increased openness towards people’s personal expression, especially genderqueer and transgender people who do not align with our culture’s predominantly binary notion of masculine/feminine, male/female.

While Roscoe’s research has provided much insight and inspiration, I have also found answers to this authentic gender expression question in my own creative practice. For the last five years, photographer Niki Grangruth and I have been reinterpreting iconic works of art history as a means of looking at notions of beauty, non-conforming gender identity, and the artist/muse relationship. On a deeper and more personal level, the Muse series is an opportunity to more accurately externalize my internal gender energies/identity. It allows me to meld the masculine and angular features of my body with a softer yet assertive feminine aspect of my internal self. It also incorporates an appreciation and reverence for art history, which for many audiences, provides a key note of familiarity and point of initial entry into the work.

…borrowing from both sides of the gender closet, these garments challenge traditional boundaries.

kimono-600Beyond the Muse series, a collection of costumes and garments has also emerged from my creative process. Again, borrowing from both sides of the gender closet, these garments challenge traditional boundaries. In process, they are deeply spiritual acts of meditation, prayer and connection to the Universe — a resource for connecting to and fulfilling my soul’s purpose. My hope is that my work will make a difference in the world, one that fosters more openness and safety for people of all ages in regard to gender expression.

*1 – Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, pg 127
*2 – Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, pg 130


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