A few days ago I had breakfast with a friend of mine, also from New Mexico, who identifies as genderfluid. We met as first-years on our second day at Stanford, both feeling utterly unprepared for grad school and pretty dumbfounded by California culture, and we roamed hither and yon gathering free food from grad events for two years. All that stopped when ze moved off campus. On this particular morning we were doing breakfast because ze was at school early after zir two-hour commute from the city; ze only comes to Stanford twice a week now, so ze makes it an all-day affair, tiptoeing out of the apartment ze shares with two gay introverts in Haight-Ashbury long before the sun comes up and returning late at night to face-plant on zir bed. Ze moved to the city because ze felt stifled at Stanford, felt judged for zir inability to fit into the waspy gay community here, felt belittled and infantilized for zir interest in Goth performance.
But as it turned out, the city was no cakewalk. It had been extremely difficult for zir to find housing in San Francisco because ze insisted on being open about zir gender flexibility and zir penchant for makeup and heels; ze didn’t want to live anywhere ze’d have to hide zir extremely elaborate costumes, and, besides, even if ze wanted to ze hide all the glitter ze doubted ze would be able to. Ze was tired of hiding. It was hard enough at Stanford, ze said, being Hispanic, and from a low-income home, and sexually non-normative, and culturally isolated because of zir tastes (in music, fashion, etc); it was simply unbearable to also have to deal with wanting to present as a woman on some days and not on others when even the male gay community seemed so bent on shoring up its masculinity.
Knowing all these reasons for zir moving off campus, I was somewhat surprised to see zir arrive in zir male-presenting uniform: black pants, black t-shirt, black cap, Buddy Holly glasses.
When we sat down I commented that ze was dressed as ze had usually dressed at school. “Oh, yes,” ze said, “presenting as a male has its perks. When I’m dressed as a woman I feel more powerful, more creative, more—alive. But as a man I have all the privileges of being a man, privileges I grew up with. Those are real, you know. And it’s also more comfortable. Physically, for one. But also emotionally.”
“But do you ever dress in drag for school now? I thought that was why you left—so you wouldn’t have to dress this way?”
“That’s just the problem, that people would see it as drag. I’m not looking for attention. I’m not seeing this as a performance. Gender is performative, blah blah blah, but, you know, it isn’t a performance. I just want to be authentic, to be authentically performative. To perform what I feel, in the way my music does.”
We talked for a while about what had changed. For zir, it was largely zir determination to talk about zir gender flexibility apart from zir sexuality. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to be loud,” ze said.
A paradox: how to be loud about being authentic? How to perform non-performance?
Judith Butler’s piece has been broadly criticized for two major reasons (in my experience): 1) she pays insufficient attention to bodies and “natural” expression of gender (i.e. the relationship between sex and gender) and 2) her prose is insufferably opaque. The two seem pretty intimately related; she’s performing the academic in her prose in a way that’s supposed to be alienating and challenging. On some level, we’re supposed to suffer, to feel ill at ease, and thereby to learn. But the fetishization of difficulty has its ideological drawbacks as well as its practical ones. Judith Butler can adequately describe one aspect of gender, but what about the rest of it? What about the part that feels warm, comfortable, and/or expressive—less instrumental and more simply integrated? And what about my friend’s sometimes-prioritization of physical and social comfort over gender expression? Do we have to be ill at ease, not at home, to be really queer? Is true nostos a betrayal of queer ideals, and, if so, do the expectations we have of queer people oppress them as surely as does heteronormativity?
Paris is Burning has a “realness” competition and boasts that it has “something for everyone.” But the format of a competition with outlandishly tall trophies inherently undercuts the attempt at actual authenticity, of how it feels. The competitions draw a bright line between the cruel world and the oneiric ballroom. What do we do with drag performance that takes pleasure neither in “passing” nor in “drag” parody, a performance that legitimately feels itself to be inward-facing rather than outward-facing? What do we do with expression as discrete from performance? Neither Butler nor Paris is Burning seem to know quite what to do with that, but perhaps that’s because they as artworks and critical commentaries are performances themselves. In a sense, my friend’s political move is precisely zir apoliticality. Zir point is that ze isn’t making a point. Ze doesn’t use this or quote that—ze really feels that the looks ze “quotes” are zir own, which is one reason why crafting costumes is so near and dear to zir heart. Can you have performativity without performance? All speech is determined by the codes of language we have already set in place, but isn’t there a difference between scripted and unscripted language, even if they blur?
For now, my friend will wear jeans to school. But even if ze doesn’t have time to do zir makeup, ze’s considering throwing some short skirts into the mix. “I want to be comfortable,” ze said. “But I don’t want anyone to be too comfortable with me.”