Gender binaries have become so troublesome that social philosophers have begun to reflect on them. When I say “trouble,” I mean murder. People are murdered because they don’t fit our notions of gender binaries. I’m pondering “Soldier’s Girl,” which is a movie version of a real event in which a soldier was bludgeoned to death as he slept -- by his fellow soldier, his dorm mate. The killer administered capital punishment for loving a person who crossed the binary division -- not just a cross dresser but a transsexual person in the process of going from male to female. Post-surgery, the relationship would no longer have been “homosexual.”
This script is exemplary in its clarity, its foreshadowing of what we know will happen, and its simplicity in presenting a convincing love story. Calpurnia (Lee Pace) is elegant, played with dignified grace by a male actor in prosthetic breasts and a wig. She is not a campy over-the-top swish figure like the announcer at the competition she’s in, but a calm, generous, balanced person whose femininity is more Grace Kelly than Cher. (Actually, she has shoulders like Linda Evans. I wonder whether a genital eversion amounts to as much plastic surgery as Cher has had. Chas (formerly Chastity) Bono knows for sure.)
Barry (Troy Garity) is a simple guy -- not too swift and not very experienced. I kept thinking about Pierre in the Audrey Hepburn version of “War and Peace,” and found out why when I went to imdb.com -- Henry Fonda played Pierre and Fonda was this actor’s grandfather. Garity looks like his father, Tom Hayden. It’s Calpurnia who is reminiscent of Jane Fonda, his mother.
Leggo words, assembled from particles, are unfortunate predeterminers. “Homosexual” is as misleading as “atheist.” Both are stuck together from pre-existing concepts and both over-control the discussions. It is possible to be homosexual while being strongly “male” and possible to be deeply religious while not believing in God (theism).
Gender identity emerges from the interaction of a number of continuums. To which of the binary are you assigned physiologically? Even without discussing the chromosomal variations (not just xx and xy, but also xxx or xyy or broken versions with incomplete or doubled sections (sextions?) of chromosomes) and all the bodily and temperamental variations a person can be born with or develop at puberty or have traumatically imposed, common sense and ordinary experience shows that a male can be anywhere on the continuum of “maleness” in terms of size, aggression, and so on. He can be Conan the Barbarian but if his sperm isn’t dynamic and fertile -- is he a male? The same for a female. She can be the most curvaceous and alluring woman of all time, but can she produce healthy babies? Which criteria are you choosing?
The aspect that crushes all the life out of discussion is desire in the sense of lust. Whom do you want to have sex with? Someone the same sex or someone of the opposite sex? But those aren’t the only choices or even the controlling choices. In this movie it is clear that Barry loves elegance, high class presentation, kindness, and Calpurnia does, too, so they meet there, escaping the accusation of "low class." They are both genuine in the sense of character and they meet there in honesty and acceptance. She is knowing and he is innocent so opposites can also meet. These two are not game players.
So what about authenticity and truth? Who is putting on more of a show in drag, the singers at Visions or the soldiers in camo fatigues at the base? Is the announcer at the competition more of a cross-dresser than the female sentry at the gate in the beginning of the film?
Our culture makes a binary of gender identity more than others do. The Navajo defined many roles, some depending on what one wants to do -- the things normally done by women because they are anchored by babies or the things normally done by men who go out to hunt. In many cultures the priestly/sacred/holy people are not gender-assigned or are considered both. But they cannot be menstruating women. It’s the baby part that’s the big divider. But even then, an assigned nurturer is also a mother even if male.
Simpler animals sometimes have the ability to change back and forth between male and female, maybe depending on the ecology or maybe on whether there’s a shortage of one or the other. Some animals carry both genders and can fertilize themselves. There is probably not a lot of pillow talk in those species (angleworms), but people do talk to themselves. (jokes) Androgeny and/or bisexuality are quiet values in some human contexts. Think Teresias.
No one understands how it is that an apparent man can be innerly and utterly convinced of being a woman or vice versa. It is easy to understand that some people don’t fit into the culture’s idea of what they ought to be and how that stigma can cause them to be targets. Ugly women, pretty men. Brainy women, ineffective men.
How did the sexual identity of “whom do you desire” get to be so important in our lives? Haven’t there always been people who liked their own sex better than the opposite one? (“Liked” being a euphemism for wanting to fuck. Why so many euphemisms now that kids use the “f” word as much as combat Marines? What kind of role swap is that?) Haven’t there always been people who found elements that deeply touched them and made them yearn for fusion with individuals that were not “appropriate”? (I hate that prissy word.) One of my favorite movies is “Carrington,” about a totally mismatched couple who were deeply in love with each other though they fucked nearly everyone in sight and the bedpost as well.
Why is sex the controlling moral dimension in our lives in a time when we can surgically change our bodies, chemically control our fertility, get professional help with relationships, earn money, co-habit with no license, and die for our country without regard for gender? Is that why? Is it all this freedom that makes everyone obsess so much about the subject?
Or is it that sex keeps us from thinking about violence and greed? It’s not that we’re all so sexually hot or why would there be such a need for Viagra? Pole-in-the-hole is not all there is to sex. REAL intercourse in the sense of physical intimacy is skin and brain: a million little physical, mental and emotional transactions of sensation that enmesh and bond and console. Otherwise, it’s friction followed by a sneeze.
There are some fascinating levels to think about in this film but one of the most absorbing -- if trivial -- is the difference between fiction and reality. The real Calpurnia is certainly attractive, but in quite a different way from the movie version. The real one is almost cute, a little touch childlike. The movie version of the military camp is toned-down with a homogenized (they all look sort of cub-like) cast including tolerant hets, Asians and blacks. Testimony was that the taunts and harassment of Barry were actually much worse. Andre Braugher is one of my fav actors and always carries with him a kind of moral force not seen a lot in ordinary life. Barry’s mother is not as I would have imagined her, but no doubt this murder was an experience that changed her.
It is my hope that this movie will help to change a culture lost in hatred and ignorance. It’s not the only force for good, but it is a vivid and heart-breaking one.