When a person teaches high school or college students, there are two choices (besides getting out). One is opposing the kids in the name of “education as authority” and the other is joining them in “education by exploration.” I chose the latter but that was a decade ago. The ground of contention these days is sexual identity -- NOT desire (whom you love) but identity (who you are -- we’ll assume you’re lovable, but why is that?). A dignified gay friend from the long-ago past, one in a highly respectable same-sex marriage, sent me an article entitled “Generation LGBTQIA” by Michael Shulman, published in the NYTimes January 10, 2012 issue. He added a sticky note saying: “I don’t get it.” So Sister Mary Helen will try to explain.
The “hook” that Schulman uses to get into his article is (Manhattan-style) through a second level celebrity: Stephen Ira Beatty’s lovable video on You Tube (“WeHappyTrans: Stephen”). Beatty is the “21-year-old child of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, which only surprises me because I’m amazed that they married that long ago. Note that Stephen is “reflexive” (watches and critiques himself) and defines himself via his material culture (action figures and an English teapot -- mixed gender, eh?)
We thought the future meant we’d all wear Lycra form-fitting suits, eat pills instead of food, and travel with jet-packs on our backs. Try this YouTube vid: “ FTM transition: One year on testosterone” We knew we were tinkering with contraception/fertility and that cabaret people were playing with gender identity, but no one really thought you could change genders or that anyone would be willing to take drugs the whole rest of their lives to maintain their chosen identity. In fact, video explanations are really the only possible way to explain. Words can’t do it.
Last night I watched Glen Close in “Alfred Nobbs,” a story about a woman presenting as a man in Edwardian times, a culture so patterned and driven by denial that it was not hard to do and was certainly motivated by the need to be safe and make a living without being “owned.” There are quite a few known cases. It was clearly a bravura vehicle for Glen Close in the same way that Meryl Streep plays cross-gender, but the more convincing performance for me was Maria Doyle Kennedy as the fellow masquerader. Kennedy has four sons, named Louis, Jesse James, Daniel and Salvador, which tells you why she’s not intimidated by a bit of cross-dressing. Her website: www.mariadk.com
Then I went to Netflix to pick up an episode of “Damages,” the series about Close playing one tough MF lawyer. Actually, this is an even clearer example of a woman stepping into a male gender stereotype. The material culture signals are no longer a skirt, but rather eye makeup, tasteful earrings, and expensively maintained hair. Her psychology and actions are those of an Alpha Male, not a poor old loser like Alfred. The tailored suits are in much more luxe fabrics. It’s nearly camp. So much for social binaries.
So now -- according to the Times article -- identity is spread out over a whole line of acronymics “all the things that fall out of the binary”: L (lesbian)G (gay) B (bisexual) T (transexual) Q (questioning or queer). I (intersexual) A (ally or friend) or (Asexual, no attraction to anyone.) I would add P for pansexual and MF for mind-effer. (Not the street meaning.) The alphabet ploy eventually stops working, particularly since some desires are defined by the situation and others will flare and wane or transform over time. Trust me. Sometimes Friendship is more trustworthy. Sometimes a good horse is sexier than a cowboy.
Of course, thinking like this is a luxury and a lot of people, like Alfred Nobbs get forced into their gender role and their sexual desires. Sometimes it’s a matter of appearance. Notice that the “female” actresses in both Alfred Nobbs and Damages have baby’s faces: big round eyes, rosebud mouths, cute little noses. We assign women to baby-identities, quite apart from the babies they can conceive and gestate, which was far more appropriate in Edwardian times when women were owned. It’s interesting to notice that the hotel keeper with her child’s values (greed and control) is played by Pauline Collins, whom some of us know as “Our Sarah” from “Upstairs, Downstairs,” ever so shrewd and full of mischief. Big round eyes, rosebud mouth, cute little nose and always watching for an advantage, she wouldn’t turn away a chance at sex -- much less flirtation.
But poor Alfred is forced into his role, which is very much about preserving a zombie-like lack of emotion even when confronted by a red-headed imp of a tiny provocateur. By contrast, Close's role in Damages is played with a regular kaleidoscope of emotion and expression, slipping back and forth between bland affection and toxic malice. This is her main "feminine" attribute and it marks her as a “bad mother” character. Bad mothers cannot be trusted to maintain their affection. They don’t relate to individuals but to the situation and then in their own interest. Society WANTS them to be like that, wants things predictable. Marketing depends upon it. You must stick to your “platform” in both business and art.
Stephen claims he had trouble ending his vid. Schulman ended his with a kid named Santiago listing gender possibilities: “Lesbians, gays, bisexual, transsexual, queer, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, omnisexual, trisexual, agender, bigender, third gender, transgender, transvestite, intersexual, two-spirit, hijra, polyamorous. Undecided. Questioning. Other. Human.” Schulman claimed there was applause.
I see two terms are not here. They are definitely gender-significant with reference to roles and desires that are vulnerable to shifts over time, maybe benign and maybe not. One is “mom” and the other is “dad.” Not that a kid should be limited to one of each or that it isn’t possible to be a mom/dad or to swap roles. A person could have two moms or two dads or three assorted parents sort of like an XYY chromosome -- social mutations. Mom/dad/nursemaid. Surrogate/mom or dad. It works out best if there’s freedom to improvise along some pretty crucial guidelines -- and always, of course, prosperity to a minimum degree. It’s hard to grow up well in an alley without parents, though some manage to do it, often by sticking together with other kids. The wolves these days are too busy staying alive themselves to raise any humans.