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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

What is my gender?

I have few doubts about my sex; upon my last inspection, and in line with all previous examinations, I was undeniably male. But my gender has been proving more difficult to 'classify', not that I want specifically to compartmentalise my identity - it would just be interesting to think about it.

My dissertation is going to be a look at the embodiment and performance of masculinities and opportunities of subverting and transcending the gender order - among primary school children. I will be doing this through observation, classroom activities, group discussions and individual interviews. I can't wait.

The stage I'm in now though is the meaty substantial theoretical overview and literature review which is taking me on a grand tour of Foucault, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, RW Connell and a whole range of other writers for whom I have to devote around an hour to get through a paragraph. But by god is it interesting, and by god is it making me question the fragile nature of my own gender identity.

So. What is my gender?

I have phrased this question in a different way once before: am I bitch or butch? Ignoring the horribleness of this phrase, it does capture this strange non-understanding of my self in how I am perceived sexually by others. I find it quite hard to gauge whether I am perceived to be 'masculine' by any of the many standard definitions. I'm under no delusions that I am a brooding Clint Eastwood type, or a muscular man-mountain, or a bloke, or a lad. When it comes to 'man points', I would score quite low. I don't like beer. I don't like football. I think Jeremy Clarkson is a xenophobic twat. I don't care about cars. I don't have many straight male friends.

These traits are some which fall within the brackets of 'hegemonic masculinity' - that is, the behaviours, interests and so on, which are seen to be the accepted 'norm' within our society for a man to possess. I don't match them at all.

But then again, I don't see myself as particularly feminine. I may not like beer, but I like cider and am a god of vodka. I may not care about cars, but when I cycle, I am prone to dropping the c-bomb at any driver who kindles my road rage. I wear a tracksuit... OK, clearly I am finding it harder than I thought to list my masculine traits.

If I was to list aspects of my self which are not typically masculine, I would find it far easier. The majority of my friends are female. I am good with kids. I study sociology, and have studied languages and literature. I once shrieked with joy because I saw a boy-duck chasing a girl-duck on the lawn outside my room in college. I sing a lot, often wearing very little. I've been told I am camp.

Funny as this might sound, I have never once seriously considered myself to be feminine. I have always been quite self-aware but I have clearly held on to a quite self-serving notion of manhood which has insulated me against any transgender leanings. My sort of masculinity is the sort that can read a poem out loud effectively, or which relishes in telling stories. I have always considered it masculine to do well in school; which was handy, what with me being such a pasty-faced, homework-doing obedient and pliable milksop. Even in my now dormant relationships with girls, I considered it more masculine to be caring and sensitive, rather than to look forward to ploughing her.

I guess my gender quandary comes about because of the way in which I have deployed 'masculinity' as though it was an empty word, wholly decontextualised, in order to legitimate my existing behaviours, proclivities and interests.

A really interesting aspect of what I have been reading and researching is theorising 'the body'. A lot of recent feminist work has focused on the perceptions, deployment, modification, commodification, adornment and identification with the body. Something I have found particularly engaging was Arthur W. Frank's work on 'bodily use in action' and the different ways one can relate to one's own body. I don't really appreciate it enough to blog about it yet, but will do shortly. Instead, I'll just talk about my body a bit. One thing I do remember from Frank's work is the notion of a 'mirroring body', which is the relationship whereby your relationship with your body is largely visual. You see your body as a vessel, as something observable, to be controlled and sculpted, made to react, made to perform. It is interested in the external. This is the part that pre-occupies me. My perception of my body is based upon how I perceive others perceive it - which is difficult. If ever you see me contorted and in need of help when I'm on my bike, it will be because I am attempting - again - to see what my legs and arse look like from behind whilst cycling.

I am 6 foot 2, which certainly helps me to put up at least a weak veneer of masculinity, if only because there aren't many Amazonian six foot women about. Six foot ought to be the preserve of the masculine body, but I still feel I would fall short if I was striving to put forward the hegemonic body. I am not imposing as a person, but for quite a while through my teenage years, I thought that my body was. From what I can gather, it wasn't. I don't have a dominating physical presence - I notice this mostly when children laugh at me when I try and discipline them, even though I cast a shadow over their entire body when I stand.

Is it the body itself, or how you adorn it that sculpts its gendered reception? I feel different when I think my body looks different - for example, I went out cycling last night in a sporty garb of tracky bottoms, trainers, sports jacket. I looked more convincingly 'masculine' than my attire usually presents - and I felt it too, I felt as though people passing me by were receiving me in a different way. Without wanting to turn this into a soft-porn fiction though, I got back from the bike ride and stripped off for the shower and saw myself in the mirror. Naked, I noticed that despite the height, despite the cock, lack of breasts etc I have quite a feminine shape. I have a really pronounced curvature in my lower back. Interesting.

I feel little closer to understanding my gender - society says feminine, brain and body say masculine.

Let's fly back briefly into childhood. As I mentioned, my dissertation is going to be looking at the performance of gender in primary schools, so a lot of my reading has focused upon gender, identity and sexualities in both the primary and secondary school spaces. This has brought back a lot of memories, some of them quite painful, relating to my gendered self in its emerging state.

One thing I had forgotten completely, and was surprised it came back, was that in Year 7 I did a gifted and talented art project for a week, which involved a visiting sculptor coming in and working with selected pupils from 3 or 4 different secondary schools. Five were chosen from my school and I was the only boy. I remember that the majority of students from other schools were boys, and I remember also that I stuck with the girls from my own school. I remember hearing the boys from other schools ridiculing me every single day, and I remember doing nothing about it. I remember on one day, one of them shouting from one side of the room to the other - "Oy Jonny, are you gay? Are you actually gay?" Naturally, no teachers intervened on this one. I felt victimised, but more than anything, I was left wondering how they could tell. How, after not having even spoken to me, could they make such an observation?

And a few more, since this is basically the therapy I can't afford. I remember one maths lesson, when my weak weak masculinty shines out like a permissive beacon of timidity. The teacher was talking, and this boy - a 'hardo’ (what I would today call a heteronormative hegemon or something like that) – he just got up out of his chair, walked across the classroom, leant over me and reached into my school bag and took a packet of crisps out of it, and walked back to his chair and started eating them. Then he looked over at me and crushed them. I did absolutely nothing. My coping mechanism (well, mechanism) was to ignore it – guided maybe by the logic of the milksop “It takes a bigger man to walk away”. Many many more like that. A boy stamped on my shin, intentionally, in a PE lesson – the PE teacher saw it but ignored it, I did nothing but try and hold back the tears.

The weird thing; I didn’t think then, and don’t now, that I was bullied. I know the kids who got bullied and I was fine compared to them. What I went through was just the daily grind of any body which doesn’t ‘fit’ the mould of being a ‘boyo’ or whatever. I wasn’t victimised, relatively. The boys who had it worst must have endured a living hell.

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