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Writings  Research

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See also the gender section of my blog.

 GenDissent Thesis (written in 2000):

Science has always claimed legitimacy by announcing its "value-free" intentions to search for the truth of the material world; however, this search costs money, and hence a political economy with a direct and powerful impact on science's lofty goals of value-free research enters the equation. Do investors in scientific research offer money with no strings attached? This seems quite unlikely. Some type of return on the investment is implicit in any demand from funding institutions. 1

As shown through various studies in the last half-century, gender is but cultural construction. What behavior constitutes being a "man" or being a "woman" is ideology dependent on the culture within which an individual resides. Though largely unaware of the large body of gender studies research, I became aware of the inconsistency of gender roles through my own observations and experiences growing up (in middle-class white U.S. culture). At a young age, I realized that gender was not biologically determined because I possessed, as a boy, personality traits traditionally associated only with girls. My project deals primarily with my own experiences and ideology, but also with gender roles in a broader sense, particularly in relation to media presentations. The intent is to achieve genderfuck exposure. Most of the intellectual/artistic world is aware of the artificiality of gender roles, but the general public, lacking extensive cross-cultural education, is largely unaware of options other than what it was taught (and teaches) to be gender.

Sex hormones shape the body, forming a male or female reproductive system in the womb and making further changes at puberty. That much is undisputed…, sex hormones in the womb also influence mental and psychological traits later in life - childhood play behavior, spatial ability, verbal skills and so on. This is not exactly undisputed…, yet as evidence continues to pile up, fewer and fewer scientists are doubting that many of these sex differences have their origins in the womb. But, if so, then the hormones in the womb must be creating some physical differences between male and female brains - differences that make their presence felt years later when a little girl chooses between a doll and a truck or when a little boy decides whether to sit quietly and look at a book or run around the room bouncing off the walls.2

I should explain what I mean by the various terms I am using. 'Sex' is a term I use to refer to physical genitalia and related sexual characteristics. Most people fall into categories of male (penis/testes) or female (vulva/ovaries/mammary glands), but there are others who have mixed traits (hermaphrodites and pseudo-hermaphrodites) or who lack certain traits (eunuchs, castratas, and others). Those who don't fall into the category of male/female are either ignored or pushed into a male or female category by U.S. culture. 'Gender' is an ambiguous term used by different people in completely different ways. Some use it for the purpose of sexual bifurcation (gender = male or female; gender = sex), while others use it to refer to a set of traits associated with a particular sex (gender = masculine or feminine) in a particular culture. When I use the term 'gender', I am using it to refer to the idea that a set of behavioral traits is biologically associated with a particular sex. I don't believe the term 'gender' has any intrinsic value, but, like paper money, it has power because people believe in it. 'Gender roles' are the behaviors, actions, and characteristics we are expected to exhibit according to our sex, and these are the things that cause harm to so many individuals. 'Genderfuck' is the open defiance of stated gender roles with 'cross-dressing' being the foremost genderfuck. 'Cross-dressing' is the wearing of clothing traditionally inappropriate for your sex (such as a man in a dress, or a woman in a tuxedo suit); people of sexes other than strictly male or female (in U.S. culture) are always cross-dressing since there is no clothing traditionally appropriate for sexes that are culturally ignored.

My focus is not on sex, or even so much on gender, but on gender roles and their subversion: the masculine or (only "or") feminine parts we are supposed to play, and how we can break free. As mentioned above, the most evident subversion of gender roles is "cross-dressing." I personally have engaged in wearing traditionally female makeup and clothing to various degrees since I was 16 (I am now 22). I do not usually refer to it as "cross-dressing" or "transvestitism" because both of those terms convey a strong sense of impropriety. I don't believe that a man wearing a skirt and makeup or a woman in a suit is crossing any objective boundary, it's just a person in clothing. Of the two terms, "cross-dressing" is preferable to me, and to most people who dress inconsistent with their gender role, because "transvestitism" has been widely used by psychiatry to describe the "disorder" of a man who wears traditionally women's clothing (it has also been almost solely used to describe men).

I would think that anyone could see that gender roles are artificial and therefore not binding, but the mythology of hegemonic masculinity and femininity is pervasive. A small amount of study reveals that there exist numerous individuals who fall outside of strict categories of male and female both within and outside of Western Culture. The berdache of the Native Americans are individuals who mix together most of the behavior, appearance, work duties and social roles of men and women.2 In contemporary India, hijras constitute a special religious class of hermaphrodites and emasculated men who imitate the mannerisms and appearance of traditional women.2 There is a class of pseudo-hermaphrodites among the Pokot of Kenya whose genitals are too small for circumcision (both males and females are normally circumcised by the Pokot) and are thus are considered neither male nor female.2 In Western Culture, there is not any accepted class of individuals apart from male and female, but such individuals have existed for centuries, most recognizably as cross-dressers such as Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two eighteenth century women pirates (who dressed as men).3 I thought for my senior thesis, I could do my part to expand awareness of such individuals and displace the stigma that surrounds them.

Gender = 100% Cultural Construction

I started the idea for my project thinking about Francesca Da Rimini's "Dollspace" project on the web. Her piece is very hard-hitting from a feminist viewpoint, utilizing a barrage of (moving and still) images and text to inform about feminine expectations and being hindered/harmed by her own assigned gender role. I still go to her website to look at her piece: the images, colors and sound are incredibly evocative and disturbing. To me, they reach out and smash into my face all the things she's trying to say about sexual ownership and the subservient role reserved for women commingled with her own personal experiences of rejection and despair as a woman. Her piece was really very complex, and yet also simple, because the same ideas were pushed over and over, illustrated in different ways to result with the same or similar emotional response from the viewer. I really wanted to do something like that with my project but dealing with "masculine" expectations instead. To merge the political and the personal in an overbearing complex barrage of information and imagery, but with a simple basic message, "your gender roles are harmful and inaccurate, you're hurting us, stop it."

Other artistic influence came from various video pieces that I've seen. "Wonderwoman" by Dara Birnbaum, showed appropriated footage from the 1970's TV show ("Wonder Woman") which was re-edited to emphasize both the adherence to and the subversion of the female gender role in television show. It was, I thought, an effective criticism of the show and the media's portrayal of women in general. Michael Stubbs' "Man Act" was a dance piece emphasizing traditional male aggression and attire (business suits) in an exaggerated way that led to questions of what it means to be a man, and are these appropriate standards for judging (violence and "man's" clothing)? Jem Cohen's "Drink Deep" had little to do with my piece content-wise, but the editing style was very watery and fluid and wonderful. I tried to edit my video to be watery and fluid, blurring the video clips as I believe the societal boundaries should be blurred.

A very inspirational video, which I saw only a week before doing my final edit, was "Rapture" by Shirin Neshat shown at the Whitney Biennial.. This was a short video on two adjacent screens detailing the crossed paths and forbidden attraction of an Islamic man and woman. The man was in a white shirt and suit, the woman was covered in flowing black robes. At first both are walking along lonely paths in the countryside (the two screens showing various perspectives, one focusing more on the woman, one on the man), and as they pass by some non-verbal connection (attraction) is made, but they keep walking. Next both enter the walled city with crowds of people of their own sex: women with veils and black robes on one side, men with white shirts and suits on the other. There is a curtain dividing them as they enter a great hall and a Muslim man lectures on what appears to be the roles of each sex (as he gestures angrily at a tapestry detailing an indolent heterosexual couple lying in non-traditional clothing). The man and woman who were attracted each grow increasingly frustrated by the lecture as others listen attentively; they try to see each other through the dividing curtain (and across the two physical screens) but cannot.. The women all appear the same, the men the same, and all seem content to accept their roles and division. The two main characters are the only exceptions to appear discontent, each eventually leaving the great hall only to miss each other on the deserted streets. I found this a very moving piece about sexual repression in a society different than our own. The complexity of the two different screens and camera angles was fascinating; the interplay and tension between the different elements (man and woman) was accentuated by the dual vision. In my piece, I wanted to show elements of gender roles in U.S. culture and play with the tension of the actual roles versus the exceptions. I wished to have engendered silhouettes become the projection surface (as plastic cutouts) with me as a third possibility physically moving behind the projection.

My own video (the focal point of my installation) utilized images of individuals in their gender roles, i.e., stereotypes of "man" and "woman," contrasted with images of cross-dressers (including at least one transsexual) from the mass-media as well as some footage of myself. Cross-dressers have existed for a long time in theatre (such as in Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde plays), but recently have been much more visible in the public eye. In 1952, sex reassignment surgery produced its first media blitz with the "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty" story.4 Those familiar with the transgender scene know that cross-dressing and transsexualism are completely different things, but to the general public, they're inextricably linked. A person who dresses to look like hir (most publicly M-F or Male-to-Female) opposite sex, or a person who gets surgery and hormones and clothing to look like hir opposite sex, either one is complete scandal, the only difference is that the mere cross-dresser has the advantage (and disadvantage) of being able to remove hir subversive attire. In any case, cross-dressers and transsexuals have been receiving critical attention in recent years with such public figures as tennis star Renee Richards (formerly Dr. Richard Raskins) and RuPaul (famous M-F cross-dressing model).

In fact, these subversive subjects of media exploitation are key to our changing times, challenging the entire concept of gender. While transsexuals play an important role in challenging the two-sex system and biological determinism of gender, it is the cross-dressers who provide more significant challenge. Cross-dressing occupies a niche between binarisms; it is both defined by culture and defines culture.3 Cross-dressing is a reaction to the inhibitions placed on individuals by society and also pushes society to react (with either acceptance or persecution, usually both).

In 1969, the "drag queen" (male cross-dresser who exaggerates dress and mannerisms of a stereotype of femininity) was at the forefront in the famous Stonewall riots. While police made routine raids on homosexual bars and clubs (in most cases they tipped the bar owners beforehand and were paid off), in this case there was no prior notice. Apparently, it started when a policeman shoved a drag queen named Tammy Novak, who shoved the officer right back. Therein became the breakthrough of homosexuals into political activism and gender role upheaval. At the forefront were the drag queens, lashing out with stiletto pumps during the riot, and elsewhere with an image and visibility that cannot help but be noticed and reacted to. Cross-dressers had taken the ornament of sex and armed themselves with it to fight political repression (of both homosexuals and also cross-dressers themselves, many of whom are heterosexual).5

Later, drag queens, who had been a symbol of rebellion were removed from the gay rights platform, as many homosexuals sought acceptance from society reasoning that tactics of conformance to pre-existing roles and demonstrations that homosexuals are "just like you" to be most effective. But the drag queens and cross-dressers at large are still symbols of cultural confusion and icons of gender role subversion. They are an ideal focal point for a serious questioning of the blanket terms of masculine and feminine in our culture. That is why I used images of cross-dressers in my video, and also props related to cross-dressing. I hung glamorous glitter purple shoes, a wig, a leopard-print scarf and collages of individuals of indeterminate and/or cross-dressed 'genders.' I also altered dolls (barbie dolls are strongly associated with little girls and M-F cross-dressers in my mind) to symbolize gender confusion and hybridization. A few portions of my installation (the weights, saw, and iron) symbolized "straight" gender, but only tongue in cheek. There was an entire row of neckties hung upside down to resemble nooses. The rest of the installation was really dealing with the in-between status of the cross-dresser, specifically myself.

Why do men wear neckties? The most impractical and uncomfortable of mens attire has its origin as a piece of military clothing. In the first century B.C. Roman soldiers wore scarves (called focale) soaked in water and wrapped around the neck to keep them cool in the heat of the day. Later, in 1688, a regiment of Croatian mercenaries in the service of Austria appeared in France wearing linen and muslin scarves about their necks. The fashion conscious French men and women, greatly taken by the idea, began to appear in public wearing neck wear of linen and lace, knotted in the center, with long flowing ends. They called them cravates, their name for the Croats who they were copying. From there the fashion spread to England where it would have mercifully died out had it not become a favorite of monarch Charles II. The trend was carried over into the next century by Beau Brummel, who became famous for his massive neckties and innovative ways of tying them. Since then, neck wear in some form has been the proverbial millstone around the neck of the well-dressed western male.00

Aside from the corporeal, the props of a cross-dresser, I'm really interested in cyberspace (the realm of the Internet), and its potential to transform gender expectations. Rimini's "Dollspace" deals a bit with cyberspace, in some graphic cutthroat e-mails included to/from her 'gashgirl' persona online. These interactions, while retaining elements of binarism, are very different than relations people might have over the telephone or in physical letters. Identity on the Internet is much less concretized than IRL ("in real life"); there's no handwriting, voice, or appearance to judge by. Rather, voice, fonts, and image are becoming more used (formerly, it was just standard text), but they are easily manipulated using tools of our technology. Appearance is highly controllable, one can reveal what one chooses, including false images or modulated voice. A man can "pass" for a woman with relative ease; that is, he must adopt lingual mannerisms commonly attributed to women, rather than having to change all physical attributes in addition to just lingual mannerisms. The same is true for a woman. One can also go genderless, although this is constant cause for speculation among people interacting with the genderless one.

For a period, I frequented newsgroups on the Internet. A newsgroup is a list of postings much like newspaper headings that you can read, but can also respond to publicly or privately. Each posting can start a "thread" of discussion, and the responses will latch on to the posting so one can scroll to the responses and the responses to responses. The one I spent the most time on was alt.gothic where threads covered a wide variety of topics ranging from fashion to philosophy to sexuality. I chose the name M. Shadowraith ("M." being my idea of the future genderless version of Mister/Miss/Miz/Missus), and just played myself. People seemed to either accept me as an androgen or assume that I was female. One thread evolved into a personal discussion with this big name on the newsgroup, TSoM. I knew he was male (having had friends who had met him in person), and I made no pretension about my sex, but I didn't talk about it much. When referring to oneself in text, one does not usually engender oneself, one says 'me' or 'I' or 'myself.' We flirted a little (at that time, I saw the gothic subculture as omnisexual), but not overmuch. We wrote often for a few days, then at one point he referred to me as female. I was amused, but I was not trying to be masquerade as anything, so I sent him an e-mail explaining that I was technically male, but disdained gender labels. TSoM immediately ceased communications. I sent him an angry e-mail berating him for his sexist behavior, and he wrote back offering an unlikely excuse and stating emphatically that he did not and would never cease communication because of my being male, but after that never wrote again. I definitely saw a difference in how perceived females were treated by some men in cyberspace, as objects of condescending flirtation.

Other people feel empowered by "gender-swapping" in cyberspace. Some women feel they can be more assertive as a male. Zoe, a MUD (multi-user dungeon) user says of her family:

We would sit at dinner and my father would talk and my mother would agree. I thought my father was a god. Once or twice I did disagree with him. I remember one time in particular when I was ten, and he looked at me and said, "Well, well, well, if this little flower grows too many more thorns, she will never catch a man." 6

She continues:

I… got involved in the system and realized that as a man, I could be firm and people would think I was a great wizard. As a woman, drawing the line and standing firm has always made me feel like a bitch and actually, I felt that people saw me as one too. As a man I was liberated from all that. 6

Some men feel more comfortable being collaborative as a female because as a male who is helpful, they are perceived as attempting to seduce. Garret, another MUD user says:

I wanted to know more about women's experiences and not just from reading about them… I wanted to see what the difference felt like… I wanted to experiment with the other side…I wanted to be collaborative and helpful, and I thought it would be easier as a female… As a man I was brought up to be territorial and competitive… In some way, I felt that the canonically female way of communicating was more productive than the male - in that all this competition got in the way. 6

I think the inter-changeability of gender roles in cyberspace is indicative of the flexibility of gender in the broader spectrum of human interaction. Cyberspace fluidity is 'virtual' proof that gender is not innate, for if it were, how could it be exchanged by a person, even in a non-physical environment (after all, they are in that environment by virtue of their corporeal self, their brains, their fingers and their eyes)? For that matter, I am in a virtual space right now, and my gender is only apparent through my description of myself as male. How would a person reading this know that I am not a female posing as a feminine male?

It is my hope that these boundaries will start to fall away completely as our culture (including cyberspace) continues to evolve. In 1993, a young woman, Tina Brandon, was brutally murdered for her cross-dressing as a male (the recent film "Boys Don't Cry" was based on this event). Thousands of innocents are beaten up, raped, or killed for "breaking" gender roles. Almost anyone who defies a gender role, cross-dresser, homosexual, empowered feminist or sensitized masculinist, is constantly harassed and ridiculed merely for exhibiting freedom from artificial constraints. People need to be educated, disinformed about their own faulty upbringing that teaches them that a man has to be a certain way, and a woman another, and that everywhere a man is the same (or woman the same). Genders are only costumes that people put on for certain social interactions. They are not necessarily indicative of the true person, though the representation can become a part of the self.

I see myself as an individual, and I see others as individuals without trying to shape them into a predefined role of aggressive or demure, tenacious or submissive, collaborative or competitive, strictly male or strictly female. Personality traits can compose themselves in any combination. Multiplicity of gender, or non-existence of gender, it is essentially the same: people cannot be categorized by 2 major stereotypes. This has long been so, but technology is making the distinctions ever more blurred, especially in communications where the physical connections (and perceived gender boundaries) are minimized. Gender could be that 'involuntary disguise suggestive or typical of man' (or woman) or the straightjacket lying on the floor after one discovers that it was only fastened with Velcro.

GenDissent main link



0 Critical Art Ensemble. The Flesh Machine (p.142). Brooklyn, NY. Automedia, 1998

1 Pool, Robert. Eve's Rib (p. 109). New York, NY. Crown Publishers, 1994.

2 Bullough, Vern; Bullough, Bonnie. Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender
     Philadelphia, PA. The Pennsylvania University Press, 1993.

3 Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests; Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety.
     1992, New York, NY. Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc.

4 Sr. Mary Elizabeth, SSE. Introduction to Gender Dysphoria Syndrome
     [] 4/2000.

5 Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male.
      1999, William Morrow and Company, Inc.

00 Why do Men Wear Neckties? Unknown.

6 Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen : Identity in the Age of the Internet (p. 216, 221)
      New York, NY. Touchstone, 1995.

Herdt, Gilbert. Third Sex, Third Gender; Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History.
     1994, Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Schuman, Joan. Either/Or . . . Both/And: Field Notes on Gender Ambiguity & Medical Technologies
     [] 4/2000

Cornwall, Andrea; Nancy, Lindisfarne; et. al. Dislocating Masculinity; Comparitive Ethnographies.
     1994, New York, NY. Routledge.

Burke, Phyllis. Gender Shock : Exploding the Myths of Male and Female.
      New York, NY. Anchor Books, 1996.

Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook.
      New York, NY. Routledge, 1998.


Artistic Works:

"Dollspace" - francesca da ramini | ricardo dominguez | michael grimm
      [] 4/2000

"Wonderwoman" (1977) - Dara Birnbaum

"Man Act" (199_) - Michael Stubbs

"Drink Deep" (199_) - Jem Cohen

"Rapture" (1999) - Shirin Neshat


Related Films:

"Ma Vie en Rosa" - french film about a little boy who wears dresses and makeup and the consequences for himself and his family

"Boys Don't Cry" - a moving film about a woman who feels to be and tries to pass for a man and the tragedy that befalls him.

"Orlando" - movie about a long-lived Victorian male who is more than he seems, or seems more than he is. Based on banned novel of same title by Virginial Woolf.

GenDissent main link