Monday, March 5, 2018

A Queer Path

For my last birthday, David bought me a game. I love games. It’s called Las Escaleras—The Ladders—created by Pico Pao, a Spanish artist collective that makes simple handmade games. Las Escaleras is a set of 16 wooden ladders —each 4 1/2” tall—that are shaped like the ladders David and I see in the apple orchards in the Hudson Valley. That is, ladders that are wider at the bottom than at the top to allow them to rest easily against trees. The idea of Las Escaleras is to interlace the ladders one into another in precarious configurations without the structure losing balance.

In the instructions, the Pico Pao artists explain that, “ladders are the symbol of paradise lost. They attract us because they allow us to attain unreachable heights. We can play to construct—putting scaffolds in the air, moving in all directions, always with the danger of falling. They engage us with risk, trepidation, and the desire to get far off the ground, afterwards observing the path taken.”

Las Escaleras is not a difficult game. It’s easy to create mildly complex structures that seem sturdy and precarious at the same time—the way the artists see ladders as passageways to greater heights but also as inviting risk and danger. To me, however, the game represents something more substantial than sticks of wood crafted to bring pleasure. Las Escaleras embodies the queer path that so many of us have had to navigate in our lives and our careers because the straight paths were blocked.

This was certainly true for me. I’ve arrived at the place I am today along a queer path. As I look to the future, I see that despite my accomplishments the path forward is still unclear. At times it appears closed off, and at others the navigation is so frustrating that I think it's better just to quit. But this queer path I’m on has made me resilient and tough and tenacious.

If you’ve read this blog before—or if you know me or my other writings—you know that I come from a family of businessmen and women for whom art was at best a folly. I was an artistic kid for whom the thought of being a businessman was deadly. As a teenager, however, I wasn’t strong enough to resist the pressure to become a businessman, so I acquiesced and got a bachelor degree in accounting.

In my late 20s—once I moved away from my hometown and its influence—I decided to return to school to get a degree in English literature. I quickly found out that the best programs were closed to me because admission’s officers only saw the accountant in me and not my potential as an intellectual.

I did get a masters degree in the humanities—an English literature adjacent program—at NYU. After my masters, I thought I had the credentials to pursue a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature. Again, admission’s officers saw me only as a businessman with a vanity graduate degree and not as a serious scholar.

I did get my doctoral degree in Renaissance literature from Stony Brook University, but only after I was accepted because of a fluke in the admission's process—at the last minute a matriculated student dropped out and the wife of the graduate program director picked my application at random. After my degree, I received tenure at a local university, published a book, and became a Dean. 

Last year, I went back to school to get my MFA in creative writing from Bennington College—I graduated in January of 2017. When some of my colleagues found out that I had done this they were surprised. One professor told me that he thought I was just a bean counter, and had no idea I had a creative practice.

On the job market, headhunters contact me because I’m the non-traditional candidate with a mixture of business acumen, administrative experience, and multiple degrees in art and the humanities. But in the handful of jobs I've applied for, I always end up being the bridesmaid. Small liberal arts colleges say no to me because I didn’t get my degrees from small liberal arts colleges. Research institutions say no to me because I’ve never worked in a research institution. Recently, I was a finalist for the director of a museum. They liked my nontraditional background—they needed someone to balance their budget and manage their fractured personnel. In the end, they offered the position to someone who was a curator with limited administrative experience, the same kind of candidate they’ve hired twice before, both of whom failed spectacularly.

I don’t look like most people in my field—or related fields—because I did not come up the way others had. I didn’t arrive to where I am today along the path most people take. As an intellectual, my degrees look like a hodgepodge of somewhat related interests rather than the result of a curious mind. My late degree in writing reads like a midlife crisis rather than the culmination of decades worth of practice and experimentation. And my administrative career is restricted by search committees who cannot see that the nontraditional paths I’ve taken are an asset rather than a liability.

I don’t think the paths that have been closed to me are directly related to my sexuality. (I don’t think the museum, for instance, chose the straight-white male with a young family over me because I’m queer—although that thought swirls around in the back of my head.) Instead, the queer paths that I’ve had to take are a result of the conflict between the familiar and the different.

As a boy I saw how all of my siblings and everyone I knew were firmly set on the path of a professional career, and that I was expected to follow them because it was the only path anyone recognized. I also knew that I didn’t want to go in that direction, but I had no mentor to point me in another way. I had to find my own way. I had to create my own path.

I felt the same kind of difference because of my sexuality. I knew (or assumed) that my siblings and everyone around me were straight. I also knew that they assumed I was straight only because being straight was the default, the familiar, the norm. In the same way that I had no mentor to show me a different way of life other than that of a businessman, I also had no one to explain to me what it meant to be queer, or to be different. So, I had to find my own way. I had to create my own paths and imagine a different kind of life. 

I have lived my life, that is, along a queer trajectory that barred me from many roads, but which also opened up a whole knew array of possibilities. This queer path has lead me to a life that I could never have imagined as a kid. A life filled with art and intellectualism and love. 

But still, when I run into the same obstacles; i.e., people and institutions and bureaucracies that are only comfortable with the familiar, it’s frustrating. I want to shake them and tell them that the familiar is not always the best way to go. I want to assure them that there is nothing frightening about being different, or in embracing difference. I want to show them that those of us who’ve arrived via the queer path have a wealth of experiences and skills that others don’t.


As with the game Las Escaleras, I want to teach them that there are a million different ways to interlace those ladders to create a structure that may look perilous but is instead incredibly stable, a passageway that may look risky but one that can also take us to “unreachable heights.”

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

God's Own Country

Stop me if you’ve heard this movie plot before: two young men are stuck on a mountain in the middle of the winter, tending sheep. They have an antagonistic relationship, but the tension between them masks an erotic desire both men are afraid to act on. After a confrontation over a seemingly trivial matter, they fall into each other’s arms and spend the rest of their time on the mountain having sex. When they return to town, however, their love affair faces the brutal reality of the modern world.

This, of course, is the plot of the 2005 award-winning Ang Lee film Brokeback Mountain, based on the 1997 award-winning short story by Annie Proulx. This is also the plot of the 2017 award-winning movie God’s Own Country, the directorial debut of Francis Lee (no relation to Ang, I assume), who also wrote the screenplay.

David and I watched God’s Own Country this past weekend in lieu of watching the Super Bowl. We thought watching a gay-themed movie was an apt antidote to this particularly hypermasculine Sunday Night Football that sends so many men into a frenzy, so much so that the fans of the winning team often end up rioting—or celebrating, depending on your perspective—in the streets, as we saw in Philadelphia this past Sunday night.

In God’s Own Country, a young man named Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) lives with his father (Martin Saxby played by Ian Hart) and grandmother (Deidre Saxby played by Gemma Jones) on a sheep farm in Yorkshire in the north of England. The landscape is as empty and beautiful as is the landscape of Proulx’s Wyoming setting. Johnny is an unhappy fellow, who gets blind drunk nearly every night, has one-night stands with local guys, and for the first part of the movie shuffles around in a sullen state of discontent. Along comes Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker who’s come to the farm to help out. At first, Johnny despises Gheorghe, calling him a gypsy and generally sneering at him every chance he can get. Gheorghe, for his part, keeps a watchful eye on Johnny to see what he’s up to, and, perhaps, to check him out in a sultry sort of way that clearly telegraphs his desire if Johnny would only pick up on it. In all aspects, Johnny is a failure. Even his father and grandmother know this, both of whom sneer at Johnny whenever he comes into the house—they seem to be a sneering kind of family. Johnny’s father scolds him for the way Johnny handles the livestock on the farm, and for his neglect of a broken fence that has let the sheep go wandering in the nearby hills. Johnny’s grandmother spends the movie looking at her grandson over the tops of her eyes, and harassing him about his drunken behavior, his lack of drive, and his unkempt room. (Johnny’s mother is not part of the story; she abandoned the family years ago to get away from the loneliness of the farm.)

One weekend, the boys are on the mountain where the sheep have escaped. It’s lambing season, and Johnny and Gheorghe are tasked with assisting the birthing process. At one point on the mountain, Johnny calls Gheorghe a gypsy one too many times and Gheorghe pushes Johnny to the ground. They have sex. Rough sex. The kind of sex where pale skin is streaked with mud as if they are figures in a Greek painting. Over the days that follow, their first sexual encounter turns into tender love as Gheorghe teaches Johnny that there’s more to love than rolling around in the mud or fucking in pub bathrooms. They have a spat, of course, when Gheorghe catches Johnny having sex in the bathroom with one of the local boys. The climax of the movie comes after Gheorghe has left the farm to work elsewhere, and Johnny finally decides to chase after him and bring him back.

God’s Own Country makes no apologies for using Brokeback Mountain as an inspiration. Indeed, in addition to sharing a plot line, God’s Own Country uses many of the camera angles and scenes from Brokeback. In a few obvious examples, in one scene Johnny is crouched down in front of the decrepit building on the mountain where their love first blooms. He is looking down at the ground. Behind him, we see Gheorghe naked, bathing himself from a bucket filled with water he collected in a nearby stream. Just as in Brokeback, we are meant to feel the tension of Johnny wanting to look behind him toward the naked Gheorghe, but resisting that temptation. In another imitative moment, when Gheorghe catches Johnny having sex in the pub’s bathroom, he storms off the farm, leaving some of his belongings behind, particularly a sweater that he wore on the mountain. Reminiscent of when Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) recovers a shirt worn by the deceased Jack Twist (Jack Gyllenhaal) and holds the shirt up to smell the essence of his lost love in Brokeback, so in God’s Own Country, Johnny finds Gheorghe’s sweater and breathes in the smell of the sheep-farmer lover.

In his review of God’s Own Country, Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian that the movie “is almost—but not quite—a Dales Brokeback, a love story which does not exist in quite as much of a homophobic context as the classic Ang Lee movie and Annie Proulx story, and which does not require two female partners to exist in respective states of denial.” Bradshaw’s observation of the relationship between Brokeback and God’s Own Country captures what I think is the main difference between the stories and the historical time period they reflect, or at least the time periods in which they were produced.

Johnny’s sexual orientation is no big deal in this small northern England town. Everyone knows that Johnny is gay, and no one cares. Even his grandmother is cool with Johnny’s sexuality. Although disgusted, she finds a used condom in Johnny’s messy room after Johnny and Greorghe have had sex there. She nonchalantly picks up the used condom and flushes the condom down the toilet without caring that it confirms her suspicion that Johnny and Gheorghe are lovers (or that flushing a condom down the toilet is a good way to back up the plumbing).

Indeed, the biggest—and perhaps most refreshing—difference between God’s Own Country and Brokeback is that in the end, when Johnny and Gheorghe reconcile, the movie telegraphs that they will live on the farm as lovers, sharing the house with Johnny’s father and grandmother. In Brokeback, Jack imagined this kind of life with Ennis, but in Brokeback such an ending is impossible. This is demonstrated in a gory scene in Brokeback when Ennis reflects back on a moment in his childhood when his father brought Ennis and his brother to a ravine where the locals have castrated and killed a gay man who , with his lover, had been farming on nearby land for decades. In God’s Own Country, it appears that such violence against gay people is unheard of, and that happy endings are possible.

Perhaps these two divergent endings reflect the times in which the films (and short story) were made. In 1993 when Proulx wrote her story, gay marriage was nowhere on the horizon, and homophobia was rampant in the wilds of Wyoming and in the streets of any city. (In 1998 Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed in Laramie, Wyoming, between the time Proulx published her story and Brokeback premiered.) By 2017, when God’s Own Country was written and filmed, England and the United States have embraced gay marriage and gay people—even if some people have embraced homosexuality with the same annoying attitude as Johnny’s grandmother.

If this is the case—that is, if we have advanced gay rights to such a degree that happy endings are more likely to occur than not—we haven’t yet figured out as a gay community how women fit into the picture.

As Bradshaw notes in his review, women are barely present in God’s Own Country. There are, in fact, only two prominent female roles. The grandmother, whose tart continence seems to have nothing to do with homosexuality and is instead a reflection of her moral stance against laziness and untidiness. (It seems the grandmother in God’s Own Country is a poor rending of the skillfully crafted mother—Mrs. Twist played by Roberta Maxwell—in Brokeback, whose short screen time nonetheless gives us the impression of a country woman who is compassionate, morally conflicted, and deeply saddened.) And a former classmate of Johnny’s who appears in a vignette outside the bar Johnny frequents. Robyn (Patsy Ferran), the classmate, has gone off to college and is back on break. She represents the one who got out of this small town, the one who escaped, the local who has dreams beyond the farm—much like Johnny’s absent mother. But as the title of the film indicates, in God’s Own Country being gay is no longer a reason to run. Instead, the countryside of northern England is a place where gay men can celebrate, even for a gay couple like Johnny and Gheorghe, the modern gay couple farming in Yorkshire.

Unlike in Proulx’s story, where the women may be “female partners exist[ing]  in respective states of denial” but are at least finely drawn and complex characters, in God’s Own Country, the female roles are one-dimensional set characters that have no more to do with the story than the sheep roaming the hills.


This is all to say, if God’s Own Country represents several steps forward in gay acceptance, these steps have yet to include the ways in which women enrich the narratives we are telling about ourselves. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Forward

It's been over two years since I've written on this blog. The last blog post was about Dennis Hastert and powerful men who take advantage of others. As you can see below, in that blogpost dated June 15, 2015, I wrote about the power dynamics involved in sexual harassment cases, and that in addition to focusing on the acts themselves, we should focus on the power structures that allow these acts to be occur. That was two years ago. Not much has changed, at least in the way some men in power abuse others. What has changed, however, is that people--especially women--are speaking up via the #MeToo movement and the Time's Up campaign. What I find most compelling about these movements is that women are speaking about their traumatic experiences and talking about the power dynamics that created those situations. I think these conversations are critical in order to change the hyper-masculine culture that perpetuates these hostile environments. I also think this is key to forcing a paradigm shift that alters the patriarchal structure under which we have all suffered for millennia.


***

In the time since I last posted, so much has happened in America that it would be impossible to go back and try to capture it all through a queer lens. As many writers have been saying for the past year (and much longer than that)--and as I tried to argue in my book Post-Closet Masculinities in Early Modern England--the instability and insecurity of the masculine identity marker all but assures that when Others demand equal power and equal opportunities in society masculinity reacts in the most childish of ways. While masculinity projects a stable identity, it is, in fact, an incredibly fragile subject position that, like a child, has a difficult time engaging in rational conversation. Rather, it can only lash out and speak a kind of gibberish that contains all the fury and fire of an imp. Doesn't this define our current political situation? I would like to say that, as with a petulant child, we are in a temporary spasm of time that has come about because of the dissolution of the masculine state, but I'm not that optimistic. At least not yet.

***

I stopped writing on my blog back in 2015 for a couple of reasons. First, I was going back to school to get my MFA in Creative Writing, which, along with my day job, was going to take up a lot of my free time. In January 2017, I completed my degree at the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. (My thesis project, The Dark Eclipse: Reflections on Suicide and Absence, is coming out this fall from Bucknell University Press.) More importantly, however, I realized that the theory I was working with in the blog failed. In the blog, I proposed that we were living in or entering into a post-gay world where identities of sexual orientation no longer needed to be broadcast as our primary identity markers. Working with this theory, I recognized that I was in a privileged position as a white male professional living in a world that first saw me as white then male and then professional, and only ever as queer if and when they intuited my sexual orientation or I outed myself. But still, back in 2015 when we were still living in the glow of the Obama era, I imagined that we had turned a crucial corner in identity politics that no longer necessitated the constant act of having to declare one's sexual orientation. Boy, was I wrong.

Living under the Trump regime in many ways feels like living back in the 1980s and 1990s when queer people were constantly under attack. I believe this feeling of similarity comes from the level of trauma that we are all living through now. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the campaign of the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant that created a hostile environment for queer people, and it was the AIDS epidemic, which seemed to metastasize in our bodies the constant hate that was flung at us from the far-right, a hideous part of America that has, at this moment, taken center stage in our politics.

So, here I am at the end of the inaugural year of the "first white president"--as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic--with a blog whose theoretical setup failed, a blog that sat dormant for two years while I tried to understand what was going on in the world (and what was going on with me).

Where does the blog go from here? I don't know. But I'd like to re-engage with the blog and see where it takes me.



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Break

I'll be on a break for the rest of the summer.

I'll start up again this fall.



Monday, June 1, 2015

Dennis Hastert

Unfortunately, the latest news that Dennis Hastert, the one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives, sexually abused a student when Hastert was a teacher is not shocking. We’ve seen this story play out (especially in politics) over and over again: Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Mark Foley, Anthony Weiner, etc. Men in positions of power caught in sex scandals. We’ve also read more than one story of a high school teacher currying sexual favors from students: this month, for example, a Florida teacher pleaded guilty to having a sexual affair with one of her fourteen-year old students. On college campuses, we are also handling more and more sexual harassment cases that have, at times, turned administrators into adjudicators.

These instances when people in positions of power sexually abuse subordinates are deplorable, even if they are also completely predictable. What I’m interested in, though, is how these scandals can guide us in understanding the Title IX (i.e., sexual harassment) cases that are popping up on campuses all over the country.

When a teacher walks into a classroom or a gym class or onto a sports field, he is unquestionably in a position of power. Whether that teacher works in an elementary school where students see these adults as parent figures, or in a high school where students look up to their teachers and coaches as mentors, or in a college where, if for no other reason, the degree behind that professor’s name automatically distinguishes him from his students, the men and women working in education undeniably occupy positions of power. Similarly, the students who fill our classrooms at every level in the educational system—regardless of the type of school or its location—are at a disadvantage in this relationship. In the simplest example, we see this power dynamic take place at the end of each semester when the teacher stands in judgment of his or her students by giving them grades, which can, in many instances, have profound effects on that student’s future.

Our pedagogies depend on this unequal power relationship. The teacher, after all, is supposed to be the authority on the given subject of the classroom. The student has willingly subjected herself to that authority in order to learn. This model is the basis of education. Even in student-centered education, which gives students more say in how and what they learn, the presence of the teacher in that space of learning represents authority. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in the same way that power relationships are not always bad—think of the relationship between a parent and a child that is the most primal power relationship.

The problem arises when the people in these positions of power abuse their authority. This abuse can come in many different forms—intellectual, psychological, emotional, verbal, physical, and, most damaging of all, sexual. Unfortunately, abusing power is fairly easy to accomplish, especially in a classroom where the imbalance of power is so great. A nefarious teacher—especially in the elementary and secondary years—has a tremendous amount of power in the classroom. He or she can manipulate that power to seek out and seduce the most vulnerable of students, many of whom are also the most powerless (emotionally, economically, physically, etc.).

When a grade school teacher abuses one of her or his students, no one would argue against the inappropriateness of that relationship. Even when a high school teacher has sex with a student—whether that student is a minor or not—we easily understand that it is an abuse of the power dynamic between teacher and student. We run into difficulty, however, when we consider the kind of relationships that form on college campuses.

Most colleges have rules that prevent a professor from having a sexual relationship with an undergraduate student who is sitting in that professor’s classroom. We recognize that such a relationship is clearly taking advantage of the authority the professor holds over that student. Many colleges also have rules that discourage faculty from having sexual relationships with any undergraduate because, again, we acknowledge the imbalance in the power dynamic between professors and students. Although, few colleges have rules about professors having sex with graduate students, except that such relationships must be disclosed if the professor has any kind of say in that student’s success or failure. 

The problem we are seeing now on college campuses is much more difficult to judge. That is, sexual harassment complaints between students, when both parties are roughly the same age and may or may not know each other, but in which one student alleges sexual misconduct (e.g. rape, as we’ve seen recently) against her fellow student. The difficulty of these cases arises because many times they boil down to a ‘he said, she said’ scenario.

I want to suggest, however, that we start looking at these most difficult of cases in the same way we so clearly understand indictments like the one Dennis Hastert is involved. That is, we should be cognizant of the power relationships involved in those incidences. If we can uncover the power dynamic, I think we will have clearer idea of who is at fault.

For example, in the case of a coed who accuses a fellow student of rape, in addition to investigating the facts of the case, we should come to understand who held the position of power in that relationship both at the time of the incident, and in any prior relationship they may have had.  If we can determine this—and this may be a big if—we may have a better understanding of liability.

I understand that every relationship—even a healthy relationship—is based on power dynamics. Some relationships function when one person has the economic advantage. Others operate when one person has the emotional or intellectual or social or sexual advantage. But even in these cases, the person who holds the reigns of power has a responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the other participant in that relationship. This is true whether you’re a teacher, politician, boss, parent, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, student, etc. 

If as a society, we begin to accept and understand the dynamics of power, then we can teach each other about the responsibilities in these relationships. With this knowledge, we can dismantle the structures of abuse—which depends on ignorance, fear, and silence—that allow people like Dennis Hastert to use his power position for immoral purposes.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bruce Jenner

Back in October, I wrote a post on Dutee Chand, an Indian track star who was disqualified by the International Association of Athletics Federations because, while biologically a woman, she had high testosterone levels and thus the IAAF considered her to be a man. In that post, I also noted that there were rumors that Bruce Jenner had had his Adam’s apple shaved as part of his gender transition. Now, of course, Jenner has confirmed that he is in the process of transitioning from a man to a woman.

Jenner made his announcement during the much-lauded Diane Sawyer interview. The Jenner interview received a lot of attention. Some praised Jenner’s frankness for bringing transgender issues to the forefront. Others took Jenner to task for manipulating the media in order to grab attention in a similar way that Keeping up with the Kardashians depends on sensationalism to keep his family in the limelight.

As gay and lesbian rights have become more secure, it makes sense that the other half of the LGBT equation is becoming more visible and more accepted. In the last few years, we’ve seen shows where a transgendered and/or transsexual character was featured: the 2005 movie Transamerica with Felicity Huffman, the 2012 sleeper British series Hit and Miss with ChloĆ« Sevigny, and, more recently, the Amazon series Transparent with Jeffery Tambor. On Broadway, the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been a resounding success, attracting hordes of tourists from all over the country to a Broadway show featuring a transgendered character who isn’t shy about discussing her botched sex-change operation.

Before Jenner’s announcement, we’ve witnessed a number of public figures who are transgendered come out, including Chaz Bono, Chelsea Manning, and Laverne Cox, whose photo on the cover of Time Magazine in 2014 declared that we’d reached a “Transgender Tipping Point.” America—or at least younger America—seems no longer squeamish about the idea that a person can choose to live a life in the gender they feel most comfortable.

On one hand, though, it’s much easier for the country to accept gays and lesbians because—at least now—we are fairly easy to understand. Boys who like boys and girls who like girls love in the same way that our heterosexual brothers and sisters love even if the way we have sex is different—although not all that different. It takes little imagination to understand what it means to be gay and lesbian.

Being transgendered, though, requires a completely different understanding that flummoxes people.

After a montage of Jenner during his glorious 1976 Olympic victory, Sawyer holds up an iconic picture of Jenner taken after he’d won the decathlon: the handsome man with the muscular arms raised in victory. The image of masculinity. She points to the picture and asks, “Help everybody struggling with what this is?” Jenner points to the picture and says empathically, “That is me. That is her.”

The most lucid part of the interview, I thought, occurred when Jenner tried to clear up Sawyer’s confusion about the relationship between gender and sexuality. Sawyer says, “You understand that people are baffled and confounded.” They want to know, she insists, whether Jenner’s transition means that he’s gay. “No,” he says, “I’m not gay.” Then, Sawyer continues, “if your male and you become a female but you like women are you a lesbian?” Jenner smiles. “You’re going back to the sex thing,” he says, “and it’s apple and oranges. They’re two different things.”

This is a salient point and the core question that fuels ignorance, prejudice, and discriminatory practices.

We want identity to be as easy to understand as a child matching Garanimals. The tags that come with gender, that is, should match up perfectly with the tags that come with sexuality. This is still true today even when we’ve expanded the inventory of identity to allow gays and lesbians to fit comfortably in our modern wardrobe.

The problem that most people wrestle with is that gender, sex, and sexuality do not come in predetermined matched sets.  As there are multiple variations within each term (man, woman, transgender, queer, genderless, gender fluid, non-binary, etc. AND male, female, intersex, transsex, etc., AND straight, gay, bi, asexual, pansexual, etc.), so too there are an innumerable ways in which these markers can intersect: man-intersex-gay OR queer-female-straight OR transgender-intersex-bi, etc. etc. etc. Even these examples of mixing and matching are far too prescriptive.

While Sawyer represents the difficultly most people have with understanding a person who is transgender, without necessarily realizing it Jenner is still caught in the same trap. When he insists that he’s heterosexual even if he’s a woman who loves other women, he also admits that he doesn’t know what will happen if he chooses to marry again. Sawyer asks whether it will be with a woman. He says that he “can’t figure that side of it,” and that he’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it. I imagine it will be a telling moment, one that challenges his and our notions of identity.

Even theorists who conduct their research in areas of gender, sex, and sexuality have come to understand that we, too, fall into the same trap that Sawyer and Jenner fall into.  We want to expand and explore the categories of identity but at the same time we depend on those same categories to ground our theories.

As the heirs of Enlightenment, we rely heavily on the process of categorization to understand the world. But in relying on this method of organizing knowledge, we’ve boxed ourselves in and have a hard time thinking outside those boxes when we are confronted with questions that can’t be answered so simply.

Instead of thinking of the world using the metaphor of boxes, we need a poetic realignment. We need to develop a language of complexity and contradiction and fluidity. We need a new set of signifiers that more accurately describe the experience of people who have never fit in—and I think most people feel as if they’ve never fit in. We need a way to identify without judgment, to make claims of fealty without bias, and to understand ourselves without prejudice.


We need to stop being surprised when people like Bruce Jenner and Dutee Chand don’t meet our expectations. Rather than look at them as curiosities, we need to acknowledge that the failure lies with our system of classification that has never really been able to capture anyone’s sense of self. Once we dismantle this outdated system, then perhaps we can all experience life on our own terms.