Filling a Role
Babbling Brook, Budding Tree
I write this purely from the perspective of my own vantage point as a single gay man, struggling to find intimacy in my own self and within others. I wish I had the perspective both to reflect upon and to confer with, of a lesbian co-author, but for the purposes of this short essay, I do not. With that, please take this in the context that it is written. May we all find our own love free of inflicted roles and bonds?
We all strive in life to fill a role, a niche, some small corner that we can look back on and call ours. I believe that it is a part of human nature to desirer and therefore to strive to fill some purpose that we can tell future generations we have accomplished. For some people that roll is a grand accomplishment, walking on the moon or shaping world peace. But for many of the masses that role is as simple as making dinner most nights or being the primary breadwinner in their home. It may be something as simple as being the one who holds the door for their partner or who takes care of the children. For many the part that they strive to fill and which they look forward to recalling is the role they play in their domestic partnerships and not in the greater world. From these roles they will step forward into the broader seen and shape the world around them.
For gay and lesbian couples this question of roles takes on a colorful and dynamic meaning and challenge as partners figure out the shape of their relationship. All of our lives we have been bombarded with images of traditional roles inside of heterosexual relationships. These roles are defined by traditional gender roles: husband and wife, mother and father, businessman and housewife, and the list can continue. The women’s movement has done wonders to help shatter many of the stereotypes that go with these labels but the images, the roles, the patterns and all of the assumptions that go with them are still hanging out there. As gays and lesbians, we do not have any of the old patterns to draw from when we are looking for answers. In fact, we even have more questions that may have to be address first. In addition to the gender role questions that are left hanging over our heads, gays and lesbians may find themselves questioning their own gender identity. This in and of its own may make the entire matter that much more difficult in that a whole separate level of confusion may be added to the entire situation.
It is this continuous redefinition and exploration of us that I believe makes homosexuality so incredibly genuine, special and beautiful. This is a skill that we have developed on our own and perhaps despite the world around us. Looking back as far as the Holocaust, the homosexual survivors redefined a symbol of oppression into a symbol of empowerment and unity, the pink triangle. Despite the Catholic Church and the Religious Right’s rants and tirades the community has pressed forward to find their own ownership of marriage and faith as is clearly shown by the Civil Union issues in Vermont and other states around the country.
But let us not forget about the ever-present television. Suzanna Danuta Walters has written an entire tomb, cataloging the increase in gay visibility through the television. In her work, “All the Rage” (University of Chicago Press, 2001), in which she is happy with nothing unless it is in total agreement with her point of view. Walters does a wonderful job listing all of the occurrences where queer material is mentioned on a TV program. Here again I applaud the queer community. We have taken the time to look at ourselves and been able to enjoy the programming that is presented before us.
Over the years a number of wonderful programs have been presented on television presenting cross-dressing men and women from as early as MASH to as recently as Drew Cary. What is important to realize is that these shows may not have helped gays and lesbians directly but rather indirectly? By welcoming transvestites, gays and lesbians into their homes in the intimate context of comedy and drama television shows, it softens the impact when they should bump into us after a drag ball, a pride parade or just on the street.
Secondly we need to remember that television is a business and that like it or not, what ever the number is, we are a minority and that with Will and Grace, Ellen, The Education of Max Bickford, Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, and all of the other places that we have made major in roads we are very well represented out there
That said, looking at our TV role models we don’t have much to work with. Will sure does not have much of an idea of what role he would play that is Karen’s job, same goes for Jack. So we turn to Buffy for a while there we actually had a solid relationship, but we never were given a chance to see how that relationship worked. It was not as though we were looking at the Cleavers; or the Adams if you want to account for the fact that they were witches. They always kept us removed just enough. So does Ellen do it for us? With her clumsy dysfunction and bumbling misjudgments, does Ellen give us the role model for gay roles in life and in relationships? My contention is that presently, television offers little more then escapism and entertainment for the queer community. Which again brings me back to the awe I hold for our ability to redefine, explore, and turn to our own selves for inspiration, creativity, community, and role models. Television and mainstream media, while a wonderful source of diversion and entertainment, when held in the context of a homosexual life fails to provide an insight into the roles that gay individuals may fill with their lives outside of the context of the banal heterosexual world in which we must live as a minority. So when we ask ourselves how we will be lovers, partners, friends, parents, companions, and all of the other roles that we seek to fill in the intimate parts of our lives we must now turn to each other and into our hearts.
When I began looking at where all of this fit with my own self-image, I soon saw that I was conflicted. I had a personal battle against the stereotypes I had learned through my life over proper etiquette. When I stopped to think about what I had been taught as right and wrong it just did not make sense. Besides, who holds the chair for whom in a date with two guys? But, here I was struggling with these very issues and needing to figure it all out. I turned to one of my great sources of inspiration, The Dalai Lama. In “The Art of Happiness” by his Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler M.D. (Riverhead Books, 1998) his Holiness advises that we all seek the same essential things in life, food, shelter, companionship and happiness. “I believe the very purpose of our existence is to seek happiness.” If we are all seeking the same essential ingredients in life then the challenge becomes not figuring out which of the predefined stereotypical roles to plug yourself, or in this case myself, into but rather to decipher what in life I was comfortable with and how I was comfortable living. This slant provided a viable approach for both life as well as relationships. Not that it necessarily made things easy but it provided for a starting point. Again here the Dalai Lama provides for a bit of insight to help ease the way, “If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that you can communicate more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness.” For me the openness has been both to myself as well as to others. I have found new friends and new parts to my own self that were as of yet unexplored.
As I look more closely at the roles I wish fill in my life. I see gender and independence as strong variables. I find myself questioning how I relate to the world around me, and what I call feminine and masculine. While still being forced into roles dictated upon me as a minority gay man, I find myself struggling with the gender roles that mainstream society has placed upon me in my every day life. These struggles and issues range from simple small things such as my dress and posture to larger issues surrounding employment, marriage or adoption and child rearing. The heterosexual world sees me, and has labeled me as a man. If we hold off disputing that label for a moment, lets start by disputing the presumed roles that go with that label. In a heterosexual world you would need a man and a women to complete the stereotype. I do acknowledge that there are heterosexual models out there where you have combinations other then the one-man one-woman combination. But, for the purposes of discussion lets acknowledge that and move on to the norm of pressure and oppression. I am referring to the model that the religious right preaches as gospel; the model that is lambasted on television; and the model that children are taught in schools as the basic model for American life. As a man, it is assumed that there is a woman to balance the equation. If there is not one now, the assumption is that there will be one and in her absence there will be obvious shortcomings. So how does this apply to a queer relationship or a gay man? In my case all of the typical machismo and vibrato that is expected of a man growing up was totally absent. I tended to hang out with the women I new growing up simply because I was more comfortable around them. I functioned better without a girlfriend then I did with one, though I usually hid behind them. I like flowers and soft things. I am a reasonable cook and I like to shop. I could go on but I would not know when to stop. I guess what I am trying to illustrate is that I see myself filling many of the more “feminine” roles than the “masculine”.
When I found myself in a marriage to a woman, there were many stereotype role reversals that were hard to miss. We both had jobs, I worked in the computer industry she worked in education. We both worked in the garden. For her it was more of a family tradition for me it was more of a life long love. I was an avid bird watcher and introduced her to my love for birds. In the evenings, if we did not go out, I would cook dinner while she watched TV. I did the majority of the housework but we almost always went grocery shopping together. On rare occasions I would go alone. I would make up the lunches and feed the animals each day. Frequently we would go shopping for clothes together, one of my favorite past times. I often find myself now looking back to the days of my marriage wanting even still to be held and caressed, comforted and cared for. I am able to look back and know that the romantic role I filled in my marriage was both unrewarding and taxing in that so often I was the knight, and the caregiver while so seldom was I able to be cared for and never protected and nurtured in the way I so desperately needed. My marriage was both wonderful and awful. I regret everything and nothing. My role in the marriage was anything but normal. While shaped by my bipolar disorder, my role and entire marriage was defined by my look at life as a gay man struggling to make sense of a heterosexual world.
Today I look forward to future relationships knowing that I am one that desperately wants to be able to slip into a more gentile role at times. I still love to cook, but I hope to be able to cook with someone. I want to be able to hold my partner when they need to be held. But, I want them to know when I need to be held. I am finding that I do not want the roles to be fixed or stagnant. I do not understand why the roles become rigid or why there ever exists a vibrato among men suggesting that emotion is evil or week. I can only see it as harmonious and loving. I hope to find others that see it as the same. And may they like birds.
So back to that label, male. That is what they called me. That is what I am, I think. This has been a hard question for a long time. I have only recently been willing to admit to myself that this was as big a question as it is. But this label is a very narrow label. I guess it describes my physical attributes on the outside okay. But what about how I feel? Is it really just a question of redefining gender roles? Or, is there more to it? Is there a bigger picture that needs to be redefined inside of me so as to be projected against the tapestry of my shell of a body to provide a full illustration of who I really am? For some time now I have joked that my inner child was a little girl. I have also believed that coming out has projected me back through my teens and provided me an opportunity to revisit my adolescence. Perhaps these two thoughts are not as far apart as I once believed but rather that inner child is a young woman inside of me growing up each day.
Recently I have found myself prone to jealous fits toward women. I am not one known for my jealous side so this struck me as a bit unusual. Most notable of these fits was almost comical as I was helping a friend prepare for a formal evening art opening. We had been shoe shopping the night before and found a stunning pair of “strappy” heals at an incredible bargain. That day we were driving up to a dress fitting. The dress she had was a beautiful lace-up, corseted, steal-blue knockout evening gown. To top it of it worked for her like no dress could. She was beautiful. I was jealous. I turned in to the most sarcastic, obnoxious, sixteen year old I have ever laid eyes on. In retrospect I realized I was jealous of much more then the beautiful dress and gorgeous shoes. I was jealous of her womanhood. I was jealous of her beauty, her grace, her elegance. I was jealous of the way people treated her and the way she carried herself. I was jealous of her ability to have children. I was jealous of the very essence of what defines womanhood because I was excluded. I had a problem.
Having identified this source I am able to rain in the jealousy but I still feel excluded. A huge part of me feels like I belong to the sisterhood of the world. But how can I say that, after all I have been labeled a man? I keep coming back to the question of whether this is just a question of gender roles or if this is a transgender question. Am I simply so desperate to be comforted and cared for that I am confusing myself or is there more to it. Then I think about the underlying root to the jealousy that I felt toward my friend.
Attending a drag ball provided some insight toward all of this internal confusion. It also made it very clear that this is years in the exploration. While preparing for the ball, I was able to enjoy the excitement of looking through soft dresses and fabrics, picking through make-ups and choosing colors. I made the conscious decision early on to go with an outfit that was subtle and elegant. I wanted to be pretty and beautiful. I wanted to be a women first and a transgender, drag queen second. The last thing I wanted to come across as was campy. Two complaints, I had no budget to work with and no time. So everything was borrowed and everything was rushed. But I had a blast because every moment was mine and I had fleeting panicked moments with my girlfriend of what it might be like. When the big night came I found myself at the Clarin’s counter in Filenes getting my make-up matched by a dear friend and consummate professional. Back home my girl friend helped my transform from an ordinary man to a hardly delicate but in my heart beautiful woman in training. That night I felt the sexiest, most graceful, most beautiful, most elegant I every have in my life. I actually felt attractive that night. Toward the end of the evening, when I finally found a moment to start dancing freely, I almost believed.
I am not sure what all of this means for me. I am definitely questioning gender roles more closely and questioning my gender more fully. I believe there is a strong female part inside of my male shell. What does that mean for my future? Who know but time. Much like the queer communities search and redefinition of roles, I know that this is my redefinition of me. The poet Rumi wrote the following prose which I believe so eloquently describes the love and compassion I have seen expressed in homosexual relationships that have taken the time to redefine and explore both the individual members as well as how each individual fits into the shape of the relationship.
Now the nightbirds will be singing
of the way we love each other.
Why should they sing about flowers
when they’ve seen us in the garden?
Maybe they’re shy. They can’t look at the face,
so the describe feet.
If they keep dividing love into pieces,
they’ll disappear altogether. We must be gentle
and explain it to them.
Think of a mountain so huge the Caucasus Range
is a tiny speck. Normal mountains
run toward her when she calls.
They listen in their cave-ears and echo back.
They turn upsidedown when the get close,
they’re so excited.
No more words. In the name of the place we drink in
with our breathing, stay quiet like a flower.
So the nightbirds will start singing.
(“Open Secret, Versions of Rumi” Moyer and Barks, Threshold Books, VT 1984)
So where do we go from here? My journey has shown me that there is a lot to be learned about the transgender community and that I have a long voyage ahead. I have also have discovered a need to challenge the roles placed upon me as a “man”. Many of those roles are archaic to start with and many others belong to a heterosexual world, a world in which I may or may not choose to partake. Either way the ownership of those roles is mine to choose and who I am is mine to define. If I remember to maintain a sense of compassion and loving kindness, defining who I am will become easier with time as I will come to know myself better.
As a community and as gay and lesbian individuals, we find ourselves without major, mass media, iconic, roll models to turn to for answers. Our community has done a wonderful job turning to its own culture and resources for roll models to redefine role structure and definition. A large part of what has come to make the community so wonderful is its ability to support each couple and every individual as they struggle to define for themselves what marriage, parenthood, love, friendship, community, or self-definition means for them. The internal support of the community and the Gay Nation as a whole is perhaps one of the most beautiful and pure aspects of the homosexual people I have seen. We should be proud at our tradition.
In that vain I close with a note from the Holy Bible. I site from the New Revised Oxford Standard Edition, Mathew 5:3-12. The B-attitudes have spoken to me from the first time I heard them as being particularly poignant and appropriate to the gay community I live in and the Gay Nation as a whole. I hear many individuals mourning on many levels and the comfort comes from many places. I see many of us cry out for righteousness and here I truly do mean righteousness as apposed to justice or retribution, or any of the other things that people tie up into this state of being. People in our nation I believe truly want righteousness from our citizens and leaders. I see mercy from our community every day. Our entire people have been persecuted for many different reasons. The Christian Coalition, Catholic Church, Religious Right and others persecute us for the sake of righteousness and in the name of Jesus. By no means am I trying to imply that we are all wonderful or that we always fit these characteristics but rather that we are an amazing group of people and this passage from Mathew spoke to me.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for the will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.