Just say no to gender stability

Hi Kelley,

I finally got our library to get Solitaire, and I read it in two days. What an amazing work! Thank you for writing it… my thoughts will be crunching away at some important ideas for a long while.

I went back to re-read “And Salome Danced,” and read much of the conversations about what whether Mars was male or female. I noted that most of the conversational focus was on Mars, and less was on the gender ambiguity that Jo(e) presents.

In your last paragraph in “The Erotics of Gender Ambiguity”, you write:

I guess [this story] might be construed to be warning us against absolute refusal of a stable gender identity. I say ‘˜guess’™, because I’™m speculating, and can’™t be sure I haven’™t made a mistaken inference somewhere along the line. It’™s tricky, thinking about these things. But the important thing, is that we do think about them, we do inquire about them, without ceasing.

…and I thought, wow. I really must be in a different place. If that’s true, I wonder how I got here.

The background is that I was raised to be a girl, but the tomboy in me refused to be quiet. In fact, I could never imagine myself either male or female. I was just me, with a girl’s body parts, but without any sense of how or where I fit into the gender continuum. I have failed my whole life to present any particular way.

During my college years, I decided to look into gender reassignment, but never followed through on it, because I would feel no more male than I feel female. I have friends who are biologically female, but whose name and (sometimes) gender expression is decidedly male.

You bet it confuses people. But perhaps a warning “against absolute refusal of a stable gender identity” is less…needed? Many people consider my friends and acquaintances sexually appealing, and their continual gender morphing non-threatening.

My partner is a minister, and she often complains that the point she tried to get across in her UU (Unitarian-Universalist) sermons was completely missed. I fear that I may have done just that with your wonderful story, but I thought I might ask you your thoughts about my experiences/interpretations.

Thanks for your amazing writing!


Hi Janine,

And thank you for taking the time to read it and think/feel about it. I appreciate it.

But I do think you have misread. “The Erotics of Gender Ambiguity” is not my essay, it’s an online discussion by feminist critics, writers and academics of “Salome.” I didn’t participate in it at all. The quote you’ve referenced was by Timmi Duchamp, the editor of Aqueduct Press and the author of a formidable oeuvre of feminist fiction and criticism.

Looking at the formatting of the title of the piece, I can see how it might appear that I was claiming authorship of the discussion rather than the story itself. I’ve made some changes to clarify that.

Timmi has a lot of cool ideas about gender and other issues. But I don’t agree with all of them, including this speculation about “Salome.” I don’t at all see the story as arguing against refusal of stable gender identity. That’s not what I intended when I wrote it, for sure. Not that such a reading is necessarily “wrong” — simply that is not my reading, and was not part of my writing. But we all bring different concerns and interests and experiences to our reading of fiction, and those things filter our response to it… and so the responses of the online panel are fascinating to me, all these different perspectives brought to bear on the work. Very flattering, honestly, to have so many people talk about something I wrote. I love that ability of fiction to engender (hah! I made a pun!) this kind of engaged conversation.

But my conversation would be — has been — different. The essay “Identity and Desire” is my response to the online discussion, and that’s where you’ll find my then-ideas about gender. My most recent (published) thoughts are in this interview at the Aqueduct blog. I think you’ll find my notions are a lot more in line with yours (grin). I’d love to hear more about what you think.

I never felt like much of a “girl” growing up. As you’ve said, I was just me. I have been through phases of not really expressing gender in any active way; I’ve made deliberate choices to transgress against the gender norms of my time/culture; and I’ve made deliberate choices to express myself in “normed” ways as a source of power and play. Mostly, I’m a mix. Nicola calls me a “gender warrior,” which I find amusing and cool, but really I’m not fighting. I am having fun. And I am, in fact, refusing a stable gender identity. I make my choices, and then when I feel like it, I change them. I no longer feel any need to justify them to anyone except myself — not to the cultural-normative-standards police, the feminist community, the women-over-forty-should-or-shouldn’t brigade… they can all go talk to someone else about their choices. I’ll be over here dancing.

6 thoughts on “Just say no to gender stability”

  1. Thanks so much for that great post. I think we are walkin’ the same line on this topic. .grin.

    I know that humans naturally categorize things they see, but I often wish we could relax that urge a bit. In my ideal world, you and I are the norm and my friends who “bend” the gender line wouldn’t–there’d be no line.

    The times I remember being the most unhappy were when I was struggling to fit my essence into a box that existed (gay, bi, trans, queer, butch, the list goes on ad infinitum). When that didn’t work, I tortured myself by trying to invent a me-shaped-box that people could fit neatly into their heads. I finally gave up, realizing that I just don’t pack well.

    I love the fluidity and, as you say in your great interview, total freedom of living as a .human.being. You really hit the nail on the head there. heh…How can something so obvious be so hard to learn? I present more male one day, and more female the next. Most days, I just exist; my being in my teaching clothes teaching my students how to have a geek-fest in physics class.

    The frustration now is, even though I’ve…oh…gone beyond the binary in gender expression, the world hasn’t caught up. I have fun with people’s eyebrows raising in question most days, but some days I get tired of being put in a box that felt cramped a decade ago. One day, I really will fulfill my fantasy when next sir’d: curtsy and say, “thank you.”

    Once I learned that I can let go of all those bloody assumptions about people, I felt free. Treating humans as humans is .so. much easier than the cascading thought processes of sequencing the list of assumed identities, cross-checking and then categorizing them.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I love how this topic is always a work-in-progress, and it’s great to keep the conversation going.

  2. Toying around with gender is fun. Why should I choose one dish when I can dip, dab and dunk merrily at the buffet?

    For me, “And Salome Danced,” is about the relationship between people who are creating something together, the tensions generated through the push and pull of those heavily charged magnets of ideas and feelings. The ever-present blind spot we are incapable of keeping in check, and whatever jumps at us from it may take us down or save us. The fact that the protagonists’ genders are in flux only adds to that play of forces. The line that comes to my mind right now is from Tori Amos’ “Cooling”: Is your place in heaven worth giving up these kisses? Some people play it safe. Jo(e) and Mars don’t, but they are not the same. Jo(e) has completely given his/her place a long time ago and revels in the displacement. Mars is in the process of deciding just how much further away from heaven to tiptoe. From where I see it, it’s just how it goes when creative people get together and expose themselves. Sometimes there will be hypnotic dancing and tender love-making, sometimes it’ll be a hungry power-play and heads will roll. Oh, but the kisses… The kisses are sweet and so worth the fall.

    I will read the essays after I get something to eat, but I wanted to chip in before I followed those other discussions and my reading morphs (even if slightly) along the way. I’ll come back later, well fed, and ready to do the required reading and comment on gender.

  3. Kelley, how interesting to have a look at the backstage of “And Salome Danced” through your essay on “Identity and Desire”.

    When I read the short story, I didn’t perceive Jo/e’s ability to assume one gender or another as part of the dangers and horrors the creature was capable of. I could see Lucky did, but not Mars. Perhaps I’m blinded to this because I’d love to be able to shape-shift my own body so dramatically and on demand. Or be emotionally and physically involved with someone who could. Sweet ride! That aspect of Jo/e fell within my fantasy/desire realm.

    What I thought was at stake for Mars fell more along the lines of crossing the ethical boundaries of how she/he considered a good theater director should behave. Those lines seemed to be quite clear and strong: you do not have sex (even if sexual tension is present in the relationship) with your people–actors and crew–, you keep your emotions centered on the experience you are creating for an audience and not on your own desires (Mars seemed to hold this boundary, even though the division here is quite thin considering that the origin of such experience is the director’s vision). The question and fear elements in my personal reading resided in how much was Mars willing to sacrifice of his/her self-image in order to give an audience the perfect Salome. And the fact that Jo/e hungered for Mars soul and very essence.

    “It’s not (or not only) the act that we fear: we also fear how much we want to do it. We are not who we thought we were.” As flexible as I can be when it comes to gender, reading these lines on your essay, I thought about the time I had a crush on a woman eight years younger than me. I’ve dated people who’ve been 20 years my seniors without even considering age an issue. Oh, but reverse my placement in the time line and I freak out. How silly, isn’t it? For some reason, I’d set up that boundary long ago and it grew stone walls and barbed wiring on its own. I wrestled with my guilt and fear and want for a week before I told my wife, “Oh, honey, I’m freaking out because I have this crush on a 21-year-old girl,” she laughed and teased me about it for days. My wife’s the opposite, she freaks out when she gets crushes on older people. How we ended up together even though she’s a couple years younger than me is, well, part of the package. She did go into shock-and-crisis mode when I was about to turn thirty, while I was jumping around thinking it was one of the best birthdays one can celebrate, feeling swell about being alive and counting, looking forward to 50. Oh, but I do hope I don’t get another crush on one of them younger people for a while. Personal boundaries and fears are strange creatures, for sure.

  4. Janine, it’s frustrating to me too that the world hasn’t caught up (although we’re light years beyond where we were when I was a kid! Change is…) But I don’t really get the resistance. I understand that people may raise eyebrows at each other’s choices. I don’t understand the leap from I wouldn’t do that to you shouldn’t do that.

    But it’s easy for me to shake my head, because the fact is I don’t get a lot of those raised gender-eyebrows at this point in my life. I currently present pretty gender-normative on the surface. Although that’s always contextual, isn’t it? When I dance, I’m often in a short skirt and hiking boots and little muscle tops — so what’s the “message” there? To be sure, it’s a much less loaded message in a lesbian nightclub than in a straight club on a Saturday night. Hmm… now there’s something to put on the To Do list.

    Karina, yep, we’ve all got our boundaries for sure (laughs and shakes head).

    I do think “Salome” is very much part of my ongoing exploration of the relationship of art and artist and audience. There’s such a clear through-line to “Dangerous Space,” no? And yet I did not think of “Salome” at all when I wrote “Dangerous Space.” But yes, creating things makes an artist vulnerable, and being vulnerable with other people is a powerful and unpredictable and, well, very dangerous in some respects. Whether it goes well or badly, it changes everyone involved. At least that’s my experience.

    For me, the stakes in “Salome” are not Mars’ ethical boundaries so much as the price that Mars is willing to pay to take the art as far as it can go. If we posit that the artist and the art are somehow “the same” — that on some level the artist is the art and the art is the artist — then what Jo/e offers Mars is the choice of ultimate self-realization. The closer the play is to Mars’ vision, the more “self” Mars is sharing with the audience. The play becomes the vehicle for Mars to connect with the audience. And Jo/e can make that more powerful and more direct than Mars ever thought possible, because for Jo/e there are no boundaries and there are no rules.

    But in order for that to happen, Mars’ essential self becomes at risk. There is no way for Mars to know what parts of “identity” must be surrendered to the creation. For me, creating is always a balance between who I am now and who I will become if I make this thing. Because I never truly know what the cost or the effect of creation will be until it is done. But along the way, in the creative process, there are always moments when I may choose to explore deeper or to stop — and from my perspective, we leave Mars in that moment of choice at the end of “Salome.”

  5. Oh, how interesting. I can sacrifice this Karina to ultimate self-realization. I’ve got self-regenerating super powers. If Jo/e was my Salome, I’d scream, “Gimme!” Unless s/he was 18 years old… Then I’d probably cronk.

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