February 18, 2011


for young women who fear difference...

This was the beginning of my double life. But hadn’t my life always been double? There was always that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin, myself in silvery negative, with dark teeth and shining white pupils glowing in the black sunlight of that other world. While I watched, locked in the actual flesh, the uninteresting dust and never-emptied ashtrays of daily life. It was never-never land she wanted, that reckless twin. But not twin even, for I was more than double, I was triple, multiple, and now I could see there was more than one life to come, there were many.

 —from Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood (245)

I am a gay woman.
I did not always identify myself as such. It was a journey I took, like all journeys, one step at a time. Now it bears a definition I can’t re-lexicon. To share an identity is to bond on fundamental levels. National, racial, regional, socio-economic, spiritual or religious, as well as sexual. But as Paul Gilroy suggests, “[I]dentity is always particular, as much about difference as about shared belonging. It marks out the divisions and sub-sets in our social lives and helps to define the boundaries around our uneven, local attempts to make sense of the world” (“Diaspora” 301). While we develop our collective identities, we share a simultaneous need to negotiate the paradox of individual identity.
Being a lesbian began by knowing and feeling—not hearing—that I was a woman. My conscious exploration into gender identity commenced when I was 24 years old. It came on like a Fresnel with an automatic dimmer switch. My gayness—now an undeniable part of my identity—did not come on, that is, in a linear manner or with any huge epiphany. It was birthed very slowly. In fact, I was in labor with it for ten years.
I am proud of the creature I became. When dealing with what has traditionally been a binaristically defined concept (such as both gender and sex) one inevitably runs into the ambiguous—the individual who cannot decidedly be placed into one category or the other—the he or she who occupies a space of in-between-ness. Ambiguous positions in society may offer some of the richest opportunities for any analysis of identity. Historically, Western culture has repressed gender ambiguity, positioning male and female as defining opposites rather than placing its subjects along a continuum of male/female, active/passive, logical/intuititve and other so-called masculine/feminine traits. Cultural denial of the ambiguity that exists along gender demarcations provides a readymade mechanism from which we can “fool around’ with what we consider our primary processes. There I stand. Stuck to that flypaper.
To begin with, women, the still silenced majority, like the monsters of horror stories, circulate between two worlds, two realities, two thresholds. Homi K. Bhabha indicated that such in-between peoples must go through an “interchanging of self” (or doubling) to signify and be signified within the dominant/nation culture (Location 143-45). Since subject peoples are signified as Other, they must shuttle back and forth in their identities in a more problematic and perhaps productive way than the dominant class. The “overlap and displacement of domains of difference” calls attention to a third space (2). And the third space is often the locus of truth.
Yet, despite all that they have to teach, subject peoples are treated ambivalently by the dominant culture. This is not to suggest that the culture at large can take them or leave them (after all, they help define the dominant culture). Rather, ambivalence suggests a love/hate relationship. Many of us as children, for instance, felt ambivalence toward our mothers, our primary caretakers but also seemingly omnipotent tyrants. Western patriarchal culture, at one time reading all normalized women as either virgins, whores, or mothers, reflected that love/hate ambiguity onto women in general. And the most damaging stereotypes that imperialist cultures hang on the oppressed are probably those that exhibit ambivalence. Ambivalence is prevalent in the kind of sexual stereotyping that keeps us in our place.
Many feminists have illustrated that it is difficult (if not entirely impossible) to define the concept of woman without fixing it in opposition to “man.” A typical dictionary would define woman as the female of the human species and the female as that sex which produces ova and bears offspring. Yet, all of those whom we designate women do not necessarily produce ova, and fewer yet produce offspring. Female identity shuttles between the matrices of collective and individual representations, and like flypaper, is made of a sticky substance that picks up a lot of debris along the way and sometimes entraps and immobilizes us.
 According to John Berger (“Ways of Seeing”), while a man’s visual presence is dependent upon the power he embodies, the woman‘s expresses what can and cannot be done to her (45-46). Berger suggests to us that, for women, it is difficult to separate subjectivity from visual objectification because of the convoluted interplay of the two. “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female” (47).
Says Berger, a woman cannot even attend her father’s funeral without wondering as she walks across the funeral parlor floor, how do I look? How do these spectators see me? We are constantly critiquing ourselves from the dominant culture’s point of view, even in the most painfully personal situations. Women are by social construction, highly self-reflexive.
It was with such self-reflexive training, that I came to examine my sexuality in my mid-twenties. It was, I found, impossible to separate politics from identity and desire.
Judith Butler’s postdisciplinary work on gender as an identity we “perform’ promotes creating “gender trouble,” Butler encourages feminist critics to disrupt sex, gender, and sexuality as natural categories. For Butler, the very inside/outside demarcation of the body is often assumed but should be called into question where new terrain might opened up for examining identity.
Butler suggests that when we bring the very materiality of the gendered body into question, we can locate avenues to decenter sexual difference from man as the pivotal point of female existence. It is, of course, a political act that is much easier said than done.
State institutions have several reasons for requiring that newborns be registered with a name and a sex designation at the time of their birth: to establish a means of social organization and to prevent fraud; to regulate the granting of different privileges and responsibilities according to sex; and, most crucially, to regulate morality and family life by prohibiting sex acts and marriages involving persons of the same sex (Epstein 101) These are the under-the-table “payoffs” we end up needing to sacrifice in order to, as Paul Ricouer suggests, renounce the absolute object and the absolute subject and enter into a radically prephilosophical mode of language that may offer transcendence from the rut of the so-called real (Figuring 224). As Bhabha observes, what we must map as a new world space is the signification of  the “in-between.” As deliberate as it may sound to my brothers and sisters in the gay world who identify themselves as biologically gay or lesbian, it was with such deliberation that I woke up one day and labeled myself a gay woman. I am however, I realize, an exception to a rule others have identified for their own sexual orientation. Unlike some people who may live less in their head than I, I made a choice to be gay. Among my sisters, that is not always a popular supposition. But it’s one I stand by proudly. It was a choice I had begun working on early in life. And it was one I chose, in the end, not to fight.

 I want to go back to the time when I was only 7 or 8 years old—already a quintessential baby-booming product of 1960s television. There was a program whose lyrics ran:
"Identical cousins--one pair of matching bookends, different as night and day....They laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike....You can lose your mind, when cousins are two of a kind."
Lyrics from the theme to The Patty Duke Show (which debuted in 1963) not only asked millions of television viewers to equate young women with utilitarian chochkas on a bookshelf but to suspend disbelief for half an hour every week—just long enough to suppose that two cousins, developed not only from different eggs but from different biological parents, could be so genetically alike that even relatives couldn't tell them apart. Though this premise is scientifically implausible for any inquisitive mind outside of the National Enquirer's readership, identical cousins were nonetheless the main punch line of The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966) and later reappeared as major laugh-getters in 26 episodes of Bewitched (1964-1972) and at least nine episodes of I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).
            Bewitched was one of my favorite programs, and though I'm not entirely sure about the influence of Samantha and Serena in the matter, I too had an identical cousin. Well, all right...that's not entirely true. In fact, as long as I'm confessing my weird childhood fantasies....I might as well admit...well...the fact is, I had six identical cousins. My cousins were three sets of twins, my age (give or take a year). Their father was my mother's brother, their mother my father's sister. That accounted for our physical similarities. (It could happen.) Each of my six cousins, girls naturally, had a name that ended in "Jo"—Bobby Jo, Billy Jo, Stacy Jo, and so on. This is an interesting masculine twist that probably was not entirely coincidental. Each cousin was a part of my personality in full regalia, or a magnified part of something I wanted to be but couldn't be. For instance, Cathy Jo was a major tomboy, athletic, and much braver than I could ever have imagined being. She frequently spit on the sidewalk, which I thought was particularly daring and something my mother would never have allowed me to do.
            My point in reliving this rather fantastic preconscious moment of personal history is not to convince my audience that I was a child suffering from bipolar disorder (or some Dixieland double-naming disease), but to pose a question to myself in initiating this essay: did I create my bevy of identical cousins, as Elizabeth Montgomery created her kitsch cousin Serena, because I was an incurable neurotic, or because it provided a coping mechanism that allowed me to experience a particular sense of agency outside of the compartmentalized femininity that was handed me in the sixties? Hold that thought.    
            Jeanine Basinger, in her commentary of classic American entertainment suggests that the female double was "a brilliant device for telling a woman that she ought to conform to the roles society approves...at the same time it allowed her to see and possibly identify, however temporarily...with a female character who did not conform..."(83). Hollywood "twins" typically presented a good and a bad girl who gave substance to the duality and contradictions that fueled films about women during that era (roughly 1930-1945). Basinger suggests that these roles are representative of two sides of one woman, or two lifestyle choices from which a woman must choose. Since there are two of her, it stands to reason that one twin must be dispensable, and indeed, in the film, the bad one typically dies. The spectator, of course, is supposed to identify with the good girl, who survives and is always shown to be the better woman. But as Basinger points out, the moral is complicated since the bad selves "frequently seem to be having all the fun—and also the good clothes...."(84).
            Because the good girl is preferred by men, she is the one with whom the audience identifies (183). The "bad girl" displays supposedly masculine traits: intelligence, competitiveness, strength, sexual boldness (185)...spitting on sidewalks....Serena, Sam's double, is exactly this type of woman. She goes after whatever man she wants, uses her witchly power without the slightest hesitation, changes men into chimpanzees or elephants at the least sign of a dominating word, and speaks her mind at all times.
            Duality is central to the spectatorial pleasure of Bewitched. It was a domestic comedy about the double life led by Samantha Stephens, who is both a witch and a mortal housewife. The good-natured duplicity of Sam's life provides the conflict that fuels the comedic situations of the program Despite her own unlimited power over time and space (and, it might follow, consumerism, since after all, why would you need to purchase a washing machine when you can just conjure one up with the wave of your arm? Sam's story is one of self-containment and assimilation. She attempts to mask over her immortal difference by self-censoring her supernatural desires and her otherness. The drive of our society is toward displaying as much difference as possible within it while eliminating where at all possible what is different from it: the supreme trick of bourgeois democracy is to produce its opposite out of its own hat....Our culture, deeply rooted in imperialism, needs to destroy genuine difference...at the same time it needs constructs of difference in order to signify itself at all (100-101). Similarly, Bewitched produces Sam's unruly desires out of a hat even while repressing them and does so in order to signify what is acceptable behavior through its difference from what is not.
            Bewitched, situated as it was in the consumerist haven of popular, offered a veritable smorgasbord of female representations caught between acquiescence and exotic unruliness. Sam's witch family, existing outside the circle of her mortal experience, was her Other family, with a capital "O." They represent the realm of otherness from which she was sprung.
            I wanted to be Serena when I grew up. Or, better yet, Andora. I did not want to be Sam. I did not want to be normal. I wanted to be myself, no matter what that entailed. It was not always a straight line finding the course that marked the way to myself. I knew, for instance, I could conjure up a physical attraction to men who were patient enough to get to know me as a woman, not just as an object, and that I could probably live a heterosexual life with success. But I didn’t want to. I fell in love more easily with women. I wanted to live with women. It felt more natural for me. I doubted it was biology. It was the way my mind worked. But it was just as much me as it would have been if some gay gene had determined I couldn’t love men. It was what I wanted, and deserved to have. To do otherwise, was to continue disappearing down a rabbit hole I was tired of disappearing down.

Before I fell in love with Bewitched, I had been in love with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland  and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Alice’s travels through Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland depict a near-adolescent girl’s search for lost identity. When everything Alice knows to be true in her world is turned upside down and inside out, she loses her referential footing and begins to question who she is, what she is, and if she is at all. Without reliable markers to define her reality, she must carry on in Wonderland uncertain of her self-defined being. Alice is no magician. She is, in her own words, only a little girl. Like the signifying woman in the dark world of gothic suspense, the unsettling magic of Wonderland is acted upon Alice.
In his tales of a world behind the looking glass and down the rabbit hole, Lewis Carrol managed not only to hit upon metaphors for two of the most significant psychological traffic jams in female identity, but also spun a colorful analogy of jarring dislocation in a world inhabited by beings who seemed to speak our language yet didn’t. Like Alice, it is through an internal looking glass that young women must learn to see and judge themselves, and it is by the secret rabbit hole of our anatomy that we come to be defined as not-man in the Wonderland of Western culture. Having grown too big, too substantial in the rabbit hole, Alice begins to shrink, to narrow, and she says to herself, “It’ll be no use their putting their heads down and saying, ‘Come up again, dear!’ I shall only look up and say, “Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else’ [...].” Alice’s is a story of dissociation. 
Carol Gilligan tells us that while she was reviewing the interviews that she and others conducted for her critical study In a Different Voice, “I came to a place where we heard a distinct shift in girls’ voices and observed that this change in voice coincided with changes in girls’ relationships and their sense of themselves.” Gilligan heard her subjects describe situations in which what they felt and thought became “unspeakable:” She sensed that she was witnessing them:

…relinquishing what they know and what they have held fast to, as they come face to face with a social construction of reality that is at odds with their experience, so that some kind of dissociation becomes inevitable. Girls’ initiation or passage into adulthood in a world psychologically rooted and historically anchored in the experience of powerful men marks the beginning of self-doubt and the dawning of the realization, no matter how fleeting, that womanhood will require a dissociative split between experience and what is generally taken to be reality (xxi).

Likewise, I remember that as a girl of 12, I often lay in my bed at night and willed my body to stop growing. Lewis Caroll’s Alice was even then still one of my favorite stories. I memorized Carroll’s poems and drew pictures of Alice, The White Rabbit, and The Mad Hatter in my school notebooks. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I was beginning to realize that my world was becoming an alien planet of limitations I didn’t feel prepared to accept. The feminine Wonderland that adolescence introduced me to ran contradictory to my vision of self-determination. So, I retreated into books and drawings. At the age of sixteen. I decided I would not have children. At eighteen, I resolved I would not marry. It never ceased to amaze me, however, that people in my world could react so negatively when I stated these choices aloud. I did not voice my convictions regarding my future autonomy angrily, but in self-reflective tones that were part of the process I felt was necessary for shaping my own identity at an early adult age. Still, I learned not to speak these things to others. Not that is, until I looked one day in the mirror at my naked body at the age of 24, realized I was a woman with all the disadvantages that entailed, and found myself inexpicably crying. From that point on I decided I would be what I wanted to be and to hell with the world. And if that required calling myself a lesbian to embrace all the politics of my sisters in difference, so be it. Unfortunately, it would take me ten years before I was ever comfortable saying that second part out loud. But since then, for me, there is no turning back. I call myself a lesbian, simply because it upsets people who are bigoted. I am first and foremost a woman. Secondly, myself. And, perhaps third, a lesbian. But you will not take it away from me if it is the label I choose for myself. I am my own to own.
I’m Not Myself
When the Caterpillar tells Alice that he doesn’t see, he denies the logic of her disorientation in Wonderland. He turns a blind eye to her experience, and thus fails to affirm her view of the situation. Luce Irigaray has written, “The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary certainly puts woman in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily, in the little-structured margins of a dominant ideology, as waste, or excess, what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) ‘subject’ to reflect himself, to copy himself.”
             Dealing with inequality can be messy. There are seldom unequivocally right answers when it comes to dealing with the subtle complexities of diversity. Few answers are likely to work for all time, all contexts, and all people. There’s no manual they hand you when you start out in adult life that tells you: “These are the issues you’ll face, and this is how they have to be dealt with. These are people and events you’ll encounter, and this is right, and this is wrong; do this, don’t do that.” The answers are always changing, because relationships are always changing. (So, Hallelujah diversity!)
Life—both individual and cultural—is about questioning, reflecting, and learning from our mistakes. And life’s lessons, if we’re lucky, will never be over. For me, THAT is the point. For you? Nobody knows but you. The fascinating thing about diversity, however, when you really start seeing it, is that there’s not just Black and White, Male and Female, and Gay/Straight people. There are 6,446,131,400 individuals out there, of whom no two are alike. Put two of them together, and the outcomes are endless. Put a whole campus of them together, and it’s mind-boggling.
And ain’t it grand?

If you want to create an intervention in society, you have to leave your ego at the door. Not your voice, not your truth, not your self-worth nor your right to it. Just your ego.
Enter into life with your naked self whenever possible. Be proud. Be unencumbered at least from within. Make it clear you have a right to be there, and that anyone who assumes you don’t clearly has a warped sense of things and deserves to be treated as if spiritually handicapped. Calmly refuse to leave when they tell you to leave. But don’t get trapped by posing. Force the other person to reframe their own beliefs and expectations of you and the lot you represent.
Being yourself requires finding her first. It’s a lifelong process, and who you are today, will not be who you are tomorrow. Today, you will probably only find parts of yourself. But that’s enough to get started with. Life occurs one step at a time, even when you’ve fallen through the rabbit hole. One step at time is all any of us are doing—from age two to 102. There is no final destination. We look at ourselves every day in a claustrophobic room of steam and say into the mirror, “Well, this is me today. I can’t hide in this small room with no windows forever. I have to walk proudly out of here. Every day. No one else can do it for me.”
The biggest lie of the American dream is that someday we all arrive somewhere and stay put. And that we can do it without hardships along the way. If there were no hardships, it wouldn’t be called a dream. If we are aware and connected, we shuttle back and forth between pursuing such a dream for ourselves and our kind. It is a vision within us, not before us, and one has to be a visionary to keep it in sight. The truth is, we don’t really overcome. We just come. And to abandon the journey is, for women, to commit gendercide.
Follow your bliss, but figure out first what it is. Write your eulogy today. What do you want them to say about the life you’ve lived when its passing is finally honored?

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