The Queer Corner | Make gender perform for you

The Queer Corner is a biweekly blog exploring LGBTQ+ community and culture.

By Rachel Bachy, Staff Writer

It would be the understatement of the century to say that the world has changed a lot since last March. I get way more emails, for one thing. Besides that, the number of people I see on a daily basis has taken a nosedive. I could count them on one hand. My roommates, my virtual classmates, the person placing the Target Drive-Up in my car. It’s a short list.

The number of people who see me on a daily basis has also fallen off. I’ve posted a grand total of three photos on Instagram since last March, and I spend a substantial amount of time with my camera off on Zoom (no one wants to be recorded snacking for an entire class). I used to spend so much time worrying about how other people perceive me. Which clothes am I going to wear? Am I wearing too much makeup or too little? Do I look weird in this photo? Why is everyone else wearing stilettos? I guess I didn’t get the memo.

Every time I left the haven of my apartment, it felt like all eyes were on me. I may not have known it at the time, but this elaborate ruse I constructed wore me thin. It didn’t seem to wear anyone else thin. It was troubling, and it felt almost unreal. I was doing everything right. I posted between two and four times a month on Instagram. I straightened my hair before I went to parties. I wore ripped skinny jeans and tight shirts on the weekends, and I never looked like I was trying too hard if I was just going to class. I would think about every little detail I put into my expression of self, but it seemed so natural for everyone else.

Or maybe it wasn’t natural for everyone else. Maybe they were just better at it, or they were having the same silent trouble as me. In Judith Butler’s groundbreaking work of queer and feminist theory, “Gender Trouble,” Butler proposes that the way we express gender is an entirely performative act. According to this theory, there is no universal, all-knowing gender that predates the self. Gender is created through the culture a person lives in, and our notions of gender are limited to what we express. That’s not to say that gender isn’t real. It’s real in the way “Hamlet” is real. It feels real to some people, it makes me cry and we teach it in schools.

So, one year into quarantine — what has all this meant for gender? To some people, probably not much. But for people like me who never had the easiest time putting on the act, quarantine has given us the opportunity to see what happens when we’re acting for an empty auditorium. Most days, I’m performing for an audience of none. I’ve been practicing my big soliloquy, and there’s no one left to hear it. If the choice is to be or not to be, I guess I’ve chosen to not be (at least in terms of the gender binary).

I’m not the only one who feels a little different. Some members of the queer community on TikTok have been using Mother Mother songs to share their journey with gender. They had just gotten comfortable with their sexuality and boom! It’s gender time. Others have been experimenting with ways of dressing or doing make-up that exist outside of the gender binary. The DIY mullet became fairly mainstream thanks to the queer community, but others have tried campy period clothing, lots of layering and spontaneous buzzcuts. What do I do differently, you ask?

For one thing, I straighten my hair a lot less. I haven’t shuffled through 20 selfies trying to decide if my smile actually looks weird in all of them. I’ve stopped wearing any bra with an underwire. I haven’t shaved my legs once. It may not seem like much, but we perform gender in a collection of acts. Some are big and some are small. For me, it didn’t feel good to put on all of femininity’s layers each and every day. I felt isolated and alone and unreachable. It felt like something was wrong with me.

It’s obvious that gender has caused me a lot of trouble, but Butler proposes that we should cause gender some trouble, too. We can do this by disrupting the binary and the things that tag along with it. Gender asks a lot of you, and it’s time we start asking some things back. Maybe you shave your head or try out different pronouns. You could start a bit smaller, and begin to pay attention to what makes you feel your best. Do you like the way “she” sounds? Have you never worn a dress because you don’t like how they look, or has society told you not to? Are you embarrassed of being seen as “too girly” or “too masculine?” What do those words mean to you?

Step one is questioning. The actions will follow. I’m not asking anyone to go out there and destroy the gender binary all on their own. It’s okay if femininity feels best, and it’s okay if masculinity feels best. It’s okay if you don’t like either. All I’m asking is to cause gender a little bit of trouble. Who knows — maybe it’s caused you more grief than you realize. Whatever you do, don’t listen to “Hamlet.” It’s not nobler in the mind to suffer, and you don’t have to take arms against a sea of troubles by ending it all. I’m tired of all of these binaries. Give that sea some trouble of its own.

Rachel writes about queer culture, the queer community and navigating life beyond the binary. Talk to them at [email protected].