Saturday, July 25, 2009

Helen Boyd: gender and love

A few nights ago Helen Boyd, author of She's Not the Man I Married, and My Husband Betty as well as author of the blog (en)gender, spoke at the 5th installment of "Transgender Voices & Visibility" at the Long Island GLBT Community Center. Back when i was working there as the Transgender Services Coordinator I created this symposium as a way to spotlight the voices and experiences of transgender people...and those who fall under our ever-expanding umbrella! [photo: Helen Boyd and myself at the LI GLBT Center. We are standing against a yellow wall, Helen is on the left in a black tank leaning against a green chair. I am on her right smiling goofily and wearing a green V-neck.]

Helen Boyd has long held a wonderful fascination for me as she embodies a somewhat elusive combination of literary accessibility and academic rigor. Her talk embodied several intense concepts focusing on love and gender which are generally glossed-over in the more published realm of trans studies. Yes we discuss family acceptance, how gender is separate from sexuality, and how gender fluidity can change our experiences of sex...but professional trans scholars/writers/organizers rarely talk about intimate relationships with any sense of seriousness. Perhaps this comes from an internalized idea that we are naturally unlovable, or perhaps this comes from US culture teaching us that relationships are of no real value compared to our ability to produce results as workers (I want to write more about this soon...). [photo: Helen speaking before an audience at the LI GLBT Center. It is a small room with yellow walls and the beginning of rainbow panels across the back wall. About 8 backs of various listeners are visible and Helen can be seen in the background, sitting in a green armchair and speaking.]

However, I hear relationships discussed as the second most common topic in transgender discussion groups. After hormones and surgeries we tend to bemoan the often abusive relationships we are in and ask if we can be truly loved by people outside the queer communities - and often by people inside the LGBTQ communities too! Helen and Betty's story answers these questions beautifully, and Helen has proven herself more than willing to share her own path and her further evaluation of this path with others.

At several points in her recent talk she asked for audience participation in order to discuss our own interactions with gender and love. A particularly interesting conversation was had about couples who experience a shift in gender roles. Helen discussed how early on her wife Betty desired to fully live her femininity by participating only in traditionally "female" household chores, to which Helen responded "just because you're now a woman doesn't make me a man!". Which I think is a wonderful summation of the pressure spouses feel when one part of the couple shifts in their gender identity and gendered expression. My partner and I have often discussed this as well, particularly my fascination with carrying out masculine tasks despite my smaller size and lack of muscles in comparison to her.

Because I am worried about my genderqueer presentation I often seek masculine tasks that affirm my male sex. I often carry too many groceries causing my fast-walking girlfriend to stop and wait for me as I shift bags on our walk home, I often feel very upset at my lack of handle on money issues and household affairs, and I pride myself on remembering "gentlemanly" actions. All of this, to a certain extent, irritates my partner who thinks it would be perfectly fine for us to carry groceries equal to our abilities and for us to carry out household chores equal to our abilities. And she's right. That would be just, sensible, and economical. But I can't let go of these sexed activities as seemingly easily as she does, and neither could Helen or Betty. There has to be a whole discussion: "just because I'm mowing the lawn does not negate my identity as female" or "I enjoy cooking your favorite meals and am happy to do so, none of which negates my masculine gender identity."

These troublesome discussions about coupledom and domesticity bring us full-circle back to feminism and the negation of our multiple backgrounds. After all, not all of us come from a two-parent heterosexual white middle-class family in suburbia...but our schooling, advertisers, and national news media sure want us to think that we do! So that anything that falls away from that created "normativity" brings about intense feelings of shame and self doubt. So, as always, we need to return to our roots and our communities who have been struggling with these issues for generations and learn from our Elders and next-door neighbors. We need to realize that gender non-conformity within couples is all around us and we need to open the discussion and shed light in on how fabulous it is!