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My Case of Gender (1)

June 22, 2016

This episode is Gender Studies 101: moi-meme.

On recent pages I’ve been thinking so much about gender and related issues that, tout naturellement, I’ve wondered about my own, over the years. (Not that this is the first time I’ve thought about it, as I’ll relate in a moment.)

If narrators of novels were persons, this episode could be part of a memoir, with no nonfiction fiction or fictional nonfiction. But this is a novel, in first person narration, and that makes your narrator a character. I suppose I could have played that down (as in a James, for instance, just setting things up); but in this political novel of opinion, I’m making an issue of myself.

So I suppose some “personal” details of my gender and sexual life might serve the reader in delineating the character of one this character (maybe I’m a septuagenerian Nick Carraway, but with imperfections.)

Am I putting off getting down to it? Yes. So here goes.

It is summer in 1943, in a park (probably Lawton) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I am just turning four. My father is stationed somewhere at an Army Air Force base. I’m a boy. My mother has a friend whose husband is stationed somewhere, whose child is a girl my age. They have taken us to the park to swing.

There’s a photo of us children that I’ve seen several times. The last time was 40-50 years ago, but I can see the image very clearly. I used to remember, just as clearly, my emotions at the moment when that image was snapped; but now I remember only the thought of them. Probably I’ve gotten over it.

It seems like a little thing now. Somehow the mothers got to talking about “what if,” what if they had given birth to children of the opposite sex? What would my mother’s life be like if Tommy was a girl. And what if Judy had been a boy? Why not pretend for just a moment? What could it hurt? (Now I’m guessing—why, in fact, should it have mattered, for even a moment?)

So they took us into the park facility and switched our clothes. We returned to the swings cross-dressed. Judy is wearing a short-sleeved shirt and short pants. She looks happy enough, if puzzled. She’ll go along with it. I’m wearing a ruffled pinafore, and I’m seriously pissed. My face is contorted into a Greek mask of agony and outrage. That’s how I feel. In this image I am crying vociferously. Crying out to my mother, “What? Why? How could you do whatever this is to me? How long does this last? Who am I? What might be the long-term consequences?”

But before we get too worked up about it, apparently I did “get over it.” A few years ago a friend sent me a card featuring a heroic painting of “Washington Cross-Dressing the Delaware.” I chuckle even as I type that. (Here you can see the original painting by Emanuel Leutze, the Mad Mag cover that my card reproduces, and other variations on the theme.) It’s wonderful.

Now, I don’t have much real knowledge about human sexuality; but most of us don’t, and still we need to think about these things. I’ll look closely at the image. Two little kids standing barefooted on bare ground in front of their respective swings, the chains ascending on each side of them.

They appear to me to be too young for this to be a sexual matter, in any self-conceptualizing way. I’m guessing, though, that it is a sexual moment, but more a moment of acculturated gender-self-identification. I’m saying, mommy, why have you broken a pattern that you made mine in infancy, and that you’ve reinforced repeatedly with talk of boys’ clothes not girls’. You’ve made me think that I am very special, being a boy. Like my father who is a soldier. [Btw, I have in my possession a snapshot of me, age 6, standing at attention in full dress uniform, including cap, of the U S Army Air Corp. Smiling. Lookin’ good.] Have you changed your mind? Have I lost my mind? Have you lost yours?

And really I’m surprised that those young women did that. Surely they knew that they were breaking a taboo—and in wartime.

But what is the archetype, what god is present in that taboo, who insists that we not break his arche dictum (I just made that up—I like the sound of it)? What god stands frowning behind the photographer? Or is he laughing?

My guess is: Hercules Invictus (I’m on a roll here), strongman, larger than life, proud cleaner of stables, slayer of lions and giants, self-confident adventurer, heroic male ego (there I’m following James Hillman). Last son of Zeus Adulterer and a mortal woman to be made immortal, he’s an overcompensating youngest brother. Last male in a long line, always something to make up for, something to prove.

I feel His presence. Did I fear these women who dared cross him? A girl was wearing my lion skin. And I in a dress like my mother, crying like a girl. Can I still be made immortal (or am I only mortal maid)?

Oh, the insult. The violation.

I was really feeling hurt though. I think I couldn’t feel the earth beneath my feet.

Well there’s a lot of narration to be done for the novel that deserves higher priority; so I don’t know how far this episode will go, but I’ll continue to probe my memory. After all, gender prejudice and discrimination form a major psychopathology of American democracy. You cannot avoid it.

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