Where No Woman (or Man) Has Gone Before

REMEMBER THE old debate about spaces set aside only for women? Hadn’t that feminist argument finally been won? How such spaces provide a safe place free from the taint of male authority?

Well, forget the quest for separate space-that was your mother’s feminism. A new generation has a whole new take on gender politics. For the latest thinking, check out the newly revised student constitution at Smith College, the historically female powerhouse in Northampton, Massachusetts. Last April, students there voted to replace all female pronouns with gender-neutral terms-not because Smith is preparing to admit men, but because an increasing number of its students consider themselves transgender. Though born biological women, they are now choosing to present themselves in more androgynous or masculine ways.

This new wave of gender bending is popping up all over the place, including lesbian bedrooms. At one time, the worst insult to a dyke’s prowess was to suggest that she might need anything as remotely phallic as a dildo to get her partner off. Those qualms have been widely put aside. And, these days queer women aren’t the only ones rushing out to buy harnesses so they can wear a dildo. Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage recently held a contest to name a sexual practice that is said to be increasingly popular-what do you call it when a straight woman straps on a dildo to introduce her man to the joys of receptive sex? Try ‘pegging.’

And then there’s the shared-bathroom issue, exploited for comic effect throughout the late 1990s on the television series Ally McBeal. Sure, it was all stalls and no urinals, but still, what could those young lawyers have been thinking?

Welcome to the new gender rules-of the anything-goes variety. Evidently, the need to separate the sexes, for whatever reason, is no longer the imperative it once was. Even more striking, the notion that men and women are essentially distinct is also undergoing revision.

Increasing numbers of transgender folks would seem to directly challenge our culture’s pervasive male-female duality, but the long-held expectation that they go all the way-taking hormones and getting surgery to pass as the opposite gender-actually reinforced the belief that only two gender options are viable. But lately, more transpeople have been setting up camp in the indeterminate, often androgynous zone between genders, sometimes because surgery is too expensive or unsatisfactory, other times because it simply feels most comfortable to them.

The spectrum of gender expression is on display where young queers gather, whether it’s Gender Crash spoken-word performances in Boston or GenderBLUR cabarets in Minneapolis. Drag queens and kings are still strutting their stuff, exploring the sometimes stereotypical poles of femininity and masculinity, but other performers are asking, ‘What does it mean to be myself, even if who I am looks like someone no one has ever seen before?’ That might mean sporting both a beard and a bust line, or a shaved head and a cheerleader’s skirt. Perhaps a butch-looking person safety-pins a patch with the word femme onto his or her overalls. There are more ways to play it than available pronouns. Try s/he. Try bigendered. Try man with a vagina.

The new gender frontier has arrived, not just pushing against expectations for how a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’ is supposed to act but questioning those categories altogether. Hostility from the larger society is, unfortunately, predictable and already in evidence, but how well will even progressive communities adapt?

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, that beacon of 1970s radical feminism, has stayed a separate course, choosing to classify the only women eligible for admittance to the festival grounds as ‘womyn-born womyn’-a decision that, in recent years, has spawned the presence of a protest Trans Camp outside its borders. Women who have boy children over the age of 5 are relegated to a separate ‘Brother Moon’ campsite.

But such entrenchment may not last. Consider the new option open to students enrolling at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut this fall-the possibility of living in a new ‘gender-blind’ facility. Wesleyan will become the first American college to offer transgender students specialized housing, in part to address that pesky shared bathroom dilemma. Will other campuses be far behind?

Jacqueline White is an Utne contributing editor.

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