The Ancient Art of Gender-Bending

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Photo by Postdlf. Licensed under Creative Commons
Statue of Hatshepsut at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I know there are conservative cultural curmudgeons out there who believe that gender-bending is something new–some kind of plot by leather boys on an NEA grant. The truth, as conservative cultural curmudgeons are somehow always the last to know, is more interesting. Brave people, as a matter of desire, necessity, or high spirits, have been blurring the boundary of gender (which is not sex–remember?–but the cultural expression of sex roles in a society) at least since the days of Hatshepsut’s beard.

Hatshepsut was a royal princess of Egypt who, at first, did all the things royal princesses were supposed to do 35 centuries ago: She married her half-brother, Thutmose II, and when this none-too-vibrant pharaoh died in 1512 B.C. after just eight years on the throne, she served as regent for the heir apparent, little Thutmose III. But the heir was a harem child–son of some pretty nonentity from the back benches of her late husband’s lady collection–and she, Hatshepsut, came from a long line of queens. Easy decision: Thutmose III was bundled off to learn how to be a priest of Amon, and Hatshepsut ascended the throne. I mean really ascended it, adopting full pharaonic powers, honors, and regalia–including the ceremonial false beard that the guy pharaohs wore, thus becoming the first drag king. You go, girl!

Wait, I think I hear a curmudgeonly complaint: This is just a savvy woman coming to power by seizing and holding male symbols.

But exactly! The gender-bender heroines and heroes of history were after power, or at least autonomy. For women, masculinization has meant taking part in what patriarchy still considers the “real” world of power and achievement–plus you get to wear comfortable clothes. And for many men, femming has been a welcome escape from the bone-crushing demands of stereotypical guyhood.

Beyond this, though, both sexes, and all sexual persuasions, have discovered a subtler empowerment that comes when you realize that no set of social scripts can contain your humanity. When a gender-bender becomes famous, an entire society may be challenged to decide what it means by maleness, femaleness, toughness, tenderness–even “realness.” Nobody in their right mind would minimize the pain and difficulty of living on the gender edge, but what’s remarkable about the great gender-benders is how untragic they usually are.

To prove that, we need look no further than Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin Dudevant, whom the world knows as George Sand. An outspoken foe of sexism and an eloquent enthusiast who put the power of her pen behind most European social reforms, Sand “never let a day pass without covering more pages than most writers do in a month,” as one biographer put it.

And she was a sharp cross-dresser and cigar smoker whose masculine nom de plume seems to have served as an alternate identity. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Sand sings a poignant hymn to the freedom she found when she first doffed her crinolines and unsensible shoes for boots and a boxback coat: “With those steel-tipped heels I was solid on the sidewalk at last. I dashed back and forth across Paris and felt I was going around the world. My clothes were weatherproof too. I was out and about in all weathers, came home at all hours.”

One of her many–usually famous, always male–lovers, the poet Alfred de Musset, addressed her as “mon grand et brave George” (“my great and brave George”). French speakers: note the masculine form of the modifiers. Even more tellingly, in many places in her letters and Intimate Journals (never intended for publication) Sand uses masculine forms in addressing or referring to herself. Gender dysphoria? Or the novelist’s license to, as writer Molly Giles puts it, “speak with all the voices in your head,” including the male ones? Maybe it’s also the social reformer’s conviction that the two halves of humanity must go forward together–in the same psyche, if need be.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Civil War provided unique opportunities for would-be androgynes. One notable attender to the Civil War wounded was the formidable Mary Edwards Walker, the first woman surgeon in the United States Army and still the only woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A pioneer female doctor, Walker was denied a commission as a medical officer when the war broke out. She volunteered anyway, working as an assistant surgeon at the Union front lines. No fan of petticoats, she eventually designed herself some practical drag–a modified male officer’s uniform–to wear in the mud and blood.

After more harrowing 19th-century-guy-type adventures (including a stint as a spy and four months in a Confederate prison), Walker took up the causes of temperance, anti-tobacco, woman suffrage and–dress reform. Calling female dress “immodest,” she often took to the speaker’s platform in full drag, including bow tie and top hat–and got arrested for it more than once.

While Mary Walker may have been equal parts pioneer and prude, Isabelle Eberhardt followed her libido wherever it led. This riot grrrl version of George Sand was born in Switzerland in 1877, converted to Islam at 20 (along with her mother), and hung around Tunisia smoking kif and wrestling (and sleeping) with French soldiers. In 1900 she fell in love with an Algerian soldier named Slimane Ehnni–but not even l’amour could turn her into a girly girl. She adopted men’s clothing and, as “Si Mahmoud Essadi,” joined an all-male Sufi brotherhood. (Apparently, the Sufis weren’t fooled–just impressed by Isabelle’s willingness to live like a man.) She married Ehnni in 1901, wrote for an anarchist paper in Algiers, meddled in colonial politics, and was swept to her death in a freak flash flood in 1904. Whew! She was 27.

Eberhardt’s willingness to cross the gender divide both reflected and furthered her ravenous appetite for adventure in the big world. The sexual ambiguity of my favorite gender-bender, the great Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno, connects him quietly with his own past in a perpetual act of homage. Ohno, born in 1908, is one of the pioneers of butoh, the highly theatrical and emotional modern dance form that has influenced dance worldwide since it emerged in the ’60s.

The wiry, ethereal Ohno often dances as a woman–an aged coquette or a black-toothed crone who’s half witch, half sad ghost. In Admiring La Argentina (1977) he reincarnates the greatest Spanish dancer of the century, Antonia Merce, called “La Argentina,” who was a friend of Federico Garcia Lorca. Seeing La Argentina dance in Tokyo in 1929 turned Ohno from a gymnastics instructor into a dancer; he once called the performance “the creation of the world.” As he repeats the dance, and others, like his 1981 homage to his mother, Ohno exercises his enormous capacity for gratitude to the powerful women who created him, as a man and as an artist.

A former man, by the way, is now the ruling artist of European pop music. The 1998 winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, the World Cup of Celine Dion-style Europop, is the fabulously named Dana International, representing Israel. Born Yaron Cohen, Ms. International became a woman in 1993. Her nomination for the honor nearly toppled Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition of secular conservatives and Orthodox religious killjoys. But a Eurovision victory is a Eurovision victory; fans danced in the streets back home, and Netanyahu gingerly passed on his congratulations to diva Dana via his media adviser. The government held, and there was even talk of launching a gender-war peace process.

No such controversy surrounds Thailand’s ultrafabulous and very popular “lady-boy” kickboxer, Parinya Kiatbusaba, who, at 16, is cuter and tougher and looks better in makeup than Dennis Rodman. Kiatbusaba is a kratoey, a traditional Thai gay transvestite. Widely accepted in the easygoing Thai culture, kratoeys (or lady-boys) host television talk shows, live in all-lady-boy housing projects, and even march in military parades. What they didn’t do, until Kiatbusaba, was beat supermacho opponents to a bloody pulp in the ring.

In the provinces, he compiled a record of 20 wins–18 by knockouts–and two losses. In his first fight in Bangkok last February, Kiatbusaba (who boxes wearing foundation, lipstick, eye shadow, and pink nail polish) was paired with a bad-ass named Pongsak Sor Bunma. “He will learn that Thai boxing is a game for a real man,” snarled Bunma. The modest Kiatbusaba dissolved in tears when he was told to strip naked for the weigh-in (officials let him keep his briefs on). The bell rang. Five rounds later, the lady-boy had pummeled and outpointed the “real man.” Later he pulled the same trick on a burly Danish boxer. Now he packs Bangkok’s Lumpini stadium for every bout. “Inside, I am a woman,” says Parinya Kiatbusaba.

A very tough woman.

Jon Spayde is a contributing editor of Utne Reader. Research for this article was provided by Natasha Copeland, Erik Dahl, and Chadd Johnson.

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