A few weekends ago, I participated in a Drag King Workshop called Wo(Man) Up! that was part of the 2013 Wits Pride events and facilitated by Claire Jaynes. This is a picture of me after I got home, and had peeled off the meters of sticky bandage tape that had bound my breasts (miraculously) to near invisibility. I wanted to capture an image of myself in the liminal space between manhood and womanhood.
It was a Saturday morning, a time which I usually reserve for mundane chores like laundry or grocery shopping. But not that day!
After hours of wrapping, packing, cutting, gluing, and shading, our group of 6 female-identified participants had transformed ourselves into men. Not men that we would necessarily want anything to do with, or who we would find attractive, or who are like us, or who would even like us. But, just men that we created for ourselves from clothes, hair, makeup, socks, and bandages, and ego.
After we had become “manly” enough to be ‘read as’ (i.e. “pass” as men), we emerged from the workshop room and entered the semi-public space of the university campus. We started with a photo shoot by some suitably “masculine” objects – interestingly, objects of the built environment are those which we gravitated towards. A staircase and a large piece of machinery. Our choice in objects to pose next to that would reflect or even enhance our “masculinity” is revealing. The dominance of men in Engineering around the world and here, at Wits where we were standing, holds the relevance of the age old saying – “It’s a mans world”.
After a dozen or so pics of us doing “manly” things like smoking, showing our physical strength, sitting with our legs wide open, and looking “serious”, we took a stroll around the campus, practicing our masculine walks. At one point on our walk, it occurred to me that I had started feeling aggressive, and like I just wanted to “fuck someone up”, as I said to the King next to me.
“I feel like I want to fuck someone” (s)he replied.
And so we walked across campus. We entered Senate House, the grandest of buildings on campus. There was quite a crowd there for a Saturday – mainly middle class looking white people, young and old. We walked inside. There were girls everywhere. Girly girls. Girls wearing bedazzled and blinged spandex costumes in a rainbow of bright colors. It was a beauty pageant or dance competition of some sort.
In an instant, we were juxtaposed to the Western patriarchal ideal of femininity. Glittery, playful, and ornamental. While I have the utmost respect for people who hone their crafts and participate in the arts, this was a startling encounter. Suddenly, someone said (maybe it was me!) that everyone there probably thought we were a bunch of perverts – why would we be there? After deciding to give the opportunity of social intervention a miss (it was suggested that we go and inquire if we could join the competition) we left.
As we continued to walk, it suddenly struck me that not was I just any man. I was a white man. Privilege was my middle name and it oozed out of me – my careless yet assured gate, posture, grungy 90’s “class-blind” look, and sense of ownership of the space as a man. The sense that my body was carrying centuries of injury, violence, exploitation, and death when presented as a man washed into my consciousness. I started to feel quite disgusted with myself and I was frustrated. While I had found a temporary escape from femininity into a masculine fantasy world, I had become a white man. And even if I were to be read as a white gender-queer person, my whiteness is always there, shaping my view of the world and everyone else’s view of me.
Gender is a performance. In presenting myself as a man, I realised that it was a matter of techniques and accessories. I wear makeup everyday in performing my femininity. In preparing to perform as a man that day, I applied the same makeup, although to different places on my face. While I usually trim hair off as a women, I was merely adding it as a man. And, while I wear socks on many days, on that day, they were simply not on my feet. If the performances of masculinity and femininity vary in such superficial ways, perhaps this is why people go to such extremes to project these gender identities.
When I told people that I was going to participate in this Drag King workshop, they doubted my abilities to “pull off” masculinity. I learned that it didn’t really take much other than a few techniques and accessories to project manliness. Realizing that the difference between being read as a man or as a woman is a matter of sock, hair, and makeup placement, I had a kind of gender-identity vertigo or disorientation.
It takes a lot of courage to defy the gender binary. That Saturday, I had merely a whiff of what it takes to do this on a daily basis. Because our society is so heavily invested in the gender binary, projecting a gender identity that does not conform to social expectations can be dangerous and fatal.
The Man from Nowhere showed me even more why the gender binary has ruined all of our lives.
I left the experience wishing that society was more open to diversity, difference, and surprise. Why should it be that our sexed and gendered bodies are read strictly through the frame of “Moralism” in Western society? Why is The Man From Nowhere effectively banished from society? I have a feeling he has more lessons in store…