Two and a half years ago, I spoke in Vancouver at Q2Q: A Symposium on Queer Theatre and Performance. After I delivered my paper, I became a focal point for criticism—though not because of my the content of my presentation.
The controversy emerged in the Q&A, when I mentioned the fact that I was not only a gay man, but also a drag queen. Members of the audience stood up and opined about the apparently problematic practice of a white drag queen (like me) lip-synching to “appropriated music”—by which they meant music originally written and performed by non-white artists.
It is undeniably true that drag queens (of all races) have a special affection for the work of divas of colour—and pay homage to these idols by lip-synching. It’s also true that gay and drag entertainment culture is centered in large part around pop music more generally. This is an industry that owes much to musicians of colour, who often have had their work used or co-opted without adequate compensation.
But while this was a fair point for debate, the discussion quickly spiraled off into an entirely different direction. When I tried to defend drag queens from the podium, saying that “camp” culture was an important part of our heritage, a trans member of the audience—a person who asked to be identified as “they”—made a statement that still sticks in my mind.
“Remember that the people who died at Pulse nightclub were listening to appropriated music,” they told the room. The speaker was referring to the June 12, 2016 massacre of 49 innocents at a gay dance club in Orlando, Florida, a tragedy that was then still fresh in everyone’s minds. The victims were queers and queer allies. It stands as one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
I asked them, “Do you mean to say we shouldn’t mourn the queers who were murdered at Pulse nightclub because they were listening to appropriated music?” There was no clear response—silence and a shrug. No one in the room said anything about this completely shocking display.
It occurred to me at that moment that, in this room full of LGBT artists, a trans person could say something with open and obscene homophobic overtones, and not a single person would call them on it. Shocking as this was, it was a harbinger of things to come.
In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, RuPaul said, “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.” The article was meant to emphasize RuPaul’s progressive ideas, being titled Drag is a big f-you to male-dominated culture. Yet RuPaul’s comments were said to elicit “a wave of disappointed anger” from (among other complaining groups) trans performers. Naturally, RuPaul was forced to apologize—for the crime of (as I see it) being a black gay man and a drag queen whose act generally has been created by, and for, gay men.
Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers. pic.twitter.com/80Qi2halN2
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 5, 2018
At Vancouver’s most recent Dyke March, in August, 2018, lesbians wore t-shirts with the word “lesbian” printed over a drawing of a uterus. Naturally, they were accused of hate speech by trans activists, and were banned from their own parade. To be a proud lesbian—in the way that word was defined until about 20 minutes ago—now has become a sort of thoughtcrime. Not just among conservative homophobes, but also among ultra-progressives.
The transgender community is as demographically and ideologically diverse as any other community. And militant trans activists and spokespersons do not represent the views of every trans person. But the increasingly common attacks on gay men and women I’ve witnessed are consistent with emerging strains of transgender philosophy—if that is the right word—which now serve to define the movement’s outwardly expressed political goals. And it’s not hard to see a connection between this homophobia-contaminated militancy and the social contagion sweeping North America, by which students are demanding non-gendered toilets, and young children are demanding body modifications and hormone blockers to support their suddenly expressed trans self-identification.
As a drag queen and a gay man growing up in Canada, I have dedicated most of my life to dismantling traditional notions of gender. I have written plays with titles such as Drag Queens on Trial and Drag Queens in Outer Space. Suffice it to say that these productions did not receive funding from The Heritage Foundation or the Family Research Council.
In 2006, I received a PhD from the University of Toronto, with a doctoral thesis authored on the subject of Noel Coward And “The Queer Feminine.” All my life, I have fought for gender equality, and gender instability—for the right of boys to act like girls and girls to act like boys. And until very recently, I fought to achieve these goals in solidarity with the trans movement. But now I’m beginning to wonder if the trans movement has any use for me—or for any gay man or woman who dissents from that movement’s increasingly radicalized demands of society and of children’s bodies.
Kate Bornstein, an early leader in the trans rights sphere, is one of many theorists who has questioned the very idea of gender as a workable binary category. “I’m what’s called nonbinary, which means not man, not woman,” Bornstein told audience members in a Broadway performance. I have always regarded this notion of a gender nonbinary as inherently corrosive of gay identity—and even homophobic in its implications. A gay man loves and desires other men, and a lesbian desires and loves other women. This defines the existential state of being gay. If there is no such thing as “male” or “female,” the entire self-definition of gay identity, which we have spent generations seeking to validate and protect from bigots, collapses. (I am not being stupidly literal here: This is simply the logical conclusion of the campaign to destroy gender classifications.)
Radicalized theories of transgender identity also now serve to promote the idea that gender and sexuality are not only different, but unconnected. In one narrow sense, there is some basis to this: All men are not sexually attracted to women, and vice versa—which is why separating desire from gender is important. But it’s one thing to say that your gender doesn’t predict who you will be sexually attracted to (which is true), and quite another to say that gender has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality, which (as I will illustrate by way of autobiography later in this essay) is false.
The cultural construction of gender—i.e., our idea of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman—has much to do with not only sex, but also sexuality. Male same-sex desire historically has been associated with femininity. This is because passivity historically has been viewed as a female trait, and it is always assumed that in a gay male sexual encounter, one male plays the passive (feminine) role and the other plays the active (masculine) role.
This fear of passiveness—femininity—in males runs deep, and is unlikely to disappear soon. As acclaimed literary scholar Linda Dowling has written, the “active, masculine” male was relied upon to inseminate the woman—as encoded in all those all-important “begats” in the Bible—as well as to have the brute strength to defend women and family in time of war. The effeminate male, or effeminatus, by contrast, is always “the empty or negative symbol at once of civic enfeeblement and…monstrous self-absorption.”
Even before Oscar Wilde praised his blue china and strutted about wearing a green carnation, feminine men were seen as threatening. And male same-sex desire—in part because of its perceived link to femininity—always has been threatening, too. Same-sex desire among women is less threatening in our culture, but that’s largely because we live in a sexist society where anything women do is devalued more generally. Nevertheless, the idea of women fulfilling themselves sexually without the participation of men is seen as a threat (notwithstanding its representation in pornography). This is but one of many reasons why sex and gender cannot be separated by activist fiat.
I would not be concerned if the application of a theoretical trans activist conception of gender were merely being applied to the self-conception of adults within the transgender community. That’s their choice. In many ways, moreover, the deconstruction of gender that always has been embedded within trans culture historically has offered a healthy counterpoint to gay and lesbian culture. (Notions of gender that accompanied gay liberation in the 1970s, in particular, were too limited, and didn’t represent the full spectrum of human experience.) The world is made up of more than just straights, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals. And before it transformed into dogma in recent years, the idea of a nonbinary gender spectrum did allow sexually active adults the freedom to challenge traditional notions of gender in a playful way. The transsexual (as was then the applied term) theory of “self-identification”—the notion that adults should be empowered to describe their sexuality and gender in a way that felt authentic—represented an important and humane contribution to contemporary culture.
Thinking about the difference (or lack of difference) between sexuality and gender is a coherent exercise for most of us, because most of us already have come to terms with our sexuality and identity by the time we became adults. It’s important for adults to understand, for instance, that a man who dresses as a woman is not necessarily gay. He may be trans, or a drag queen (gay or not), or a cross-dresser, or simply a casual fetishist.
But when it comes to children, that’s another story. The political movements around sexuality and gender that rocked the 1960s—including sexual liberation and gay liberation—were primarily understood as being aimed at adults, in part because sexuality was central to these causes. In their focus on children, by contrast, Trans activists emphasize the conceit that gender has nothing to do with sex or sexuality, and so talking about one’s trans identity is perfectly innocent. Indeed, as soccer-mom chatter on Facebook will attest, straight, bourgeois people often feel more comfortable talking about their kids’ gender dysphoria than about their kids’ homosexuality—because the former is seen as innocent, and the latter is seen as a transference of lust (especially in the case of boys, who still suffer under the stigma of gay males as sex-crazed beasts of the alleyway).
It was only in 1973 that the American Psychological Association (APA) stopped categorizing homosexuality as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This was a well-intended step, but it didn’t do as much as one might think to end homophobia—since many homophobes simply expanded their hatred from homosexuals themselves to the liberal elites who, in their mind, were now running the APA asylum.
In 1980, seven years later, the APA officially recognized a condition called Gender Identity Disorder (GID)—defined as “the disparity between anatomical sex and gender identity.” In 2012, GID was replaced by the trans-approved descriptor “Gender Dysphoria,” which was defined as “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.” None of these semantic changes completely addressed the ongoing pathologizing of feminine boys and masculine girls that takes place in ordinary society. But for many, it did change the nature of this stigmatization. And gender dysphoria gradually has replaced homosexuality as a subject of fascination by clinicians and activists.
Until the latter decades of the twentieth century, if parents caught their son playing with dolls, they might suspect he was gay. And if he grew up to be an adult with same-sex desire, he would go to a psychiatrist to seek help. Now that we have (spuriously) separated sexuality from gender, a parent who catches his boy playing with dolls will take a trip to a psychiatrist—but this time for different reasons: Little he might be a little she. Gender variance was the subject of agitation before 1973, and it is the subject of agitation now. It is just the labels and the way we deal with this agitation that has changed.
In the ’70s, the technique for dealing with adult men who were attracted to other men was behaviourist conversion therapy. This included “Playboy Therapy,” which centered on masturbation. At the crucial point of climax, the suspected homosexual was asked to exchange his fantasies of male bodies with the naked photos of women in Playboy. Such therapy seems totally bizarre to us today, but was quite normal under the paradigm of the old DSM. However, in 1976, Dr. Gerald Davison—the man who invented Playboy Therapy—published an article suggesting that medical practitioners should stop trying to help homosexuals change their desires, and instead should try to help them live with those desires.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote: “Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.” The psychiatrists who treated young men with Playboy Therapy and other forms of homophobic junk science were trying to solve the puzzle of male-on-male desire inside the ruling paradigm of the time, which presupposed such desire as pathological. But the way we discuss trans people shows that we have not truly given up on the idea of pathologizing effeminate men. The old paradigm presented effeminate men as homosexuals who could be cured of their sexual desires. The new paradigm presents effeminate boys as children who can be cured by declaring them girls. And since we have (falsely) decided that their sexuality is irrelevant because they are children and because gender has no relationship to sexuality, proponents can make their case without discussing the off-putting issue of sexual urges. Each child must be raised according to what the child perceives to be their “true gender.”
In some cases, the phenomenon described as gender dysphoria is real and permanent, of course. But giving children the power to decide their true gender—or allowing them to decide that they have no gender whatsoever—makes little sense to me. Children who haven’t gone through puberty lack perspective on the ultimate consequences—both psychological and physical—of their choices. Moreover, since gender and sexuality are linked in real life, it is difficult for any person to understand their identity as a human being (never mind the more narrow category of gender identity) without first experiencing post-adolescent sexual desire.
Giving children the power to act out their gender self-conception through non-traditional gender play—including dressing up and acting out is fine. Indeed, it makes perfect sense. In most cases, I believe, therapists who treat children with gender dysphoria should simply encourage such gender experimentation, without affirming a diagnoses of gender dysphoria that may or may not still exist when they are adults.
As Canadian sexual neuroscience PhD Debra Soh has written, longitudinal studies of gender dysphoric children show that in a majority of cases, non-transitioning children “desist upon reaching puberty and grow up to be gay.” While there is ongoing debate about what studies should and should not be included in such analyses, the argument for caution—as opposed to aggressive affirmation—needs to be part of the public discussion. And one of the reasons it isn’t, I believe, is that the unspoken homophobia embedded within the most uncompromising strains of trans activism exerts itself on our nominally progressive society. That’s why I will raise my voice when drag queens are attacked as bigots, or lesbians are excommunicated from feminist events for saying the U-word.
* * *
I was born a sissy. I was afraid of competitive sports, and afraid of masculine boys. I got into only one fight as a kid, with a boy named Neil Manley (yes, that was his real name) who punched me and gave me a nosebleed. I didn’t fight back. I used to knit clothes for my sister’s Barbie dolls. And I was deeply resentful that she took ballet and I wasn’t allowed.
If someone had told me as a child that I could actually be a little girl, I would have jumped at the chance. Anything to escape the pressure cooker of an active boyhood crammed full of sports and rough play.
But what if, as a child, I had decided to take hormones in order to stave off puberty? What if my penis shrank into my body? Imagine how that would affect me as an adult, when my sexual pleasure—an unknown impulse at the time I was knitting those Barbie-doll clothes—became connected with that penis. It turned out my erotic stimulus came in the form of being a man with other men, something I could never have completely understood as a child. As with legions of other gay men and women, the whole arc of my life only makes sense if one acknowledges the connection between gender and sexual attraction.
If I had self-declared as trans, hormones would have stopped the development of my penis, and there would not be enough sensitive phallic flesh to create a sensitive vagina. This would have been problematic even if I turned out not to be gay, or trans, but simply a straight man whose body now was marked by surgeries and powerful drugs. What if, as an adult, I were only turned on by being a man when I was having sex with a woman—but I now had a female body? How would I feel then?
It is interesting that in some countries—some of the most sexually conservative places on earth, as it happens—it is illegal to be gay or lesbian, but perfectly legal to be trans. This year, India decriminalized gay sex; but they have included transgender people in the national census for the last five years. Conservative Nepal has included transgender people in its public records since 2011. In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. In fact, the Iranian government pays for sex reassignment surgery—because there is a powerful strain of thought that says anything is better than growing up to be a gay man. Unlike Iran, Canada is not a theocracy. Nevertheless, we are more beholden to such bigotries than we would like to admit.
When I was 12 years old, I was terrified of being gay. I knew the sexual implications of my gendered behaviour. I also knew—even at a time before I experienced real sexual desire—that it was “bad” to be gay, and that being gay meant ending up alone and lonely. My mother took me aside, and quietly reassured me: “You might be gay, you might not be, but I think you’ll have to wait until you are older to think about it, because you’re just too young to think about it now.” I’m wondering if, had all this happened in 2019, she would have instead been persuaded to raise me as a girl.
I have issues with my mother. Don’t we all? I have called her names—to her face and in print. I will not repeat them here. But I want to publicly forgive her, now, for whatever I have accused her of, because she had the kindness and grace to respect my budding sexuality as I then perceived it. And she had enough respect for me to say, “You’re just too young” when I wondered what lay in store for my future. If only we all had the courage to say these same words to our own children.
Sky Gilbert is a Canadian writer, actor, professor and drag performer. He teaches creative writing and theatre studies at the University of Guelph. His new book of “anti-essays,” Small Things, was recently published by Guernica Editions.
Featured photo: Drag queen Sandra Love, photographed in 2013 by Iñaki Queralt.