Friday, February 13, 2015

Priestly Goth, Goth Androgyny, and Gender Queer

Once years ago, my friend Robyn asked me about my pastoral and sub-culture identity and how they fit together. Robyn asked "would you consider yourself a goth priest or a priestly goth?" I couldn't answer right away. Robyn has a way of asking a question that opens up a moment for exploring what, on one's own, one wouldn’t have thought needed examination.  As the title of this blog and much of my presence on the internet shows I eventually came back with the answer priestly goth.: the church and my call and sacramental role qualified yet was informed by my goth identity, my goth identity didn't qualify and ground my pastoral role.  Robyn also was at the root of another piece to the puzzle of my identity: through Robyn I first came across the term gender queer and first met those who so identified.  One birthday dinner for Robyn, my wife, Kate, and I came in our goth regalia (it was a celebration); Kate in pink hair and teased and in black and pink (possibly a ruffed skirt), I in skirt, platform boots and fishnets (I was probably also wearing makeup and my nails may have been painted).  Friends of Robyn came who identified as gender queer. At some point in the course of the evening Kate and I were asked "Do you identify as gender queer?"  We looked at each other, both shrugged and answered "No, we identify as goth."  There was laughter, and the conversation moved on to other things. Kate and I were taken back that our presentation as goth drew the question about our being gender queer. Though, as I thought about it for myself, part of what drew me to the goth scene was the place of androgyny within the goth subculture.

This story begins with goth and gender queer because the dance floor in a goth club has been (still is) a space where I simply can be myself, no questions or labels asked.  Though it wasn't the only spaces where I could be.  My marriage to Kate has been a space where I have (as the above anecdote shows) been able to explore goth androgyny in terms of fashion.  What the question about identifying as gender queer began in me was exploring what it was about goth identity that appealed to me beyond my sense of melancholy and eclectic aesthetic.  I began to ask what my attraction to androgyny might mean for my gender identity and sexual orientation.

I suppose that exploration began long before, as Kate and I dated and then were engaged: during that time we talked about re-inventing heterosexuality.  We would talk together about men we found attractive. In one conversation about male movie stars, I explained to her why Russel Crowe was attractive (Kate couldn't understand why he was seen as attractive).  As Kate went to fashion school and then began designing and costuming she first encouraged me to wear skirts and eventually made me skirts and kilts. Also, I didn't mind shopping with Kate.  We could talk about men, makeup, and fashion.

As things moved toward our engagement, I told my parents we were thinking marriage, my mom told me that she and dad had always wondered if I was gay and that they were glad I had found someone.  I had suspected that my parents thought this, but they had never attempted to discourage those things in me that made them suspect I was gay, nor feel ashamed for being who I was. My parents weren't/aren't LGBTQ allies by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, decisions they made around my own gender expression and identity and emerging sexuality as I grew up, set them apart from their peers and fellow Christians. I'd even say that my parents came to value what also concerned them: For instance my mom would recognized not only my artistic bent and sense of aesthetics, she would also ask me if the colors of a piece of clothing matched something she already had. Mom, also bragged about her son’s interest in fashion (which neither of my parents cared much about as adults, though apparently my father did as a teenager, wearing a zoot suit and bracelet, as he told my mom once when she remarked on a bracelet I was wearing).  As a child I liked to play with dolls and tended not to be interested in sports, and often wanted to play with the girls rather than with the boys.  My parents defended these traits to others and not only showed no overt reaction in my presence, but largely insulated me from the criticism of adults.  Like the dance floor of the goth club, my parents created a space for me to be who I was (more or less, though somehow I knew asking to wear a skirt or tights would have gone over like a lead balloon).

The down side of this is that while my gender identity has never been decidedly male or masculine and sexual orientation more bi then straight or gay, in relation to my parents, I had very little need to articulate what all this internal experience was or might be.  Of course the nomenclature of “bi” and “gender queer” wasn’t available to me growing up.  I first encountered the concept and nomenclature of bi-sexuality in college. For these and other reasons labels are difficult for me to claim or own.  However, not engaging these labels and concepts isn't good or helpful, either.

This is what I've come to as I worked all this out from that question of the relationship between goth androgyny and gender queer.  As I reflected on that question I realized that I have always been attracted to both men and women (more women than men).  If I must use a label here, I'd say that I'm bi-sexual. Though, I don't feel a strong connection to that identity, in part I suppose because I've made my commitment and vow to Kate, a woman, and I intend to keep that vow. Yet, that vow created a space to come to admit my bi-sexuality.  This means that  “bi” does articulate that I do currently find certain types of men sexually attractive, but it is also only about possibility that wasn't and won't be.  In high school and college, If men I was attracted to were in my social circle, I generally turned that crush into an intense or close friendship (that didn't always work out).  This wasn't that different than my relationship with women, I dated few women other than Kate and tended to prefer friendship to romantic involvement.  The difference was that friendships with men I was attracted to weren't going to go anywhere sexually or romantically it wasn't possible to marry a man (as I understood things), and with women with whom I was friends, it was possible it could turn romantic and sexual, I could marry a woman.  Not having thought of myself as bi, it puzzled me why men would often hit on me at the goth club (more often than women), now I see that those men probably were picking up on what I wasn't admitting to myself, and had no means to admit to myself.

Even so sexual orientation is only part of my story, and this connects with androgyny and gender queer.  I find this aspect of myself trickier with regards to labels and language we currently use.  Though looking back on being asked if I identified as gender queer, the person asking the question wasn't entirely wrong to read the markers of goth as having kinship with gender queer.

I've long had a conflictual relationship with masculinity and male gender expression. This has a long history in my life. On the lighter side of things, I have a deep and primordial dislike for the suit. I'm told that as a toddler it was always a struggle for my parents to get me into the hand-me-down toddler suits on Sundays for church.  For some reason though I would grudgingly wear them if I could choose which suit I was to wear that Sunday, as far as I know no one thought to offer dresses or skirts as an option. I have no memory of this and only know it through family stories.  What I do remember is from about 4 or 5 wishing I could wear tights and skirts. (frilly dresses, and ruffles never interested me, I didn't really long to be a princess.)  I was interested in women's clothes and I helped mom pick out her cloths on shopping trips.  I would consult her on what colors looked good on her and what would match other items in her closet at home.  This was more than about clothing, clothing was an expression of something more.  I also, preferred to play with girls.  I remember that at times it wouldn't matter that I was a boy, but invariably I would be excluded. It would be announced that boys were now not welcome, and they went off to do girl things.  I didn't think I was really a girl or felt my male sex and anatomy wasn't who I was, I just felt it didn't define me fully.  I didn't always relate to those who were of my same sex, and felt more comfortable among those with whom I didn't share the same genitals.  I suppose one could say that I'm male who strongly identifies with the feminine.  I relate to Eddie Izzard's bit on the sexuality of the Transvestite as “male lesbian…" and "…Running , jumping , climbing up trees and putting on makeup while you’re up there." (Unlike Eddie Izzard I don't have "tit envy"). Gender queer and androgyny comes closest because I feel I'm a mix with slightly more emphasis on the male and masculine ( I do like my beard). In terms of fashion and physical presentation I feel most at home when marker of masculine and feminine mix together, perhaps with women's fashion trumping men's fashion.  This lines up with my sexual orientation which is a mixture of attractions.  

The labels available to me, still don’t wear well, and seem ill fitting.  However, I hate personality tests, whether Meyers-Briggs or Enneagram, etc.: the results of these tests never feel completely true or fitting for my internal experience.  So, it's perhaps not surprising that when it comes to my sexuality and gender identity that this sense that general categories and labels are ill fitting, also holds true.  Gender Queer with various sexual attractions may work. Though, if you ask “Do you identify as gender queer?” I might still answer "No, I identify as goth.", a priestly goth (how and where this all fits into faith, spirituality, and being a pastor must wait for another post).