Not (Entirely) About Ballet: Cherchez Le Fem?
Sometimes, life throws me interesting curveballs (says the boy who knows effectively nothing about baseball).
Recently, life has dumped a lot of stuff about gender and queerness and otherness and so forth in my lap.
This may be a function of the fact that I’m primed to accept that stuff right now: ballet makes me think about this stuff.
I am well aware that, while it appears to be my nature to dance in a rather classically bold, masculine style, the essence of my personality is in many ways decidedly femme.
That creates an interesting tension that I suspect could be harnessed in the name of art (so much of art depends upon interesting tension!), and I’ve been thinking about what I might do with that. You know, besides lying in bed at night and wishing I was good enough to dance with the Trocks.
This has led me to thinking about What It All Means (which usually leads to me throwing my hands up in despair and crying, a la Pippin, “Oh, I’ll never find it! Never, never, never, NEVER!”).
Which, of course, is like an invitation to the Universe — like telling your friend who has access to a university’s paywalled academic journals that you’re curious about climate change, or what have you. You look up from your reverie and find a tidal wave of data rushing your way.
This is super long, so here’s a “More” tag:
Once in a while, I touch on the theme of wondering where I fit in the grand scheme of the world in terms of gender and gender-expression.
It is telling that there is really no official place for feminine men in American queer culture.
Let me be clear: I don’t feel like I don’t exist; I don’t feel as if other people like me don’t exist. I’m just perplexed by the fact that, for all of our existence, we’re somehow a gigantic secret in our own community (even though once, long ago, we were the only visible gay men; we’re still, for better or worse, the only gay men that many straight people “see,” and therein lies part of the root of our problem).
Straight people who don’t know much about gay men somehow assume that all gay men are queeny, effeminate bottoms*. Queeny, effeminate bottoms are the only ones that stand out as “gay” to them — even though their assumption that “queeny,” “effeminate,” and “bottom” always go together is wildly inaccurate, as is, often enough, their ability to tell a refined, graceful straight guy from said queeny, effeminate bottom.
Meanwhile, in the queer community, our existence, perhaps, may be acknowledged, but it’s usually as the butt of a joke or as a depressing stereotype — there’s nothing sadder than an old queen.
We are certainly not acknowledged in any real sense in queer media: there are twinks, bears, otters, wolves, occasional drag queens, and once in a while the stereotypical flaming nelly queen (who is, as far as I can tell, never presented as a real, dynamic, three-dimensional person) … and that’s about it.
I have often referred to myself as a PermaTwink, because I look young and am usually automatically sorted into the “Twink” category by other gay men (except, sometimes, by other twinks).
In reality, I don’t think that label is entirely accurate: in a post about body image from 2010, blogger FemmeGuy pointed out that twinks and femmes are often conflated in queer media.
I think that’s what tends to happen to us in real life, as well — at least, to those of us who fit (or can be shoved into) the “twink” mold.
I think I’m guilty of this myself: I forget that there’s an older, broader category — femme — with which I have always identified and in which I fit and will continue to fit even when I’m 80 and only centenarians will be able to legitimately regard me as a twink.
But as a femme gay guy, I’m sometimes invisible even to myself, so I fall into the habit of classifying myself as I am often classified by other people — that is, as a twink. (To be fair, I do sometimes rather perversely enjoy shocking the tar out of guys who assume all twinks are empty-headed bunnies with pretty eyes and nothing to say.)
In short, when we look for images of ourselves — images that aren’t scathing mockeries — we’re handed images of twinks.
Not that there’s anything wrong with twinks (no matter what anyone says) — it’s just that it’s not the same thing.
One can be femme and a twink, but neither the statement “femme = twink” nor its transitive (which is slightly different in nuance, because this isn’t maths, after all) “twink = femme” is accurate. One can be a femme who is not a twink; one can be a twink and be butch — the variations are infinite.
To conflate them is like asserting “chocoholic = pizza fanatic.” The statement may be true sometimes, but will also often be untrue, and can be untrue in many different variations.
Never mind that there are plenty of femme gay guys in the world; never mind that there are, in fact, plenty of guys who are into femme guys — we just plain don’t acknowledge those realities.
To do so skates dangerously close to the edge of the thin ice of masculinity upon which we still, in this supposedly enlightened era, insist our validity as a subset of the human species rests.
In short we tacitly feel that, if we acknowledge the femmes in our ranks, we grant validity to the spewings of homophobic bigots who conflate us all with outdated stereotypes.
Our tacit feeling is, in fact, incorrect — but our history makes us afraid of even appearing to grant validity to those who would dearly love to shove us back into our closets or worse.
And then … those outdated stereotypes are deeply rooted in misogyny — in the pervasive, inarticulate sense that women are “less than,” and that men who act or seem like women in any way sacrifice their own value.
Isn’t it about time we got over that?
To further complicate matters, what guys say and what they do are two different things.
My own experience feels like pretty solid proof.
I am unambiguously a pretty boy; unambiguously androgynous (boy, there’s a phrase).
At the same time, I tend to command a fair bit of attention in queer contexts — and I don’t think it’s just because of the whole “dancer’s poise” thing**.
This might just be because twink-worship apparently knows no bounds, even among people who claim to despise twinks.
I don’t think that’s all of it, though: I suspect that unaffected, confident androgyny is one of the keys to my charm. Mystery is attractive to the human animal, and there is mystery in being able to walk that line.
It seems worth noting that the confidence that makes my femme-ness work has its roots in a terrible beginning. My first experience with my own sense of myself as a gay boy was disastrously bad — the kind of bad that leaves deep physical and emotional scars; the kind of bad that can wreck a young life, and did wreck mine for a very long time.
However, it also left me with the sense that I was attractive, even compelling, specifically because I was an androgynous femme-boy: that in the Order of Things, that was how it should be.
I feel I should mention the flipside, the staggering costs: more then a decade spent looking over my shoulder. An eating disorder which still plagues me. A long-standing belief, only slowly eroding even now, that my consent would never be considered a relevant question: that I should never say yes, but that actively refusing would accomplish nothing except to make it hurt worse in the end. The friendships and relationships that might have been so much better if I hadn’t been such a mess.
Regardless, somehow — through all of the fallout — there remained within me a sense that my nature was somehow desirable; a sense which has largely been borne out by experience (but perhaps wouldn’t have been, if I hadn’t been, as FemmeGuy puts it, “an adorable boy”).
Maybe the guys who have watched me and flirted with me in the ensuing years would argue that they don’t perceive me as femme … but I don’t see how. I may not be a walking stereotype, but like I said … unambiguously androgynous. I don’t see how anyone could miss it.
Or, well, I didn’t before I read FemmeBoy’s article and realized that “femme,” “androgyne,” and “twink” all get tossed into one vat. Maybe that’s it, right there.
And, yet, I still feel that people like me are invisible in a specific way: our existence is never acknowledged. Likewise, just because some guy is happy to leer at me for hours on end doesn’t mean he’d ever stoop to acknowledge an attraction to femme guys. G-d forbid.
So, at the end of the day, I don’t feel invalidated so much as just … perplexed.
Perplexed that my reality is never represented in fiction, in art, in media; that I’m part of a broad-but-apparently-invisible demographic. We femme guys are like the Voldemort of the queer community: everyone is terrified to speak our name.
I should amend this: in fiction, at least, it’s not quite never. Bagoas, the narrator of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy is, in a sense, a glorious depiction of someone in whom I feel an echo that I find nowhere else (he, however, would probably not describe himself as femme) — but, on the balance, people like me are just missing.
It’s jarring: it’s as if someone presented a painting as literal realism, but left the windows off of the houses or something, then couldn’t grasp why you didn’t feel that the painting was realistic. Like part of the picture is missing, but nobody wants to admit it.
It’s not that I feel like I don’t exist because I’m not represented. I definitely exist. Rather, it’s as if we — the “community” of gay-male-type-people — have carefully described a boundary beyond which no queer author or filmmaker or advertising exec or pornographer or what have you dares to pass.
And the reality behind my relationship — that it thrives in part because I’m a femme guy? I don’t think that concept has ever been directly explored even in the most literate of queer literature***.
I suppose that, in part, the topic is taboo because it’s almost too volatile to touch — get it even a little bit wrong, and you’ll be lambasted for playing to stereotypes.
Heck, get it right, and chances are still good that you’ll be lambasted for playing to stereotypes.
I suppose I’m lucky in that I can always tap the “semi-autobiographical novel” defense if, some day, I should encounter that challenge.
I’ll be the first to admit that, given a cursory examination, my relationship looks like a living, breathing stereotype: older, apparently “straight-acting” breadwinner dude married to younger, androgynous dude who looks after the house and does all the cooking and (because apparently things aren’t obviously stereotyped enough yet) paints his nails and is a ballet dancer.
Curiously, this all circles back to ballet. I’ve touched, before, on the weird allergy that occasionally crops up in the ballet world to acknowledging the reality that something like 50% of male dancers are, in fact, quite gay, and not all of us are exactly models of masculinity (nor do we all care to be).
The source is different — the shortage of male dancers is pretty much an unending crisis in ballet, and there’s a sense that the fear of being perceived as gay or effeminate is what keeps the guys away in droves.
And then, that’s not so different after all, is it?
At the end, both these problems are essentially rooted in that pervasive ideal that values things associated with masculinity over those associated with femininity (the same system that says, “You go, girl!” when a girl decides to become an engineer, but “What the crap? You could do so much better than that!” when she [or her brother] decides to become a homemaker).
Last year, my favorite piece in Louisville Ballet’s Choreographers’ Showcase was by Sanjay Saverimuttu, who choreographed a piece that turned the typically rigid gender roles of ballet on their ears. The piece that he made was beautiful in its own rite, but its message was also beautiful: that body is not destiny; that gender roles can be fluid without everything breaking down and becoming incoherent.
That we don’t have to be afraid of each-other.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Even though it’s five years old, FemmeGuy’s post crystallized so much of my own nebulous sense of displacement that I really kind of want to go all thread-necromantic and thank him.
I have a lot more, I think, to write about this at some point. I feel like I’ve said enough for now.
Posted on 2015/10/09, in balllet, life, queer and tagged femme boys, gender roles in ballet, on being bizarrely invisible sometimes, queer. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.
It’s an interesting subject. I wrestled with gender issues as a kid and a teen because I didn’t quite fit into the gender box. To be honest, it’s what drew me to dance, but like you, I prefer dance in a more manly way, although I do admit loving the more beautiful and graceful combinations (and I did dance in drag in our Nutcracker Gone Wild performance a couple of years ago).
Maybe there is a place for more dance roles that go beyond gender boundaries.
I do find it interesting that most of the gay men I’ve been in class with, or performed with, don’t fit the dreaded stereotype that keeps more men from dancing.
To be honest, what people thought of me chased me from ballet not long after I graduated from college. I regret that. I returned at 39, and every once in a while I think about the time I missed.
It isn’t easy being a feminine man in the straight world, much less in the gay world.
I confess to being a little “femme” myself. I went through a period as a teen and as a young adult wondering if I were transgendered, if that doesn’t sound crazy. I’ve spent a lot of time hiding who I really am because of it.
I hope you can find a way to channel that through your art. I do admire your boldness.
First, thank you so much, Scott, for your brave and thoughtful response!
Next … Wow, very interesting! Having read your blog a bit, I had never guessed that you were a feminine straight guy (I mean, I knew you were a straight guy, just didn’t really think about the other bit). To be fair, I can be fairly dense about other human beings ^-^
If anything, I think it’s actually harder even to be a feminine straight guy than a feminine gay guy … there’s a kind of double-invisibility shield — the outside world assumes any guy who is feminine at all must be gay, while the gay world is like, “Femme guys? Never heard of them. Except for those obnoxious queens over there; ignore them.”
It doesn’t sound crazy at all that you wondered as a teen if you might be transgendered — I think, actually, for feminine guys it’s almost the culturally-mandated response.
Girls get more leeway (“tomboys” are very much expected to grow up to be women, and not even necessarily lesbians, whereas feminine boys are automatically assumed to be out there somewhere either in Queerland or TransgenderLand). For guys, if we feel even a little out of alignment, so to speak, it’s like we’re pushed into asking ourselves some really intense questions.
I had my own weirdness about that due to being intersexed — like, for a long time, the standard approach to handling IS kids was “chop off any unusual bits and raise them as girls.” I was lucky enough to escape that fate, but for a long time there was (and occasionally still is!) a part of me that kept sort of looking over its shoulder, waiting for the Gender Police to show up and tell me that I was in violation of some ordinance and had to live my life as a girl.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with girls. Girls and women are awesome; I like them, and most of my friends are ladies … but I’m still not one.)
Being drawn to ballet as a function of being a non-standard guy makes a lot of sense — even in its manliest moments, ballet is still graceful and courtly in a way that men in North America aren’t really allowed or expected to be. That’s one of the things I particularly love about David Hallberg — he’s long and lean and graceful, and yet when he’s dancing the classical male roles, he embodies an aristocratic masculine grace that we seem to have, as a culture, forgotten about.
One of our principles at Louisville Ballet, Mark Krieger, also really embodies that — and does it in a much beefier body than Hallberg’s. I’ll have to see if I can find some video of him; I’m sure there’s some out there.
Okay, this reply is now almost as long as my original post, so I’m going to shut up … but thank you, again, for your reply, and thank you for saying you admire my boldness!
By the way, for what it’s worth, I really kind of love ballet drag (hence my fascination with the Trocks), and I love the idea of Nutcracker Gone Wild 😀
Edited because, for some reason, I typed “Matt Krieger” instead of “Mark Krieger.”
I’ve pretty much been in stealth mode most of my life, and haven’t been open about it. As a kid, I was more comfortable around girls, and to this day, more comfortable around women. But don’t get me wrong, there are things about being a guy that I like.
But yeah, there is sort of a double-standard. Very few raise an eyebrow about girls being tomboys. A girl plays baseball, and people think it’s cute. But let a boy join the color guard (which is what I seriously thought about doing in high school, but chickened out) and woah, there is something wrong with him. And trust me, my old man about died when I started taking ballet and jazz as a teenager.
I was going to mention, one of the coolest dances I’ve seen was in college. It was choreographed by my modern teacher for a feminist women’s conference. There were five dancers, including one guy. He wore the same dress and leo as the girls, and had the same choreography. It was a beautiful piece.
And as for Nutcracker Gone Wild, I joked with the artistic director about crashing the mother’s dance in the party scene and didn’t think he took me seriously when he was looking for ideas to make it comedic. I found out otherwise in rehearsal.
My wife in the party scene was a lesbian and a little butch (her daughter was in the show). She loved the idea of us switching places. I found dancing in a hoop skirt to be quite a challenge.
I’m so with you on that last point about ballet’s refusal to acknowledge gay men. One of my least favorite defenses of boys in ballet is the “no homo” defense (often with some bonus misogyny). Growing up, I heard a lot adults tell boys who do ballet to respond to “that’s gay” comments by replying that they spend their days surrounded by hot girls in tights that they get to touch. Now I can hardly blame a kid for saying what he has to say to get through middle school, but it always bothered me that:
a) People care more about disassociating ballet from “gay” than dissociating “gay” from “bad.” (What if that kid is gay?)
b) As one of the girls in tights, these statements made me feel objectified and uncomfortable.
c) I also liked girls, but certainly wasn’t coming to ballet class to check people out. I would be pretty offended if someone suggested otherwise—so why should it be different for boys, who are also probably coming to class for the purpose of actually learning ballet?
On another note, I recently read part of a book called “A Queer History of the Ballet” for a dance history class, and ballet’s gender roles haven’t always been as rigid (or at least not rigid in the same ways) as they have been recently. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in a some more historical examples of ballet and queerness/gender-bending.
Thank you for commenting!
This is so well said on all points — you have beautifully articulated all the stuff that I am forever trying to say to people and can’t figure out how to talk about.
You hit on such a crucial point, here — the misogyny involved in the “but you get to dance with hot girls!” argument always seems to be completely overlooked (even when the homophobia inherent in the argument is recognized). I don’t know that I ever even really thought about it in those terms, before, but that’s such an important component of why that whole argument is problematic. And you’re also dead right — I think most people who make it back to class more than once or twice really are there, in fact, to learn ballet. It’s too demanding a pursuit for things to be otherwise.
Misogyny in ballet still really bends my brain. It feels like there should be so much less of it, because there are so many women in ballet, and so many more women than men in so many of the audiences these days, and yet so much of the art form is still controlled and shaped by men (and, curiously, the ones running the show often seem to be the straight ones) and misogyny remains disturbingly pervasive. I suppose the arts, for all their ability to test the boundaries, remain in some ways a microcosm of the cultures that surround them … but, argh. We could be doing so much better.
Likewise the point about dissociating ballet from “gay” rather than “gay” from “bad.” That precisely sums up something that’s been bothering the living daylights out of me, and I haven’t been able to articulate it at all.
The question “What if the kid is gay?” is so important, also — given that something like 50% of danseurs in the professional ranks are, in fact, gay, that suggests that ballet still holds a special attraction for gay boys (or perhaps simply less revulsion than it does for straight boys?). Even if someone uses the “no homo” approach addressing a boy who is decidedly straight, the gay boy standing next to him is still receiving the unspoken message that ballet needs to distance itself from queerness, and therefore that to be queer is to be undesirable … and this, in the art that is purported to be a haven for gay boys.
I will definitely have to dig up “A Queer History of the Ballet” — that really sounds like something I should read, and also like something I’d probably enjoy immensely.
It’s really cool, by the way, to talk to a woman in ballet who isn’t straight. I suspect that “non-straight female ballet dancer” is probably the most-overlooked demographic in the entire universe of dance (and possibly in the entire universe, period) — which is really unfortunate for a million reasons I would try to articulate if I wasn’t about to keel over from exhaustion.
In other news, you write beautifully, your blog is awesome, and I must agree that fake Arabic food is one of the world’s great comfort cuisines (the real thing is also awesome, of course, but in a different way).
You know, I’ve read/heard a lot about the lack of female leadership, but I’ve actually never heard someone bring up the point about female audiences–really good point. I get that having a lot of female dancers doesn’t necessarily translate to female leadership–the scarcity of men can make them more valued, and lots of predominantly female professions have mostly men in leadership–but you’d think that more women in the audience would change things, since it doesn’t really fit the pattern of “female bodies arranged by men for the male gaze” which some people argue that ballet falls into.
And yes, I would love it if the world started acknowledging the existence of queer female dancer 🙂
Glad you like my blog!