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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:

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Allegiances, Language, and Space

Like the mad, socially-conscious Yankee intellectual I was raised to be, I often find myself thinking about language.

Specifically, I think about how to use words in ways that will be empowering, rather than disempowering; unifying, rather than divisive; kind, rather than unkind.

Sometimes, this gets sticky — especially when it comes to speaking with compassion as an ally.

Whether we realize it or not, privilege colors how people in the world hear the words we use: our privilege and lack thereof, as well as their privilege and lack thereof (note that I write “and,” not “or,” because privilege is not an absolute; most of us experience a mixture of privilege and its opposite). 

If I call myself queer, anyone who hears me brings internal nuance to the table.   Some will hear that I choose that word because I’ve internalized the homophobia of the culture that surrounds me; some, that I’m reacting against that homophobia through lexical reclamation; some, that I don’t fit crisply into other categories; some, that I can myself queer for reasons I haven’t even imagined.  All of them may be right or wrong at the same time and to varying degrees.

Few, however, will argue with my right to choose that word for myself (and I’m happy to kindly debate that point with those who would protest — we may never see eye-to-eye, but usually their intentions are good, and we can at least come to appreciate one anothers’ perspectives).

It gets trickier, though, when I’m talking about someone else.

Take, for example, the word fat.

Burlesque dancer Lillian Bustle makes the brilliant point that fat is just a word, like short or beautiful — other traits which Ms.  Bustle owns with pride.   It’s a word that can be detached from value judgment — unlike, for example, overweight, which by its very linguistic nature underscores the notion that there is a “right” weight, a “right” body size, outside of which people are wrong.  We don’t call tall people overheight, so why call fat people overweight? We’ve tried that, and it hasn’t reduced anti-fat prejudice one iota.   Why don’t we simply decouple the word fat from its harmful connotations?

I think Ms. Bustle makes a brilliant point.   I agree with her whole-heartedly.  I love her spirit of reclamation.  Her words were, in fact, instrumental in my process of beginning to deal with my own deeply-seated, deeply-denied fat phobia.

And yet.

And yet, as someone who lives in a body of the type that is currently privileged in our culture, I hesitate to fly that banner.

I’m carrying it, don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy to unfurl it when I’m pretty sure that I won’t cause further harm that way — but believe me, I look around first to make sure I’m not going to poke sometime in the eye.

In short, when a skinny person — especially a skinny guy, because there are extra layers of complexity associated with gender — uses the word fat to describe someone else, no matter how sound his intentions, he risks inflicting unintended pain.

Even if the subject of his words identifies as fat, even if she embraces that word, she probably still hears it used as an insult all the time (by analogy, someone like me, in my locale, might feel the same about the word fag). 

It can be hard to glean what someone’s intentions are, and even well-meaning people harbor unexamined prejudices.  So if I’m trying to describe someone to another person and I say, “He’s a tall, fat guy with curly hair and piano hands,” it’s possible that it’ll sound like I’m making a value judgment about body size, even if it’s a salient characteristic for identifying the person in question.

The fact that I’m a skinny dude makes it more likely, I suspect, that prejudice will be inferred.  That’s not unreasonable: inferences of that kind are generally based upon past experience, which is an imperfect predictor of future experience, but still the best one we have.  People of a socially-sanctioned body size probably are more likely to feel justified in using the word “fat” as an insult.

While I can’t control how other people hear me, the onus is upon me to try to words compassionately. It gets kind of weird, though, in territory that’s still in the earliest phases of reclamation.  It’s possible reduce harm by thinking before I speak, but there will still be misunderstandings.

I think it’s important to shake things up, linguistically speaking. 

It’s good to reclaim words; it takes tools out of the hands of oppressors without adopting oppression as a tool.  Likewise, it affords us freedom in identifying ourselves; in describing ourselves.  Perhaps most importantly, it often affords us a route away from formulations (non-white, overweight, non-traditional marriage) that, intentionally or otherwise, bear implications of compromised worth and reinforce the idea that average (or in the case of body size in the US, below average) is inherently better.  

Prefixes like non-, over-, and under- imply the existence of an accepted standard — and value judgment is inherent in all standards.   That’s the nature of standards, and that’s okay — when we’re talking about things that really benefit from being standardized, like astronomical measuring devices and medical equipment.  

Human beings, though?   Human worth is inherent.  While reality sometimes makes it difficult, we do justice to one-another when we use words that reflect that worth; words that don’t imply that one is less correct simply because one is in some way different from a group that has been designated as a standard.

But it’s not always easy to do, nor does it always come off without a hitch.  

The same can be said for wandering into safe spaces belonging to disenfranchised groups — the hierarchy of relative privilege gets sticky.  I’m not always sure how to manage that, either.

I suspect nobody is.   We all have the basics: listen, be compassionate, don’t be a jerk.   The devil, as always, is in the details. Sometimes, our best efforts still go awry.   Sometimes, we poke people in the eyes with the banners we’re unfurling in solidarity.

I guess, in the long run, this is a pretty good problem for a culture to have: a better one than that of knee-jerk prejudice and socially-sanctioned oppression (not that those are entirely gone, by any means).

I’m still working on all this stuff.   If I’m actually a good human being, I’m be working on it, with greater or lesser focus, til the day I die.

I like to think of this as a mitzvah — an extension of tikkun olam, repairing the world.   I can work to undo injustices I have done, and I can work with others to right injustices that began long before I was born.  I can look at that as an onerous duty or as a joy (hence the word mitzvah, literally “commandment” or “obligation,” but also an opportunity for human kindness, for justice, for celebration of the divine spark in ordinary things).

My efforts at likely to be flawed — after all, I’m human — but with successive approximations, I can improve not only my life, but the world around me …  without, I hope, giving out too many pokes in the eye.

Aggregated Thoughts

First, it’s Digital Book Day, peoples, so go get your free digital books! Who knows — you might discover a new favorite author.

If you get an “Error establishing a database connection” message, be patient. Some of the categories (mystery and thrillers in particular) seem to be pretty overwhelmed, but once you get a given category to load, you can ctrl-click or right-click > open in new tab/window (or however Mac users do it) and the individual pages for books load fine (they’re on different sites — so far, I’ve downloaded maybe four or five promising titles from Smashwords and two from Amazon).


Second, it seems that everybody but me considers the word “twink” to be an insult. Who knew?

Last year, Thomas Rogers contributed a thoughtful article to The Awl about twinks, what the world thinks of them, and what happens after they outgrow their category.

As someone who both self-identifies as a sort of permatwink (or am I a “party ferret?”) and tends to be perceived as such by the world at large, I found Mr. Rogers’ article to be both informative and thought-provoking. I honestly had no idea that basically the entire gay universe assumes that “twink = walking disaster area” is a natural law, but there you have it.

I should say that I self-identify as a kind of permatwink in a way that perhaps doesn’t align neatly with all assumptions about what “twink” means: I am not a slave to fashion. I am not … okay, well, not always … a disaster area. I would say I’m not a party boy, but in fact I do like going to parties and clubs and dancing — but that’s where I draw the line. I am a sort of chaste, mostly-sober party boy, I guess. Yawn?

The thing is, I suspect the same can be said for a lot of us who get sorted into the “twink” slot — perhaps especially those, like me, who wind up there by default, because they are slim and hairless and young or young-looking and playful and like to dance and don’t particularly feel any need to change any of those things. Seriously. I embrace my twinkhood, but it’s not because I’m trying to be a twink. I just am what I am. If the label fits, wear it.

Re-reading bits of Mr. Rogers’ article on twinkhood (yeah, you’re right, it does feel weird to say that) and how maybe we should evolve our assumptions about it (check out Rogers’ list of Important Historical Twinks!), it occurred to me that a lot of the behavior that we attribute to some kind of defect endemic to the twink population is, in fact, simply young-people-trying-stuff-out-and-sometimes-getting-it-wrong behavior.

We sort of expect adolescents and young adults to try on different identities, experiment with different form of self-expression, and basically ride the failboat all the way to Failtopia. Mostly, we kind of roll our collective eyes and say, “Oy vey, I hope they grow out of that.” We assume that they’re doing stupid crap because they’re, you know, young. Basically, we sort of assume they’re inexperienced and still figuring it out.

Meanwhile, when twinks do stupid crap, we evidently assume it’s because they’re, you know, twinks. Basically, we sort of assume that they’re (should I, as a permatwink, say “we’re,” here?) somehow defective human beings who cannot hope to transcend their current mire.

In short, we expect young people to grow out of it. We don’t expect that of twinks … though I don’t know what we do expect of them. Do people expect us to grow into Sad Old Queens? Do Sad Old Queens even exist anymore? If so — beside the discomfort of being Sad — what’s so awful about being Old and a Queen? If there’s one thing the gay male community needs to learn, it’s to honor the elders. Sad Old Queens are, by definition, elders. At least, I think so. I guess it depends on what you mean when you say “Old.”

I’m not going to try to come off all smug and superior here, by the way, like I’m the One Person Who Never Judges The Twinks.

In my experience, while we are eternally the laughing stock of the queer universe, nobody is harder on twinks than twinks. I am as guilty of this as anyone, I guess. I recognize that when I point out that I’m the chaste and mostly sober twink at the party — the one who doesn’t use recreational drugs, keeps a tight grip on his alcohol use, etc. — and that I’m not some trend-worshiping fashion victim, I’m making value judgments.

Likewise, there are other denizens of the Twinkiverse who would decry me as an uptight, elitist, silver-spoon-fed bore.

Covertly, I am basically saying, “Yeah, I’m a twink, but I’m not like those twinks; those guys have problems.” In fact, they probably do, and so do I, and — here’s the rub — my problems make it much more likely that I will not be a terribly productive member of society (fortunately, I’m a twink, so I’m decorative … right?). Other twinks may seem defective, but they tend to go on to be productive human beings. Meanwhile, I’m struggling with a serious mental illness that will make it much harder for me to contribute my share to the world. So, yeah. There’s that.

At the end of the day, though, other guys are still going to sort us all into the “twink” box and make all kinds of assumptions about us that probably aren’t correct (or, well, that probably aren’t exhaustive, and that aren’t correct all the time even when they are exhaustive).

Here’s the thing: I don’t think you’d catch a member of the bear community throwing his fellow bears under the bus like I throw other twinks under the bus and so forth. The bears (and their leaner friends, the otters) possess a sense of community; of fellow-feeling that makes them more forgiving of each-others’ faults (though, being pretty much the opposite of a bear, I have only observed bears from the outside, and thus could be totally wrong here.) They certainly don’t seem to do the whole, “Other bears are like x, y, and z, and I’m totally not like that,” bit — which is, by the way, what I just did to my fellow twinks and meta-twinks and permatwinks and whatever the hell else we are these days.

I suspect that lack of community spirit, of coherence and brotherhood, is one of the reasons so many of us — so many twinks, that is — eventually adopt some other queer identity. It’s not just that “twink” appears to be an age-limited category, but because it’s one that includes no built-in community. Maybe that’s because it’s a category one we’ve basically accepted as pejorative, and one that we assign to others far more readily than we assign it to ourselves.

Seriously, I am the only guy I know personally who embraces the word “twink” as a descriptor relevant to his own identity.

In short, every twink is an island.

So, yeah: I grok that I am part of the problem; that I have on more than one occasion attributed someone else’s idiocy to his twinkhood.

And, like Thomas Rogers, I’m really not sure what twinks evolve into (though “party ferret” sounds pretty fun, I’m not sure that’s what I’d want to put on my CV, if I was forced — bizarrely, because why would this ever, ever happen? — to categorize myself according to my place in the spectrum of queerness).

I’m not even sure why we’re so obsessed with categorizing ourselves. I grasp that a lot of our queer sub-categories operate as a kind of mate-finding shorthand, but what makes us extend those categories to the far edges of our identities? (I say this, mind you, as someone whose memberships in the broader categories of “cyclist” and “dancer” extend all the way to the borders of his selfhood and splash out all over the world around me — so maybe a lot of us just really like categories; I don’t know.) What makes us retain them after our mates are, you know, found? Yeah, “twink who likes older guys” was a convenient label when I was single. Now I’m a twink who’s married to an older guy, so……

Anyway, this is something I intend to think about. Who’s afraid of the big bad twink, and why?

Lastly, because this is now a bajillion times longer than I intended it to be, it’s Tour Time and I am once again basically failing to watch the race. I have decided that I am Cycling’s Leastest Fan (yeah, that’s grammatically incorrect, but it scans better, so there).

I peripherally sort of enjoy the thrills and spills of bike racing, but I am apparently not capable of being committed enough to actually watch races if it involves making effort (if Le Tour is on in, for example, a pub where I’m shoving pizza into my maw, then I’ll watch as if hypnotized; I won’t, however, go dig up a feed on the innertubes).

But, anyway: the Tour is happening, so if you’re into watching it, go watch, and let me know what happens, because I can’t be bothered to find out for myself.

That’s it for now.

Sunny side up, and all that.

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