Gender Is Not Just A Performance

Illustration for article titled Gender Is Not Just A Performance

If one more person tells me that "all gender is performance," I think I am going to strangle them.


Perhaps most annoying about that soundbite is the somewhat snooty "I-took-a-gender-studies-class-and-you-didn't" sort of way in which it is most often recited, a magnificent irony given the way that phrase dumbs down gender. It is a crass oversimplification, as ridiculous as saying all gender is genitals, all gender is chromosomes, or all gender is socialization. In reality, gender is all of these things and more. In fact, if there's one thing that all of us should be able to agree on, it's that gender is a confusing and complicated mess. It's like a junior high school mixer, where our bodies and our internal desires awkwardly dance with one another, and with all the external expectations that other people place on us.

Sure, I can perform gender: I can curtsy, or throw like a girl, or bat my eyelashes. But performance doesn't explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. It offers no insight into the countless restless nights I spent as a pre-teen wrestling with the inexplicable feeling that I should be female. It doesn't capture the very real physical and emotional changes that I experienced when I hormonally transitioned from testosterone to estrogen. Performance doesn't even begin to address the fact that, during my transition, I acted the same, wore the same T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers that I always had, yet once other people started reading me as female, they began treating me very differently. When we talk about my gender as though it were a performance, we let the audience — with all their expectations, prejudices, and presumptions — completely off the hook.

Look, I know that many contemporary queer folks and feminists embrace mantras like "all gender is performance," "all gender is drag," and "gender is just a construct." They seem empowered by the way these sayings give the impression that gender is merely a fiction. A facade. A figment of our imaginations, endlessly mutable and malleable. And of course, this is a convenient strategy, provided that you're not a trans woman who lacks the means to change her legal sex to female, and who thus runs the very real risk of being locked up in an all-male jail cell. Provided that you're not a trans man who has to navigate the discrepancy between his male identity and female history during job interviews and first dates. Whenever I hear someone who has not had a transsexual experience say that gender is just a construct or merely a performance, it always reminds me of that Stephen Colbert gag where he insists that he doesn't see race. It's easy to fictionalize an issue when you're not aware of the many ways in which you are privileged by it.

Almost every day of my life I deal with people who insist on seeing my femaleness as fake. People who make a point of calling me effeminate rather than feminine. People who slip up my pronouns, but only after they find out that I'm trans, never beforehand. People who insist on third-sexing me with labels like MTF, boy-girl, he-she, she-male, ze & hir — anything but simply female. Because I'm transsexual, I am sometimes accused of impersonation or deception when I am simply being myself. So it seems to me that this strategy of fictionalizing gender will only ever serve to marginalize me further.

So I ask you: Can't we find new ways of speaking? Shouldn't we be championing new slogans that empower all of us, whether trans or nontrans, queer or straight, female and/or male and/or none of the above?

Instead of trying to fictionalize gender, let's talk about the moments in life when gender feels all too real. Because gender doesn't feel like drag when you're a young trans child begging your parents not to cut your hair or not to force you to wear that dress. And gender doesn't feel like a performance when, for the first time in your life, you feel safe and empowered enough to express yourself in ways that resonate with you, rather than remaining closeted for the benefit of others. And gender doesn't feel like a construct when you finally find that special person whose body, personality, identity, and energy feels like a perfect fit with yours. Let's stop trying to deconstruct gender into nonexistence, and instead start celebrating it as inexplicable, varied, profound, and intricate.


So don't you dare dismiss my gender as construct, drag, or performance. My gender is a work of non-fiction.

The above is an excerpt from "Performance Piece" by Julia Serano, from the book Gender Outlaws edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2010.



Thank you for this great and very nuanced piece. I think you've beautifully detailed the intersection between theory and practice in working out gender roles.

Is there a particular person or group that's promoting this "gender is performance" idea, or is this an accepted idea in the field?

I would imagine if you've had this concept drilled into you by earnest and well-meaning teachers, it might be hard to push back against what feels like an already established and accepted idea.