by: Mariann Devlin
Questions of gender identity affect us all. Throughout what I’d like to call my “performance” as a straight female, I’ve questioned what it means to identify as such. What ways do I act it out in my daily life?
I didn’t always seek to unpeel what it means to be attracted to men, or “be” female. I can thank some my musical heroes, however, for revealing different aspects of my identity that I wouldn’t have otherwise explored.
“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.”
Patti Smith was famous for dressing in men’s shirts and ties in homage to one of her own artistic heroes, Charles Baudelaire. Inspired by writers Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud as well, Smith wasn’t just a well-read rockstar. She sought to embody the men she idolized, men who boldly played with gender and sexuality themselves. Smith knew very well that gender was a performance, a role we play whose lines were written before we were born. By dressing in drag, and shouting “Oh, Baudelaire!” onstage, she was able to pass on an alternative gender tradition. As a new, teenage feminist and a lover of books, Smith “set the stage” for my interest in how gender roles (and really any sort of stylized identity) can be dug up and renewed.
Smith also finds the typical feminist response to her achievements as a “female artist” to be stifling. Unable to choose between “masculine and feminine rhythms,” Smith embraces both, as she addresses in this video.
“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.”
Prince has been known to make homophobic remarks, which confuses me given his penchant for androgyny, and the album he created as his female alter-ego Camille. I hope he was being purposefully offensive to get a conversation going. If not, well, who said that being a gender bender means you aren’t a homophobe?
Although I think gender roles are intimately tied with our concept of sexuality, I’ll set that aside for a moment to talk about how much Prince influenced me as a young feminist turning away from her conservative Christian upbringing. From that standpoint, Prince’s effeminate appearance, and the religious language he used to describe his sexuality, forced me to think of the spirit-made-flesh in a way that would probably shock my mother if she ever read this.
Despite his size and femininity, women still find Prince to be one of the sexiest rockstars of all time, an obvious inspiration for anyone who wants to both embrace and redefine their heterosexuality.
“Rejoice and love yourself today, ’cause baby you were born this way.”
My love for Gaga may come as a surprise to a lot of people, but it shouldn’t. I don’t listen to club music, but Lady Gaga’s gender performances have made me a legitimate fan of her music, her style, and her importance as a gender-bending gay icon.
Her gender has always been a topic of discussion by the masses. First, there was that rumor — still circling — that she’s really a drag queen, a biological male, or maybe a hermaphrodite. While such rumors can have a vicious, homophobic slant to them, I welcome the discussion because it means we’re actually talking about gender as a perplexing concept that isn’t as dualistic as we thought.
I imagine Gaga feels the same way. Her recent appearance at the VMAs, dressed in drag and standing alongside the far less compelling Britney Spears, was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in ages. Lady Gaga is the quintessential postmodern pop star — blurring the lines between gender and sexuality, and their respective binaries, in a way that is both flamboyant yet so subtle.
It’s subtle because even though she encourages us to celebrate our selves as we were born to be, meant to be, part of that destiny also means dressing up as the opposite sex — playing around with a gender and sexuality that’s supposedly biological and innate.
“Will nature make a man of me yet?”
I started this essay off with my love for Patti Smith as a hyper-literary gender bender. Now it’s Morrissey’s turn.
I have an inexplicable yet wild intellectual, emotional, and physical attraction to Morrissey that I don’t just share with my fellow feminist bookworms, but straight men who- because they want to bang Morrissey- aren’t actually straight at all. Man, woman, gay, straight, hipster, nerd. Everyone wants a piece of This Charming Man.
The Smiths’ lyrics are chock full of profound literary allusions, and as an added bonus he’s a gender skeptic of the highest caliber, so much that he rarely talked about it and if he did it was only to add to everyone’s confusion about the subject.
Although he’s considered gay by most of the population, Morrissey has never “come out” nor does he feel a particular need to. He’s alluded to being asexual and bisexual. If he’s come out as anything, it’s queer. At the height of his popularity, Morrissey declared himself a “prophet of the fourth sex” and “fourth-gendered.” Early on in his career, while claiming he was celibate, he also spoke of loving men and women equally with no regard to their gender.
Morrissey’s coyness about his gender and sexuality speaks to the true elusiveness of those categories. In that way, his years of silence on the whole thing is an even more powerful statement against heteronormativity.
I will never forget the first time I heard “Vicar In a Tutu,” a song that is pretty straightforward in its celebration of cross dressing. Wave that freak flag! I thought when I heard it. It was the standard response by a queer-friendly girl such as a myself. But it wasn’t until the last line of the song, which he repeatedly wails, when I realized how important Morrissey was as a gender artist.
I am a living sign.
We are all symbols for the categories placed upon us — race, class, ethnicity, religion, gender. But symbols are fluid. They can come to mean something entirely different than they did before. Symbols can be freed up. As a pop icon, Morrissey- along with other rock-and-roll gender benders- has taken up the responsibility for creating new ways of thinking about ourselves as sexual and gendered beings.
I may not feel compelled to be a flamboyant cross-dresser, but the personality I project to the world — along with the claims I make — will have an effect on how others view “straight women.” Armed with the inspiration of my favorite gender-bending music icons, I hope it’s a positive one.
Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.