The Big Switch


Political correctness has usually presented a remarkably unified front on all questions multicultural, the members of various oppressed groups seeming to have reached a consensus beforehand on every debate. As a result, everything politically didactic on campus, from sensitivity training to support groups, has always seemed like “Thought Reform 101.” Which for the most part it has been. Lamentably, this has become so commonplace that almost anyone with a shred of intellectual curiosity avoids “talks” on anything to do with race, class, and gender. However, as true multiculturalism has begun asserting itself—beyond tokenism—a serendipitous phenomenon has begun to emerge: difference of opinion.

Believe it or not, this very thing was on display February 20 at the Pace University student union during a presentation on “female masculinities” sponsored by the school’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department. People were actually sharing ideas, exploring new territory, taking each other seriously as étrangers, and, best of all, disagreeing.

How to explain it? Though luminaries like literature professor Judith Halberstam have written about “female masculinity” at some length, discussions of it may be too new on most campuses for an orthodox paradigm to have emerged. Then again, maybe this Pace group was just small and young enough to sparkle a little. Whatever the reason, one had the feeling that students were being encouraged, not commanded, to explore what one might respectfully acknowledge as the bizarre.

The evening began with a performance by drag king Mildred Gerestant, otherwise known as “Dred.” Gerestant is a striking woman who, when in costume, passes convincingly as a man. Her beauty alone may account for the success—and instructiveness—of her performance. Her lip-synching is run-of-the-mill, and her awkward, onstage costume changes are often more distracting than their scant entertainment value can justify. But her finale—in which she strips herself down from a goatee-sporting, campy version of Shaft back into a woman—is a stunning demonstration of gender’s strange fluidity. Standing there, still bearded but wearing a long black wig, she doffs her shirt, revealing her breasts in a bikini top and her lower half bulging with boyishness. As Dred, Gerestant is, as she calls herself, the proverbial “Mack Daddy”—the tough-talking sly whom you might have met on a Harlem street corner in the ’70s. But as a girl she is suddenly Tina Turner, all legs and catty sex appeal. Glancing at each signifier in turn, you’re thoroughly convinced that gender is a costume. Though drag shows are designed to show us this, few of them do it so well.

Next up was the documentary You Don’t Know Dick—a much better film than its sophomoric title suggests. For anyone unfamiliar with the ins and outs of sex reassignment, this is a revealing journey in uncharted territory. Composed entirely of interviews with female-to-male transsexuals, the film is comprehensive, but avoids important gory details, especially about genital surgery. Also, with the exception of one wrenching scene in which the child of one transsexual mourns the loss of her mother, the film presents an almost one-sidedly positive picture of the effects that sex changes have on people’s lives. But the doc is still informative.

The evening ended with a short panel discussion during which students were encouraged to ask questions. Esther Newton, a professor of anthropology at SUNY Purchase and a self-described butch lesbian, was joined by Gerestant and a female-to-male transsexual who identified himself only as Cid. The spectrum of female masculinity was complete, and the students’ questions were surprisingly good, covering everything from how gays and transsexuals reconcile their lifestyles with their religious beliefs (if they have any) to whether or not a double mastectomy could be considered a “drastic” measure. As the sole academic on the panel, and author of the recent book Margaret Mead Made Me Gay, Newton provided a restrained intellectual heft, nicely counterbalancing Cid’s accounts of her life on the vanguard of the so-called “queer continuum.”

It’s a shame the audience for such a vibrant discussion was so small. Women who’ve never been chased out of a restroom for looking masculine, or who’ve never seen the world from a man’s point of view, have a great deal to learn from those whom Kate Bornstein calls gender outlaws.