As the Halloween season comes to a close, we’ve seen another year of dressing up: scary costumes, fun costumes, goofy costumes, themed family costumes, sexy costumes (hopefully limited to adults), and so forth. We’ve seen people become someone else for a day or two: someone that inspired them (I saw quite a few female ghostbusters with steampunk goggles); something they wanted to believe in (a number of classic renditions of devils, angels, witches, etc.); or perhaps someone that they want to be all the time, but can’t (some rockstars, a David Bowie or two, and no shortage of superheroes).
I’ve definitely seen some offensive and problematic costumes as well: people dressed up in “Native” outfits (which are iconic of a whitewashed, Americanized understanding of many cultures, and are particularly offensive right now as protestors are being arrested at Standing Rock); men dressed in beards and a full dress playing “Dude Looks Like A Lady” and mocking non-passing transwomen; kids in blackface. There is a good and a bad side of dressing up, and Halloween inevitably brings out both.
For many, Halloween is a time to put on a mask and become someone (or something) that we aren’t. For others of us, however, it’s a time to unmask, to be who we truly are. For me, I walked around in the clothes I wear every day, plus a little extra makeup. Instead of strange sideways glances and uncomfortable whispers, I got compliments: “Hey, nice costume!”
It’s gotten me thinking about the ways in which we live our lives through performance: performance of gender, performance of faith, the performance of sex. It’s also gotten me thinking about the ways in which performance can be used to mock and even erase the experiences of others, such as some of these offensive Halloween costumes.
I’ve been a drag performer. I’m not currently doing shows right now, but I did for six years in North Carolina. Drag, to me, is the performance of gender. Regardless of your body type or assigned sex at birth, any body can perform any kind of gender. I did both king and queen performances; sometimes I did both in the same show.
Drag was a means of exploring gender. It was a way to understand the complexities of gender expectations- everything from how to contour a face for feminine makeup (which meant exploring accepted bone structures and facial highlights associated with typical expectations of feminine beauty) to how men move and dance, every piece of drag requires us to understand the boundaries we are working within. Drag is the performance of gender, and as such, the performance heightens and feeds off of the expectations that are deeply rooted in many of us.
But outside of drag, we still perform gender. It is these exact rituals, in fact, that make drag part of what it is. For women, it’s body hair removal, makeup application, cinching the waist for that perfect hourglass figure. For men, it’s working out, looking buff, growing enough facial hair to prove that you can, having the appearance of a large cock. These are the rituals that are utilized in drag for show, but they are not necessarily less performative when done in daily life.
It is difficult to define what masculinity and femininity mean outside of the gender binary, but we can define what characteristics and traits are important to us because they make us feel good in our bodies, versus those rituals that are done because we are told that that is what “makes a real man” or “makes a real woman.” For example, I have no opinion, issue, or preference with a partner’s body hair grooming practices. I care more that those practices come from their own comfort and love of their bodies, and not from an unspoken rule that certain body parts must be shaved.
Which brings me to the concept of performance of sex. Sometimes, we are sexual when we don’t want to be. I’m not talking about rape; I mean, sometimes, we’re not really feeling it, and our partner is, and we love our partner, so we are intimate when we’d maybe rather go to bed, or finish our book, or any number of things (The Ferret writes a really wonderful post about this here) (and often we get more into it as we get started, but the instigation isn’t necessarily coming from us).
But there is a whole aspect of “performance” that comes into sex… particularly with assigned male at birth individuals who use their penises
for sex. In fact, “perform” is often used as a euphemism for “get hard and stay hard for a suitable length of time during which intercourse occurred.” It’s a question sometimes asked of gay men who have (or are) married to women: “Are you able to perform with her?” as though any man who is capable of getting hard and having sex with a woman is automatically “less gay.” As for assigned female at birth people, well… “faking orgasms” is something many women do on a consistent basis. If that’s not the performance of sex, I’m not sure what is.
Attraction, intimacy, connection: these things are so much more than the operational functions of anatomy, and certainly much more than feigning a particular type of enjoyment for your partner’s benefit.
The performance of faith is trickier, because “faith” means something different to each person. Regardless of how a person relates to their faith, however, we fairly consistently see faith in God as a transformative experience. I personally believe that that type of transformation doesn’t just happen once or twice in a person’s life, but continues to happen as they grow and deepen their understanding of God and their faith.
In that regard, I consider the performance of faith one in which our lives in relation to God have become stagnant. It is a point where we are more focused on the action, rather than the intention and meaning of the action. Are we kind to one another because we truly care for those whose lives have been harder than our own? Or are we kind to people because we have been told that we should be kind?
Like many things, performance isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary… Alcoholics Anonymous discusses the idea of “fake it ‘till you make it.” Sometimes we need to act in certain ways to help our own understanding and belief get there. But sometimes our performances limit, mock, or erase the ability of others to be as authentic as they want to be. We need to be aware and conscious of the intention of our daily rituals, actions, and beliefs… that awareness can be the difference between performative and transformative.
As we close this Halloween season, I challenge all of us to hold onto and be aware of the performances around us every day, including our own. I challenge each of us to close this time of letting go- the essence of Samhain (the pagan tradition from which we draw much of our Halloween inspiration)- by letting go of some of our own masks and performances. I challenge each of us to consider our intentions and goals in the actions we take- particularly the actions we take for granted. Let’s each put our masks down and work to be who we truly are, rather than carry on the performances of who we think we should be.
What does it mean to perform sexually? Is it only when one engages in genitally-focused activity or other erotic behavior? Or is it possible to perform sexually through speech or other communication? Is it possible that constructing an identity, or at least an image, is an act of sexual performance?
My answer to these somewhat theoretical questions is “yes.” And it is an answer from my own experience as a male-bodied-from-birth person. That does not mean that my answer is simple, and it involves a fair amount of personal history. And it seems to me that I am not done answering these questions.
In 1974, I was married to a beautiful, wonderful woman, Judy. We were blessed to have three wonderful daughters who have grown up to be bright, beautiful, powerful women with families and many achievements.
As a result of claiming my homosexuality and coming out as a gay man, Judy and I separated after nine years and then divorced. We remained loving and caring friends, and although she had primary custody of our girls, we worked together to raise them. Sadly, tragically, she died in 2001.
I can never talk or write for long about sexuality without thinking about Judy. She was a very sexy woman. She deserved a better lover than me. Oh, we had sex, but on my side it was mostly about relieving sexual pressure. I loved her, yes, very much, and she had a beautiful body, a beautiful woman’s body. But I did not crave her body, I did not fantasize about her body when we were apart.
Even so, I constructed a sexual identity as “straight” through a wedding, having sex with Judy, and eventually in helping to produce children.
At the same time, I fantasized about various male bodies. I bought a subscription to Playgirl, claiming it was for her (she showed little interest, and did not renew it) but really because I wanted to ogle the naked men.
I should have known long before that I was gay. I did not date girls in high school and had a major crush on a male friend and lesser ones on others, went through extensive psychoanalysis in college, and put off having sex with a woman for quite a few years. Still, I performed as a straight male.
Much of my failure to claim my gay identity had to do with society—I was a good boy and did not want to make others angry or bothered, and until I got to college I did not know any openly homosexual person—but it is not so simple.
I am more sexually fluid than a label reflects.
I am not bisexual. I have a clear attraction to men. But I also find some women attractive, and have sexual thoughts about some of them. At the same time, there are limits (including that I am happily monogamous with my husband!).
I have never had sex with a woman that involved more than the “missionary position.” I tried oral sex, but I gagged (definitely not true with men). So my performance has its limits, but only the couple of women I have slept with would know that for sure.
But my sexual antennae are not always fixed firmly on the gay wavelength. Admittedly, the women I find most alluring often appear somewhat boyish, and transgender men can sometimes move the needle on my attraction dial.
Sexual attraction is, at least for me and I think many if not most others, is not solely about genitals. My husband of 19 years said he was first most attracted to my brain (now he seems to like my body, too!). Some people are drawn to legs (I really like hairy legs), others to height or the lack thereof, or breasts big and breasts small, chest hair or no chest hair, particular ass shape and sizes, etc.
I loved Judy for her vibrant personality, her laugh, her instinctive kindness and generosity, and I liked her well-curved body, too. Or maybe I liked that other men admired it, and that made me feel good……..these things are often complicated.
In reality, many of us fall at less than absolute points on Kinsey’s famous (and I think less useful than it used to be) scale and our location can even change. Earlier, others would have classified me as a Zero (exclusively heterosexual, unless you count the one time I engaged in mutual masturbation with a male friend in high school), and now, since 1983, I would be a Kinsey Six (exclusively homosexual). Does that make me a 5 (incidental heterosexual behavior ) overall?
No. Judy was not incidental in my life. She was, and is, even now, central to who I am and have become. As surely Jonathan is, and has been, for 19 years.
I have two friends, Arlene and Tom (names changed), who have been married for about 10 years. Arlene used to be married to a wonderful “butch” lesbian, Melody. Sadly, Melody died. A couple of years later, Arlene and Tom found each other. Some friends objected, saying Arlene had abandoned Melody. I said I thought love was what counts. Arlene told me that Tom was Melody with “different plumbing.” I understood her to be telling me that she found a beautiful spirit in him that reminded her of her old love. She clearly loves Tom for who he is and vice versa; they are a lovely couple.
I understand this. If something awful should happen and I would be without Jonathan, who knows who, if anyone, would become central in my life? Would I seek a partner again? If so, it likely would be a male, but that is not certain. And maybe I would decide to stay single. Whatever the outcome, I assure you, though I am 70 years of age, I will perform sexually in some ways or others—certainly by talking and writing about it, self-pleasuring, and continuing to figure out, and live out, perform, my sexual identity/identities.
As our transgender siblings are showing us, lots of things we thought were fixed are more complicated—and it is not just about bathrooms. Creation, especially humanity, is not easily locked into categories; scientists know that there are always exceptions to hard rules. Creation is bigger than all of our boxes, and so are our bodies and psyches and souls. As the psalmist writes, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . . “ (139:14)
That’s surely me, and you, too, and everybody who wonderfully and fearlessly (at least bravely) crosses boundaries and concepts that inadequately describe our full, beautiful, complex humanity. The great thing about life is that it always demands performance, and we get to choose, if we wish, which roles to play . . . and how to play them.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you feel about performance, particularly in regards to sexuality? How can we challenge ourselves to be more authentic while recognizing performance is an important aspect of our lives? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, November 17th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part I: Beyond the Binary
What turns you on? Is your attraction based on anatomy, gender identity, or something else entirely?
Sacred, Not Secret is a three-part series beginning Thursday, November 17 at 3 PM EST/19:00 UTC in which Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline, authors of the blog Sex, Bodies, Spirit, discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. This month, they go “beyond the binary” of gay and straight to explore the fluidity of sexual desire, and explore ways that we can be an open, affirming space for people- not in spite of our sexual relationships, but because of them!