‘Are you a man or a woman, dear?’ A question that’s been eating away at me for quite some time. As if these are the only two options. For many non-genderqueer people, this particular question enjoys an almost solidified and unquestionable status as a factual principle of gender reality. You are either a man or a woman. Oftentimes, you do not even get the opportunity to choose between these two highly limited, and even ‘imprisoning’, options. I can assure you that a great body of work exists that addresses and critically interrogates innumerable dimensions of gender experiences. So, given that many great and highly influential feminist and queer thinkers have already touched and analysed the theme of the gender binary, I will not test my patience and ambitions in trying to convey and condense their work here. Rather, I want to focus your attention on one particular kind of gender trouble related to the universal pest we call ‘the gender binary’: a kind of hysteria amongst male people identifying as ‘gay’.
There can be no doubt that heteronormativity is alive and well. Not only in social and group settings but also in the mental setting or in individual-mental life. In our heads all romantic relationships are, either consciously or preconsciously, based on the heteronormative man-woman structure of intimacy. Sometimes even those of us that have consciously done away with the nonsense of gender binaries find ourselves, unknowingly, categorising the gendered world into the virile, dominant, sexually charged man and his beautiful, delicate, submissive woman. This, so I have come to realise, happens in the case of gay relationships as well. If it is not other people subtly classifying you, you’ll find that you do it yourself.
So, ‘is that person a man or a woman?’ Lacan, followed by Gherovici, argues that the moment a person becomes conflicted about whether they are a man or a woman is the moment hysteria emerges. I’m sure that word conjures up images of ‘insane’ women in asylums in the late nineteenth century. I guess that is just another one of those gendered ‘givens’ that remains unbeknownst to us, even-though we are the one’s thinking it. Far from being a matter of late nineteenth century psychiatry and sexology, the hysteria I have come across can be termed a ‘banal’ mental experience. ‘Banal’ not because it is not serious, but because it is, at least in my not-so-humble opinion, a very common occurrence among those persons identifying as ‘gay’. The hysteria I am talking about is by no means exclusive to experiences of being a gay male; many people identifying as ‘straight’ also seem to go through a similar mental disorientation. However, I want to limit the scope to male people identifying as ‘gay’, for the sake of clarity.
Gay people in a relationship (of any kind) are asked, and yes this still happens, which one is the ‘woman’ and which one is the ‘man’. Many gay people get frustrated by this question, at least consciously. Unknowingly, often even to themselves, the gay person has considered this question privately, within the confines and illusionary safety of their own mind. ‘Am I a man or a woman?’. The reason this question is even asked in private, by oneself, is because you’ve adopted and internalized the ‘naturality’ of gender binaries and it emerges from the depths of our minds to plague us when we are trying to find our feet in the beautifully kaleidoscopic spectrum of sexual satisfaction and orientation. Surely if you are the passive party during sex you must be the woman; if you are active and dominant in the boudoir you are the man? This is the kind of conundrum the gay person faces in the wake of ingrained and indoctrinated gender roles. Amidst this confusing state, the gay person becomes hysterical (again, do not think of the derogatory use of the term; come back to the twenty-first century). The pressure of the socio-cultural world forces the gay person into a position of indecision; falling prey to an either-or fallacy. Should I paint my nails? Wear an apron when I cook? Put on my lip-gloss before my man comes home (this one, I have to pause to point out, is only valid in pre-COVID lockdown times; take a moment to reminisce, I have time).
The problem is, as it usually is, found embedded in a confusion between the gender, sex and sexual orientation of a person. If you are gay and male but you are the ‘bottom’, you are made out to be a woman with a penis. You were, at least in the eyes of so many bewildered conservatives, born a woman in a man’s body. If you are gay, male and a ‘top’, you are a man; your only developmental error is that you prefer your partner with a dangling member between their legs. Period. End of story. Again, the gendered positions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are naturalized; in other words, human gender is something you are born with. As if Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, to name but a few, never existed. Butler probably has nightmares about these poppycock remnants of philosophical modernism.
The hysteria in question emerges amidst a refusal, on a societal and broader Western cultural level, to free ourselves from the shackles of non-sensical binaries (I am looking at you proponents of the Enlightenment). It is time to emerge from the seemingly never-ending string of gender troubles and to, at least as a preliminary step, remember that gender is performative, as Butler points out. Gender is a stage performance and ‘man’ and ‘woman’ merely two characters invented to keep us from going mad, for us to make sense of the world. Gay boy, stop asking whether you are a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ and start performing a character of your own invention; in this defiant deed, you might just discover a state resembling (gender) freedom. Turn your gender trouble, caused by so many nonsensical ideas, into a unique ‘theatrical’ display. Celebrate not knowing whether you are a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ because, as I have come to learn, those that call themselves such don’t even know what it means to be either of those things. Bottomhood is not synonymous with womanhood, tophood not with being a man. Just be genderless in Seattle (or Johannesburg, or Paris, or Parys), if that is your prerogative that is.
I understand that those of you that wish to retain your beliefs in heteronormative gender roles would love to ask that fateful question. However, I would ask you to refrain and, for heaven’s sake, read some damn Butler. Before you ask a gay person whether they are the man or the woman in the relationship, please keep the following in mind: the price for that foolish inquiry is hysteria. Odds are the gay person has already gone through episodes of mental disorientation due to the asking of that question. So please, keep your neurosis-inducing questions to yourself.
Contributor: David Barnard
David Barnard is a graduate from the University of Pretoria’s Department of Philosophy with a master’s degree focused on the intersection between queer theory and psychoanalytic theory. His work mostly addresses and critically engages with the making and operation of homophobia. His interest in the challenges faced by persons identifying as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ inspires his activism for LGBTQI rights and (mental and physical) wellbeing.
He is currently a public relations officer at a digital production company and a passionate freelance writer. In his free time, you may find David reading some or other text by Freud or playing with his two Great Dane puppies.