I Just Gave a Warm Stranger the Shirt off My Back
Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler was the first to call gender ‘performative’. She said, “The tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them.” (Gender Trouble, 1990.) Among children, the creation and sustenance of one’s gender expression is continually monitored by the punishment of exclusion and shame. No-one is, of course, born a girl or a boy.
The loss of innocence is not, as adults commonly romanticise, by a child’s exposure to the world of sexuality. The trouble lies in unambiguously dividing between a state of not knowing (innocence) and the state of knowing (coming of age), between childhood and adulthood where the adult knows better for the child. The adult does not know better for the child, not unless it has to do with playing with fire or a sharp knife. The adults barely know better for themselves! Even as grown-ups, we are constantly in a flux of not knowing, knowing, and not knowing again. Coming of age may popularly be a linear narrative in our films, but in our lived reality are we not constantly falling and rising, sometimes with knowing, but mostly with not? A child approaches the world with open curiosity. An adult approaches the world of the child with fear and anxiety. Child-rearing becomes a long-drawn exercise in rigorously training the child to adopt the adult’s fears, to bear the heavy cross of the adult’s own failings and sense of loss. It is this gradual learning to negate and disappear the natural expression of self and sexuality that ought to be called the loss of innocence.
In her heartfelt personal article, Not Knowing, Katherine Bernard quotes her mother from over the phone with the breadth of a country between them: As for the part of you that makes us uncomfortable, well, you need to come clean. Is this just something you are doing, or are you gay? When you are asked to ‘come clean’ about a ‘part of you’, it is an act of shaming. You are struck that there is something about you that is dirty, that you are made out to be hiding. Bernard grew up and fled to the other side of the land (or the other way around), but she still finds she can’t not remain a part of her mother, and the shame can’t not remain a part of her. “Shame is easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that if other people see it will make me unworthy of connection?” said Brené Brown, scholar and research professor on shame in her famous TED talk on vulnerability. “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is I am bad, guilt is I did something bad,” she distinguishes. I remember, as a child, being admonished to “sit properly” when I sat with my legs splayed. It taught me what parts of my body must be covered up. Once, on a school trip I joined a gang of boys in a round of air gun shooting, and while we were walking back proud, the headmistress commented loudly to the other teachers, “She’s very aggressive.” Was that how I learned that trying something new made me too aggressive?
Shaming as a way of teaching a child how to be is casual and considered normal. Though now that my playmates are the parents, I don’t feel the confusion of the child, but am privy to the fear behind the violence. The parent is afraid their precious baby will be bullied or denied the security of regular social life if they aresniffed out as being different – of looking and acting like they are not one of ‘the others’ – and especially if they are ‘different’, unconsciously or innocently. But how can the attempt to protect someone from violence cause you to inflict violence on them? Is our violence somehow better than theirs? Perhaps disciplining through violence within the family prepares a child to expect the same from the rest of humankind. The post-pubescent years are easily the worst for a gender non-conforming child – the world of sexual awareness is an onslaught, overrun by messages teaching sexual conformation in appearance, practice, beliefs and lifestyle. A girl who has got away with dressing in typically masculine clothing or playing and hanging out with boys is at this age pulled away from her natural inclination in a series of violent acts from the family and school authorities – ranging from verbal shaming to physical punishment. Even her peers might bully her for being odd. (And where did they learn to bully people for being different?) The little cousin of a friend of mine was considered a bit of a problem child because she insisted on always dressing ‘like a boy’. She also demanded to be addressed with the masculine pronoun. This game of hers was entertained till puberty, after which I would hear stories of how she has begun to act strangely asocial, and how the family was tired of her ‘crossdressing’ game. I recently met her at my friend’s wedding: she had grown into a handsome butch/trans person albeit a markedly reticent one. She talked to no-one the entire time, and hung in the background.
Internalising the forbiddance of ambiguity, the unwillingness to allow free expression of gender, the control and limiting of boundaries (often one’s own, the older we grow) can reveal one thing: the fear of vulnerability. This fear of being exposed is linked to a deep sense of fear and shame (ask Brené); that there is something wrong with me, therefore I must not reveal myself, I must try to blend in and ‘pass’. And so those who identify as women strive to make their armpits hairless, learn to dress themselves to camouflage their ‘boy hips’ or their belly fat, and get used to having their opinions ignored. Those who identify as men learn not to cry, use everyday violence to establish their authority, and avoid wearing vests in public if they don’t have bulging biceps. And how insidiously this invulnerability of gender expression can steer invulnerability in sexuality and relationships. Girls are taught one thing: do what it takes to embody sexiness, and everything will be okay. Boys are taught, well, to ‘be boys’. And so the players are made and the game is played in the ring of invulnerability. I just gave a warm stranger the shirt off my back, writes Bernard in Not Knowing. The stranger is someone she meets at a party. Warm and safe, he is decidedly male and heterosexual. She, on the other hand, he is curious about. In casual conversation, he asks her for a version of ‘coming clean’. Does he know that if she does she will be standing naked and vulnerable, a place she has grown up being taught is worthy of shame? We teach children that vulnerability is wrong; if you are just yourself you’ll never get anything done. And in doing that, they learn to believe that what they truly are, what they want to do or be, is not good enough, not worthy enough. That perhaps they themselves are not good enough or worthy enough. That they should be something other than themselves to be deserving of respect and acceptance. While striving to be ‘more’ and ‘do more’ can be commendable and satisfying, it can’t be the only merit we revere. How about teaching our children more of “hey, you are enough”. You are enough.
Photo Credits : Olaf Hajek
Words By : Sonali Udaybabu
Sonali Udaybabu is an editor at In Plainspeak, a magazine on sexuality in the Global South. She also works independently in film