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    Surfing the Binaries

    By Jewelle Gomez–

    Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved people and screen characters whose gender was somehow undetermined. The popular terms now are “gender fluid” or “non-binary.” Finally, we have words for thinking about the exciting tension that is aroused (and I use that word deliberately) when male and female genders seem to overlap and refuse determination. Like surfing, we balance ourselves in the curl as we perceive that wavy space between the binaries.

    When I was a teenager (in the previous century), Maurice, a gay man, frequented my father’s bar in Boston where he was just one of the regulars. However, one evening he arrived having had his breasts slightly enhanced. The patrons— mostly middle aged, Black, male, and female—weren’t sure how to respond, so they fell back on their culture: teasing. I don’t know what it took for Maurice to brace himself to face his friends having claimed a part of himself unseen before. But he did and he got teased and then the regulars bought him drinks.

    That combination of what’s called male and female is what I love about butch lesbians. They carry unashamedly the suave of masculine culture and the curve of female culture in the same package. The arrival of this package makes femmes perkier and homophobes furious. That’s why butches have long been the lightning rod for male anger.

    I started thinking about this as the Stranger Things character Eleven emerged. The character was, at first, totally gender non-specific. It was perfect that Eleven was rescued and nurtured by a band of adolescents, a group that is usually still peeling away the layers to find out who they are sexually. In season four, Eleven has evolved into L (or Elle!), and is portrayed as distinctly female. How interesting it would have been to maintain the ambiguity as the band of friends grew up.

    The fantastically feminist speculative fiction show The Nevers introduced at the end of its first season the character Jack Nimble, who is played by androgynous transperson Vinnie Heaven. Jack, slyly sexy and dangerous, is always in a flirtatious dance with Bonfire, a female appearing character in a derby hat who is a human fire starter. They both subtly play on the perceptions of an audience that is drawn to the complex and multiple natures of the characters.

    And Just Like That, the sequel to Sex & the City, has a lively non-binary character, Che Diaz, played by the lively, non-binary Sara Ramirez. A Tony-award winner, they came out as non-binary after several breakthrough roles on television. The list could go on: Taylor Mason on Billions, Kai Barkley on Grey’s Anatomy, Cal Bowen on Sex Education. These shows are vastly different and appeal to a broad range of television audiences, so it’s fascinating to see how non-binary characters are portrayed in the mass media.

    Most cultures want elements to be presented neatly in a box. All of this is, of course, an extension of misogyny; that is, the need to keep female things in their place so they don’t contaminate male things. It is hard to remember, but for years, women were forbidden so many things that men took for granted: wearing pants comes to mind first as a most ridiculous example. So many prohibitions against women’s rights (abortion) have been couched in terms of the “gentler sex” needing protection, when it really is the “rougher sex” (I mean that in the not fun way) running scared.

    Many people feel uncomfortable “not knowing” when all the expectations are subverted. My feeling drawn to that “not knowing” doesn’t mean I would rid the world of other gender presentations. I just think it’s valuable to allow yourself to feel what it takes to stand on uncertain ground and make evaluations based on only what you learn from a person in the moment and not based on societal preconceptions. It’s a kind of balance, again like surfing, but without fear of drowning.

    Jewelle Gomez is a lesbian/feminist activist, novelist, poet, and playwright. She’s written for “The Advocate,” “Ms. Magazine,” “Black Scholar,” “The San Francisco Chronicle,” “The New York Times,” and “The Village Voice.” Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @VampyreVamp

    Published on July 14, 2022