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Article

The Myth of Cisyphus

They keep words from children, so I had no name for what I was until puberty had finished with me. This language is narrow, and strains under even a little stretch. We confuse the plural pronoun, confuse it more when we apply it to flesh. For my part, I have a body that doesn’t announce itself: one of those faces that carried adolescence into the third decade, and hair long for a boy but short for a girl. If I were to pass a pair of strangers, I could be Man to one, and Woman to the other.

CW: minor mentions of slurs

They keep words from children, so I had no name for what I was until puberty had finished with me. This language is narrow, and strains under even a little stretch. We confuse the plural pronoun, confuse it more when we apply it to flesh. For my part, I have a body that doesn’t announce itself: one of those faces that carried adolescence into the third decade, and hair long for a boy but short for a girl. If I were to pass a pair of strangers, I could be Man to one, and Woman to the other. Child to him, Adult to her. Not that I’d hold it against them: words are kept from more than children.

First thing about gender: it’s different from sex. Sex is dictated by biology and while it is neither binary nor fully understood, it’s less slippery than gender.

Gender is a clusterfuck.

There are no known cultures with no concept of gender. The western view sees a binary of masculine and feminine acting as mutual opposites. But what the west views as masculine and feminine changes with each decade, century, village, city, family. Blue was once for daughters, sons wore dresses into battle. Some cultures have more flexibility, but I am not a Hijra from India nor a Native American Two Spirit. I am neither a woman nor a man, and this is not uncommon.

There are a few major theories about what gender is and where it comes from. Essentialism decrees that whatever it is to be a gender is best explained by biology. But when someone refers to their mother/sister/daughter as a woman, they are not saying ‘person with a female chromosome’, they are saying mother/sister/daughter. Pronouns and gendered language are not technical biological terms denoting karyotype, they are part of the everyday language we use to describe each other socially.  

On the other hand, Social Constructivism says one's gender is created and reflected by the world and people around you. Judith Butler’s performativity theory works within this axiom, viewing gender as the stylised repetition of acts. Not a performance in the way an actor chooses to play a role, but in the way some words do more than communicate. To say I do at a wedding or guilty at a trial is to do more than speak, it is to perform an act that instigates a legal process.

Butler believes gender performativity is not a matter of choosing which gender you will be today, it is a reiteration and repetition of the norms through which one is constituted. You do not choose the actions that make up your gender, they are taught to you and enforced. If you are raised as a boy, most likely you will act like a boy. If you are dressed and treated like a girl during childhood, most likely you will dress and behave like a girl during adulthood. The theory also indicates that if you were born a boy but look and behave like a girl, you will be seen as a girl.

There are caveats with this one. The term ‘passing’ refers to being perceived as your gender identity, and while not every trans or genderqueer person aspires to pass, it is an important goal for many individuals’ transitions. Beyond your circle of support, family and friends, it is when the cashier views your Performance and asks if that’s cash or card, Ms—and you are a Ms.

But is there passing for something not recognised? A performance that isn’t clearly male or female fails. I am a queer, sissy, lesbian, tom-boy, rather than something else. Even if you learn the rules to break them, communicate ambiguity, androgyny, the audience must understand the language of the actor.

A lone figure stands on a stage, speaking gibberish. The watchers shift uncomfortably.

I am neither woman nor man, and this is not uncommon. The Torah and Jewish legal tradition recognise six genders including male and female: the androgynos, who has both male and female characteristics, the tumtum, whose biology is unclear, the aylonit, who identifies as female at birth, but at puberty, develops male characteristics, and the saris, who appears as male at birth, but later takes on more typically female biology. Greek Mythology has Hermaphroditus, the youth with both male and female features. Tiresias, the seer mentioned in Sophocles, Euripides and Ovid, changes from man to woman and back again. I bring this up to argue against the most insidious myth that gender non-conforming identities are a product of our modern culture. They are not.

Gender nonconformity is inextricable from queerness as a whole. Across cultures, queerness is removed from the dominant gender binary, as its existence challenges its supremacy. (Again, the queer, sissy, lesbian, tom-boy). Lesbians throughout history have felt estranged from womanhood due to its cultural centring of men. They do not pass many of the rituals associated with their gender, and can slip into a space beside womanhood regardless of their gender identity. The historic terms of Butch and Femme communicate this internal gender practice.

Masculine cisgender females, especially lesbians, are misgendered because of their gender presentation all the time. The difference between gender identity and gender expression is something of a particular struggle in our society. If gender is a performance, who dictates the correct delivery of the lines? And what happens when more and more people demand the definitions to change?

I do not expect to be seen as what I am. I prefer to, of course. But I do not presume that my little existence is anything meaningful in the millennium-long tide of man/woman, father/mother, husband/wife, sun/moon, light/dark. We are a people of binaries, and I do not grieve this.

I will never pass as non-binary because you can’t pass as something that is not recognised. This, I think, I do grieve.

No matter how I act or dress, change my hair-body-movements-voice: I will be seen as one or the other. It’s hard to articulate how lonely it is to push a bundle of self up a mountain only to have it tumble down when the cashier calls you young lady. (There! I have given it away! I know you were wondering. Why were you wondering? It’s okay, I know why).

I have been out as non-binary for a while now. Friends ask me how I knew, when their own gender stops fitting right. Younger siblings are encouraged to talk to me. Thirteen-year-olds on the internet message me, asking for help.

And I don’t tell them our identity is a hopeless effort, because deep down I don’t really believe it is.

I have a friend, an artist, who can look at a colour and know the exact name, when all I will see is red. The architect who built my house could look at the same building as me, and know the people and design movements that caused the curve in the brickwork, the slant of the walls, when at most I could place the decade of its construction.

Under some eyes, I will always be a girl. Under other eyes, I may be a boy. Under very few eyes, I may be neither.

Whose eyes?  A painter could sit me down and show me two identical colours, and then tell me how to spot the blue undertones in one, the green in the other; then I will see the difference. What once was red is now carnelian and carmine.

Sisyphus’ boulder is made of obsidian. He could tell you how it feels like silk under his hands, how the afternoon sun lights it from within, if you asked and walked beside him as he pushed.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Three 2021

EDITION TWO 2022 AVAILABLE NOW!

Read our newest folklore edition! She's filled to the brim with tantalising folk-tales, day-dreamy illustrations and spell-binding hot-takes on everything from Indian mythology to the Sad-Girl music era!

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