Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Joyce Kilmer Was a Man

There are two kinds of people: male and female.

Yesterday we watched a documentary film on CNN, "Lady Valor," about a retired Navy Seal who changed his gender to female. It showed how complicated such a decision becomes socially; those among his/her family and friends who could accommodate to the change in his identity accepted it with varying comfort (his father and his older brother recovered from initial shock to an acceptance; his youngest sister seemed unbothered; his mother and two other sisters declined to appear in the film). Strangers often seemed mystified. Because he took upon himself a task to publicize his decision, author a book about it and appear in various gatherings and media events, people had sometimes strong reactions to him, positive or negative.

To me, Kristen Beck came across in the film as a man in women's clothing. His behavior was male-typically forthright and deliberate. (Okay, you don’t have to say it.) His voice was deep: a man's voice. With makeup, under the right conditions (much of the interview with him in the studio showed an attractive middle‐aged woman in a classy dress), she became unambiguously female. Shown romping around in a government free‐fire reserve with military firearms and high-heeled boots, she became something else.

All of which left me curious. What was this peculiar person? Intellectually, I have no problem with anyone choosing how to dress or behave, within the limits of civility. I'm okay with ambiguity regarding the norms of sexuality. My own inclinations are clearly heterosexual. The fact that I recently discovered that Joyce Kilmer, who wrote "I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree" was a man left me "recalculating" my GPS of what the world looks like, or that Evelyn Waugh (whom I knew only through literary references) was not female, never shook me to any extent. I've been mostly comfortable with how the human race is divided. If Christopher/Kristen Beck were my own brother/sister, I might feel differently.

A lot of the world's polarities are little more than conveniences in categorization‐‐we all look for such regularities to keep our balance in life. It seems unfortunate, at best, that many people get riled by "them vs. us" issues. I suppose that I'm simply lucky to live in a pretty liberal and predictable environment.

I know people whose sexual preference runs to their own kind, and yet their identity appears to coincide with their physiology. It might be personally disconcerting to know that cute Ellen Page is not “available” to me in the sense that other attractive females might be. (Set aside for the sake of this discussion the enormous logistics implied in that statement.) Someone like Kristen Beck, who claims to be, in essence, a woman in a man's body, leaves up in the air the question of sexual preference. That was my main question after watching the film: where does she fit in my typography? My reading in Wikipedia that Kristen Beck “never really felt gay” left me scratching my head.

Someone who has had a sex‐change operation and clearly is attracted to the newly‐opposite sex is understandable to me. I've discovered that my biggest problem seems to be with those whose preferences are indeterminate. They leave me to question my own vulnerability. The sexual drive seems so ubiquitous among people; I'm at a loss how to think about those who seem to have no such drive, as though there must be something pathological going on, perhaps in me. Bisexuality is not the problem for me; asexuality is. Even at my age, well beyond a state of sexual competence, I'm invested in the bifurcation of people into "objects of desire" and "erotically uninteresting." The attention that has accrued to LGBT recently gives me much to ponder, particularly when I’m confronted with particular examples.

Many years ago, I experienced a similar nudge to my world view when I discovered that a young folk singer who had agreed to my making a documentary film about her, turned out to be lesbian. Up to that time I had never personally known anyone who was gay. The following weeks were, indeed, eye opening for me.

It’s a big and complicated world out there. My “bifurcation” of human beings is getting foggier and foggier. There are not just two kinds of people.

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