Sunday, 20 July 2008

Queer as (ordinary) folk

There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 the other day (you can listen to it again here), in which Olivia O'Leary interviewed a man and a woman, both of whose spouses had undergone a sex change. What made the interview particularly interesting was the fact that, despite the emotional turmoil that they had clearly gone through, both had decided to stay with their partners. When questioned about this by O'Leary, the interviewees talked movingly about still loving the person they married, regardless of their altered gender.

I found the story of the male interviewee, a very down-to-earth ex-policeman, especially affecting. Despite initially recoiling from the prospect of sleeping next to a man (made more traumatic by the fact that he himself had once been a victim of male rape), he had now come to terms with it and was even able to consider resuming some kind of sexual relationship with his partner, at the same time as realising that his own sexuality might be more complicated than he had once thought.

For me, these people's stories were a challenge to a view of sexuality (which at the risk of being accused of po-mo political correctness I'm tempted to label 'heterosexist') which sees it as based simply on the attraction of polar opposites, and fails to recognise that individuals are often attracted to each other by qualities that have little to do with their belonging to the 'other' gender (and indeed might find appealing in members of the same sex, if they were able to fight free of heterosexual conditioning). I remember reading an interview some time ago with a female writer - someone who had been in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, but was now single. The interviewer asked her which gender her next partner would be, to which the writer replied that she had no idea - it would depend on the person. Incidentally, the ex-policeman's experience is also a riposte to those who would dismiss gender and sexual quality as an elite, metropolitan 'lifestyle' issue (see this post).

Other good news on the gender/sexual equality front: the USA is about to get its first lesbian poet laureate, while it looks likely that the excellent and openly gay Rachel Maddow will soon be hosting her own show on MSNBC. Anyone keen to dismiss Maddow as a stereotypical leftie on account of her stint at Air America and background in HIV advocacy should note that her dad was an air force captain in Vietnam and that she describes herself as a defence-policy wonk and 'national security liberal'. 

Speaking of transsexualism: have you seen Hercules and Love Affair? Disco electronica is not usually my thing, but I love the way this band not only challenge gender stereotypes but also deconstruct the whole idea of what a band should be. Their core membership consists of a gay man, a lesbian and a transsexual, but audiences and critics have often got confused about who is which. What can you say about a band whose presiding genius is a geeky bearded guy who looks as though he's still playing in his bedroom, whose backing singer has virtually no stage presence, and who feature a celebrity vocalist (Antony of 'and the Johnsons' fame) on their debut album, but then replace him for their first world tour with the virtually unknown club singer Nomi? Incidentally - could the latter be the most convincing male-female transsexual ever? Judge for yourselves:

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