Young People Stretch Limits of Gender Identity

by Martha Irvine
Source: The Detroit News

Transgender Youth Picture - Photo by Morry Gash / Associated Press
Alex Polanco adjusts his wig in his Menasha WI apartment. The 18-year-old disregards pressure to be strictly female or male. He refers to himself as “tranny boy.”

Chicago, 2005 Oct 02 [AP]

When it comes to gender, Alex Polanco is not easily pegged. Some days, he wakes up in the morning and feels male, pulling on jeans and a T-shirt and leaving it at that. Other times, he wears makeup and one of the wigs he keeps in tidily packed boxes in his bedroom closet.

“I don’t want to call it a split personality – but sometimes, I feel like a girl. So I put on the costume, what feels comfortable,” says the 18-year-old Chicagoan, who refers to himself as “tranny boy.”

The term is deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the gray area in which Polanco exists, where gender is blurred and he feels no obligation to choose female over male – or vice versa.

He often switches back and forth around friends he trusts or in urban neighborhoods where he feels free to express himself.

“I’m not trying to be permanently that person,” says Polanco, who recently moved to northern Wisconsin with a friend to attend a community college. “I just like the opportunity to be a man or a woman, if I want.”

The concept of gender-bending is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Nineteenth-century author George Sand was famous for her cigar-smoking and pants-wearing, while female impersonators worked their way from underground clubs in decades past to prominent billing in Las Vegas.

More recently, against a backdrop of increasing equality in the workplace, youths and pop icons have been slowly pushing the limits on gender roles – from the long-haired rock bands of the ’60s to David Bowie’s androgynous look and Madonna’s celebration of drag in the 1980s and ’90s.

Now, macho men get makeovers on mainstream TV and one of the most popular TV talk show hosts is a lesbian comic who feels comfortable in slacks and sneakers. And academics who specialize in gender and pop culture say today’s youths are continuing to test the boundaries of gender – challenging societal standards in the process.

“I think the fluidity of gender is the next big wave in terms of adolescent development,” says Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University who is conducting a long-term sexual orientation and gender survey of youths and their families. “Gender has become part of the defining way that youth organize themselves and rebel against adults.”

While researchers have yet to quantify the trend, Ryan says that, in the past five years, she’s seen more young people coming out as transsexual – those who believe they are one gender trapped in the body of the other. She and others in her field also are seeing a noticeable number of young people who are taking it further by purposely evading gender definition.

They are “gender fluid,” expressing androgyny with wardrobe, hairstyle or makeup – sometimes going as far as calling themselves a “boi” or a “grrl.”

To some youths, playing with gender identity and roles is as much about fun and self-expression as anything. “There’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek aspect to it,” Ryan says, “as well as a celebration of oneself.”

But often it cuts deeper, even for some transsexuals.

“At the very basic level, it’s about telling society that we’re not going to adhere to your rules. At some level, it is very political and anti-mainstream society. And on a different level, it’s also very personal – trying to figure yourself out,” says T.J. Jourian, a 24-year-old graduate student at Michigan State University who specifically calls himself a “transmale” – not just male – because he doesn’t want people to place his gender into a simple box.

Born a female, Jourian does not always hide his high-pitched voice or mannerisms that many would consider more feminine. “Although I identify as a man, I have been socialized in this world as a female, and that experience plays a huge part in shaping my masculinity, my politics and my perspective in society,” Jourian says.

Andy Marra, the 20-year-old head of the board of directors for the National Center for Transgender Equality, agrees.

“People assume that gender is cut-and-dried – and it’s not,” says Marra, who describes her “gender identity” as female and “biological gender” as male. “But what about a gay male who’s effeminate – or for that matter, a straight male who’s effeminate or straight woman who’s butch?”

Several scientists, including Craig Kinsley, met this summer at the International Behavioral Development Symposium in Minot, N.D., to discuss the biology of gender.

“It so complex, so unfathomable in some respects, that it is no wonder our politicians find comfort in defining a world that is populated by only ’men’ and ’women,’ ” says Kinsley of the University of Richmond. “But trying to define males and females as just males and females really just misses the point.”

He says there is “clear and incontrovertible” evidence that biology – genes, hormones and the brain – is a major factor in creating a wide range of gender identities and sexual orientations.

Elayne Rapping, a professor of American studies at the University of Buffalo, is among those who’ve seen more students playing with gender roles – something she says her own peers in the ’60s and ’70s did with sexual orientation.

“A lot of people went back to straight lives. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t open doors for a lot of people to come out and stay out,” says Rapping, author of “Media-tion: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars.”

She believes this more recent experimentation also will influence acceptance in a society where gender identities are blurring – where the term “metrosexual” is a source of pride for straight guys with a sense of style and where tough, independent female characters are regulars in movies and on TV.

Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University who studies pop culture, has noted the shift. “A full generation after the major reorientation of American gender roles, we are now seeing the fruits of these changes,” Thompson says.

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