Prince, Bowie, and finding gender

2016 has been a tough year for music. It seems like icons of all sorts of genres are falling left and right, and two of the especially difficult ones for me were David Bowie and Prince, both of whom left an incalculable impact on pop culture and music. More than that, though, they had a profound influence on how I related to gender, an experience shared by a huge swath of people, but particularly perhaps those of us living on the outside, the edges, the places where counterculture didn’t reach. I couldn’t see gender variance on the streets, but I could see it on album covers and hear it in music, and it’s one of the things that kept me alive in my youth.

Now, gender variance is much more visible, though it’s nowhere close to where it needs to be. Youth in particular don’t see enough of the spectrum of gender, and they’re also seeing the consequences of having variant gender expression — the genderqueer people set on fire in buses, the androgynous people relentlessly bullied and harassed in school, the agender people excluded from public life. Despite a growing push to recognise and accept the trans community, public culture is a step behind when it comes to more complicated expressions of gender and transness, and it shows.

But two decades ago, even ten years ago, there was even less than there is now. Especially if you grew up in a rural area like I did, there was next to me. Gender was binary and it was highly rigid — there were clear bounds of gender roles that people filled, even in a relatively liberal community where out gays and lesbians lived in relative safety. People might express gender slightly differently, but the rules were still fairly narrow, and when you crossed lines, everyone stared at you. Nowhere was that more clear than fashion.

I used to dress wild and furious, highly variable from day to day, in an Elizabethan gown one day and ridiculous torn up Victorian dresses the next, layered in jackets and jewelry and strange things, but as I got further and further in school, that changed. It became more and more dangerous to stand out, more and more painfully obvious that I didn’t fit anywhere, that the way I expressed myself was foreign and amusing to the people around me. When people mocked me, I turned to more subdued garments, eventually shrinking down into plain black and a handful of silver rings dotted across my hands, reasoning that if you had nothing, you had nothing to lose.

But it was David Bowie and Prince who showed me a sliver of hope, that maybe someday, somewhere, I didn’t have to cram myself uncomfortably into this gendered box. They were so aggressively comfortable in their own riotous, colourful, complicated, beautiful clothing. I learned that men could wear skirts, elaborate makeup, could hold massive purple guitars and sing in falsetto and tease their hair. I learned that men could be wild and gentle and strange and wonderful and beautiful, and like so many people I was drawn to their sexuality and their sensuality, but I also had a crush on their gender, their glorious gender, the breathing space that they created, the figures I could point at, the people I could be someday.

I’ve struggled with what to write about Prince and Bowie in recent months, teasing around the subject and setting it aside and always promising myself that I will come back to it later. As the months have gone by, it’s still raw and complicated, in a culture where public expressions of grief through connections to celebrity are viewed with disdain by some people. We’re making it about ourselves, people like to mock, but the thing is that these things are about ourselves — not in the way they are for friends and loved ones, but for us culturally, because we too have lost something, and there is more than one kind of grief.

What I lost when I lost these two in quick succession was the two pillars of my childhood, the people who made me realise that there was more to the world than what I was seeing. The people who told me it was okay to wear giant tulle skirts with mismatched socks and stompy boots and elaborate poets’ shirts, hair drawn up in complicated braids. Maybe that had to stay hidden in high school, but it was somewhere inside, waiting to come out, patient, knowing that its time would come.

When Prince died, I looked at my closet and realised that a lot hadn’t changed since the days when I hid myself behind walls of plain clothing in an attempt to convince the world that I was normal, like them. Ordinary, plain, comfortable, nonconfrontational clothing — some nice button downs, tee shirts, plain pants.

And it sounds like a small thing, but it made me realise that in their honour, after years of puzzling out my relationship with gender and trying to break free of social constraints, that maybe it was time to set those clothes again and find myself again. I suspect it will take years, because it takes years to build a sense of style again when you’ve spent so much time suppressing it, but style is such a part of your expression and sense of self, and sometimes it is through style that we express our gender most clearly and aggressively, and I am so tired of not being myself.

In my small town on the edge of the Pacific, people will look at me strangely, just like they did in high school, and some of them will sneer and mock me and question my right to exist, but Prince and Bowie taught me to live above that — and this year they taught me that I shouldn’t save that living for some point in a distant and ‘safe’ future, because the future is now.

Image: David Bowie is…, Rain Rabbit, Flickr