I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.
Which is why I went to art school, concentrated in documentary video production, graduated into a terrible economy (not that the economy has ever been too kind to artists anyway), ended up working as a barista, got a job in my field then subsequently got laid off, worked as a barista again, came out as transgender, got involved with Gender Reel, and met my new coworker Mel, a TV producer-turned-actress/barista. Which brings us to a dead evening at the café where I work, and the conversation Mel and I were having about art.
Given my indulgence of my life story in the last paragraph, you might surprised to find that I am going to leave out the gritty details of the conversation, but the conversation itself is not as important as the idea that I arrived at during our dialogue. There is one single, little sentence that escaped my lips and floated into the ether of the empty café that evening that I am still ruminating on, nearly a week later:
“Gender is too complicated to be explained properly in any way other than art.”
This is a profound idea that has been something I’ve known for a few years now, but until that evening in the café, the stars has not aligned to allow me to formulate the concept into a verbal reality. Now that it has been said, however, it is something that I completely understand with my entire being and soul.
When I first came out to myself as trans, I read literally over fourteen books on the subject of gender, and countless blogs and online journals. I immersed myself in heaps of information that enlightened me and gave me words to express myself, and to those authors I am thoroughly grateful for that, but that experience was lacking a “je ne sais quoi” that only art can provide.
I think I’ve realized that maybe gender simply cannot be explained. Perhaps it is something that can only be felt. Maybe it is too abstract, too complicated of a concept to really try and nail into a theory, concept or science. Maybe gender is not something you “are,” rather, something you “feel.”
There are lots of amazing performers, artists, photographers, and creative writers out there trying to capture this elusive beast. Sometimes they are able to, and when you experience their creative, abstract interpretation of what gender is, it can send shivers up your spine.
Most recently I watched a play here in Philadelphia called Act a Lady, put on by Philly’s Azuka theater. The play was about three men in a small town in the 1920’s who flirted with gender identity and it ended up consuming their reality and making them a little mad. The confusion and madness and inexplicableness of their sense of gender was something that I identified with, and their performance tugged at me and dared to possibly help explain my experience in a way that nothing outside of art has ever been able to do.
This is also what makes me proud of the work that Gender Reel is doing, in the little claim that we’ve staked in the art-meets-gender world.
Author R. Drew is a Philly-based artist and barista extraordinaire who is currently trying to raise money for his chest surgery. Please visit 7000peopleproject.org