On Effeminacy

Published: August 11, 2011

I’ve been reading Cornel West tonight, specifically his essay ‘Prophetic Religion and the future of Capitalist Civilization’. I guess you could call it research. I’ve been trying to complete a book of essays called ‘Writing Down the Vision’ and I see the essays as an engagement in ‘the prophetic’. I’m always writing about prophets – warner women and seers for instance. Sometimes it’s the comic side that intrigues me,  like how I want to write something about the Jamaican psychic, Safa (may his soul rest in peace), and the pseudo-Jamaican psychic Miss Cleo (is she out of jail yet?) neither of whom seemed able to see their demise coming.

But sometimes my fascination is quite serious. Cornel West understands the prophetic in much the way I do – not centred on some kind of clairvoyance or peek into the future, but centred on ‘the catastrophic, the suffering of oppressed people, not in any kind of abstract way, not in any kind of condescending way, not in any kind of philanthropic or charitable way; justice being not just in solidarity with dominated peoples but of actually having a genuine love and willingness to celebrate with and work alongside those catching hell…’

That’s what I believe prophets do. They extend genuine love towards those amongst us who catch hell. What Cornel West calls for is a kind of radical and ever-expanding empathy. It’s something I feel called to as well.

A lot of people catch hell, but who more so than the effeminate man? From the soft-spoken, slightly lisp-tongued and well-mannered clerk to the outrageously flamboyant and self-declared diva? Let me make it clear here that for this moment I am not talking about sexuality. The issue is not queerness or gayness, though there are clearly overlaps. I’m talking about the performance of gender rather than sexual orientation or preference. For it must be quite obvious that the effeminate man (whether he is gay or straight) is at times equally discriminated against and taunted by both straight and gay communities, by both religious and irreligious people.

You see, there is a popular idea out there – tautological in its construction, vague in its suggestion, but profound in its insistence. This idea is repeated ad nauseum  and said as simply as one might say ‘the sky is blue’. A simple statement of fact. And the idea is this: that ‘a man must act like a man.’ (I am focusing on men here, but of course it goes the other way as well – for I’ve been heart-broken many a time to hear young women being put down severely for not being ‘lady-like’ – whatever the hell that must be, and whoever it is that decides what lady-like behaviour is). So this tautological idea that a man must act like a man is so powerful, so ingrained in most of us, that everyone becomes a gender-police. Society polices men, and men police themselves. If we are inclined otherwise we try desperately to lose our soft-spokenness, to act more aggressive, and to ‘man-up’ in whatever perceived way we feel we are being asked to ‘man-up’.

Sometimes this self-policing is done to comical effect. I remember a girl complimenting one of my friends in Jamaica. She liked his clothes – his fashion sense. But he became defensive. “What yu trying to say!?” he asked her. “That I know how to co-ordinate? No sah! Take it back! I don’t have any style. I don’t understand nothing bout fashion! Because man a man!”

It was a joke, but then again it wasn’t. My friend understood that such a compliment, given enough time, could escalate into discrimination. For if someone, diligent in their policing duties, decided suddenly – wait a minute, he does dress rather neatly, and with a bit of flair, and he is rather thin, and he does speak softly – then this police might come to the conclusion, ‘Him act kinda funny fi real!’ and then the next step, ‘Him don’t really act like a man.’

Is there any allowance for the fact that there must be many different ways to act like many different kinds of men? For sometimes I have even heard the accusation, ‘ but that man act like a gyal eeh’ – and observing the accused I have thought to myself – Actually no. He doesn’t act like ‘a gyal’. He acts distinctly like a man – but not the kind of man you would approve of.

Anyway, we really have to separate this idea of how a man behaves from what his sexual orientation may or may not be to realize the desperate unfairness, the moral bankruptcy, the complete baselessness of a discrimination that so many of us engage in and that has largely gone unchecked. In a country as homophobic as Jamaica supposedly is, the great problem is usually not with who a man sleeps with but with how he behaves in public. Jamaicans are more offended by what could be popularly perceived than by what actually is or isn’t. My neighbour in Jamaica, a pot bellied man who always comes over to ask if we are alright, once told me about his tenant. ‘Him not really gay you know, but some nights I see him bring a guy over. I think him just kinda freaky.’  Though the tenant was having sex with men, he wasn’t “gay” because he was a man who acted like a man. He caused no great offence.

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