“Ultimately a thing exists only by virtue of its boundaries, which means by a more or less hostile act against its surroundings.”
Robert Musil, A Man Without Qualities
The instinct of those who fear the dilution of their identity is to build walls. In rare cases they are built of concrete; more usually they are built with words.
Trump’s wall is imagined as a barrier of concrete and iron twenty feet high and two thousand miles long. But he knows, as all populists and nationalists know, that walls don’t need to be built as long as they are imagined.
The partitions of apartheid had only to be spoken to exist. The idea enforced them.
The wall between male and female is fixed in our imaginations because it is built of the speech we cannot think without. Its bricks are personal pronouns, prepositions and antonyms — he and she, him and her, under and over, inside and outside, hard and soft.
It is necessary but not sufficient to say that the anxiety provoked by gender fluidity has its roots in a more generalised discomfort with the fluidities of race, culture and national identity that are both the cause and the consequence of globalism. It is self-evident that the animus of Brexit is a rage against flux, a nostalgia for a time when dichotomies were never false, a bitter despair at the permeability of borders.
Nor is it especially enlightening to point out that the sticking point of Brexit was the porousness of a boundary between two Irelands that can’t be imagined away.
We draw lines between places, races and sexes not only because we fear the dissolution of the selves we make of their constituent adjectives: not only to be able to say we are white or black or male or female or British or not British; not only because there may not be words for the qualities that could define us beyond our race, age, citizenship and gender. I can’t speak for a wider idea of humanity, but in this culture we call Western, we make opposites so we can make transactions.
Transactions require two sides, two parties at odds: someone to sell, someone to buy. Americans knew they were getting a liar when they elected a dealer. Lying is what good dealers do best.
And in this England now, where the distinction between value and values was long ago erased by the Tory technocracy and lost in a fog of Etonian cant, and not only because my view of my adopted country is occluded by the shadow of Brexit, we will, if we can, make transactions of love, sex and friendship the way we make transactions of cars, mortgages and forgiveness. If we are to win, someone — anyone — must lose or be seen to lose.
It is no accident that English divorce law required until April this year that one or other party had to be blamed. We have two dominant political parties and two dominant definitions of gender for the same reason.
The opposition is the enemy by definition. We are at a loss to define who we are if we have no enemy to define who we are not. Coalitions don’t cut it. To be enemy-less is to cease to exist.
Brexit asked a binary question expecting a simple answer. It discovered instead a world of astonishing complexity, a hall of mirrors in which winners became losers and losers winners; a maze through a messy, non-negotiable middle in which generations to come will find themselves facing the doorless walls of their parents’ construction.
Sexit is the Brexit of sexual identity. It wants to see the world in cut and dried dichotomies of male or female, over or under, inside or out — of borders starkly dividing that which penetrates from that which is penetrated.
It abhors the in-between and the messy middle the way Brexit abhors a skin darker than pale, the citizens of nowhere, the intrusion of Africa’s colours into our red, white and blue.
It is an unholy war waged against ambivalence — against the flux of our ever-changing preferences, inclinations and desires; against adolescence, in particular, because that is the time of our most voluptuous doubts. It uses the codes of religious or cultural exceptionalism to make women out of girls and men out of boys, at any price and at any cost. It shouts because it can’t say the words it would need to speak. It has no vocabulary between yes and no. It shouts louder to drown out the prurient whispers that keep it awake at night. It shouts because it fears the in-between.
Its opposite is fluid, not fixed. It rejects the binary to embrace complexity. It seeks questions, not answers. It speaks most clearly without words.
It’s the creative search — as curious, tentative and terrifying as any other kind of creative exploration — for a sexual self defined and made whole by itself alone.
Gender fluidity is an exchange with the self, not a transaction with another. It seeks beginnings, not endings. If it has a destination it is a place without blame.
First published in SHE Magazine/Gender Fluidity Issue 2019
© Gordon Torr