I’m a Cancer, but born on the cusp of Gemini. So I’m home-loving, even deeply traditional, on the one hand, extroverted and edgy on the other.
Why do I find myself accounting in this way for the fact that I’m a bundle of contradictions, even though I really believe that astrology—at least as a way of understanding and explaining character and personality—is a load of old bollocks? Does a superficial recourse to the Zodiac and other manmade categories like it really help me to know myself, is it just an easy and acceptable way of accounting for my nature, of reducing my complexity and variability to something to which I can give a name?
It’s true that there’s little I love more than savoring a cup of tea in my favorite china tea-cup or, all things being equal, curling up with a packet of Digestive biscuits and a book I’ve read umpteen times before. At the same time I am a creature of strong opinions, frequently full of enthusiasm for everything I do and with the drive that enables me to do battle with the outside world (even if, in my heart of hearts, I’d rather not).
When I was a child I distinctly remember thinking how glad I was that I was a girl. Why? Because, I reasoned, a girl doesn’t have to go to war and a girl doesn’t have to make the first move. But then I was also a chatterbox who loved to perform, the kind of annoying child who sits in the front row and shoots her hand up the instant the teacher asks a question. When I was a teenager I remember agonizing over the dilemma of liking a certain boy, but wanting to be sure of his interest in me before I actively pursued him. Otherwise, I asked myself, how would I ever be sure whether he really liked me or whether he had just fallen prey to me? But after holding myself back for a few short days, hoping to discern whether he had any particular interest in me, I couldn’t stand it any longer and pursued him anyway. After all, this was 1970, the era of women’s liberation, no longer the dark ages when a young woman (we rejected the word “girl”) either had to wait passively for a man to pursue her, holding him at bay until she had extracted a pledge of marriage from him, or subtly exercised her feminine wiles to attract and entrap her unsuspecting man, all the while allowing him to think that in fact he had been the pursuer. But all along, in my heart of hearts, I would rather that he had pursued me from the beginning.
Curious, isn’t it, society’s investment in the difference between the sexes, when 22 out of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes in every human cell are the same, and only one, the pair of sex chromosomes, is different. Do we ever know how much of this difference is inherent in our very natures, our hormones, our genetic makeup, and how much is imposed on us and inculcated in us by society? I teach contemporary theory to undergraduates, and there too, even as social construction is a buzzword so too is la différence (not to mention Jacques Derrida’s différance). When it comes to the study of gender theory, I show them how concepts of femininity and masculinity vary both temporally and spatially, across centuries and societies, which argues for the constructedness of their identities. At the same time we discuss French feminists and others who celebrate the essential, biological differences between men and women. Moving on to current gender politics, we discuss genders and transgenders, both those who identify with one or the other and those who seek to break with gender binaries altogether.
My students, even the most conservative, find it relatively easy to accept that there are people with different gender identities and sexual preferences from their own, and even to accept that they deserve equal rights under the law. What they find much more difficult, though, is to entertain a questioning of their own gender identity in anything other than fixed or unitary terms. And yet the older I become, the more I come to believe that all these socially constructed categories, whether they are the notion of two genders, or nine Enneagrams, or twelve signs of the Zodiac, merely seek to simplify the complex and shifting mystery of who we are. The most accurate explanatory concept that I have come across is that of the continuum.
A critical contribution to feminist theory in the 1970s and 1980s was the late Adrienne Rich’s 1986 landmark essay, Compulsory Sexuality and Lesbian Existence. In our contemporary theory class, discussion often focuses on her notion of the lesbian continuum. It sought to create a stronger sense of community between heterosexual feminists and lesbian feminists by proposing that the concept of gender identity was not binary, but could more accurately be seen as a continuum; further, that being a woman-identified woman need not be narrowly limited to sexual activity, but could include a whole range of non-sexual intimate relationships with other women.
My heterosexual female students tend to accept Rich’s argument, but only to a certain point, sadly, missing most of Rich’s point as I understand it. They are quite willing to accept that their relationships with their best girlfriends have an importance to them that could not be replaced by relationship with a man, even if that man was their lover or husband. They resent it when their preference for spending time with their girlfriends, whether it’s having sleepovers with them or walking down the street arm-in-arm, is labeled as “lesbian” by onlookers or jealous boyfriends. They are willing to embrace and defend these homosocial relationships and even to elevate them over relationships with the opposite sex. But they stop short of seeing them as part of Rich’s lesbian continuum, which posits “all relations among women as different in degree but not in kind from erotic love” (Eric, Engendering Theory). That is, no matter how much the idea of a continuum makes eminent sense to them, as soon as there is any danger of their being perceived as homosexual, they reject the continuum and rush to shore up the wall between themselves and lesbians. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homosexual panic takes hold.
When I am in India I love wearing nothing more than a sari. In the United States, it tends to exoticize and embarrass me (see TMA 154, Saraswati and Sari-wearing), but in India, where it is the norm for women, it gives me pleasure on so many levels, from the ritual of draping it, to the flowing feel of walking in it, to the sense of belonging it offers to an insider-outsider like me. Yet when I return to the States, the beautiful saris languish in my closet in favor of a nondescript, socially acceptable uniform at work and, at home, the same pair of worn old jeans day after day. When I was last in India having a videochat with a new American friend, she was startled to see my apparent transformation. Suddenly I looked like “one of them,” someone she didn’t know. In her sudden panic, she couldn’t help but blurt out that she hoped that I would be myself again when I got home.
The truth is, each and all of these shifting and changing identities is/are me, severally and together. I continually slide back and forth between and among them, and resent the notion that I should have to hide or deny any of them, just as I reject the notion that one of them is my “real self.” That self, still elusive after all these years, is much, much more than can be contained in a set of clunky categories. In my view (with apologies to Believers), “Cancer on the cusp of Gemini” gestures towards it, perhaps as well as any categorizing system, but really doesn’t have a clue.