Look at my dress

When I was 22 I wanted to find a different way of writing about being a man, writes Geir Gulliksen. It should be possible to be as gentle as a boy or as reckless as a girl. But gender stereotypes have not changed as radically as we think.

I am a man. It’s simple to say, so why can’t I say it or write it without the room going dark and the walls closing in around me? It is suffocating! I can’t breathe! But I’m not a woman and then I have to say that I am a man even if the word seems much too limiting, it means little with regards to who I am and the life I lead. So what shall I do? “Tried to run. Tried to hide. No, break on through to the other side!” That’s why I’d rather call myself a man in a dress.

It is both easy and hard to explain why.

Look at the following sentence: “She was the most beautiful boy I had seen in my life.” The world becomes new and alive with a simple click of the fingers. The sentence is from Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, a novel based on a story from Horace’s Metamorphoses where a young girl has to be transformed into a boy in order to marry her girlfriend. But in Smith’s version the story is different, freer, even more radical than in Horace’s version. The beautiful sentence is not about biology or hermaphroditic beauty, it is about combining the linguistically-based gender opposites in a new way. And this is what makes the sentence so beautiful, as are a number of other sentences in the novel. Look at the quotation below: it is simple and almost na•ve in its form and yet, or perhaps because of it, clear and liberating. See how little it takes:

She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and dainty and delicate as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girly, so girly it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names in every tree.
Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy

I find this extremely liberating to read, as if the window had been thrown open in a warm, airless room. Right now it seems as if many – at least many who speak publicly – want to reject any idea that how we experience the world can be linguistically based, and advocate instead for simplified truths: there are men with male bodies and women with female bodies and that’s that, the biological differences are final and indisputable. I’m sure some experience the world that way but I don’t. I am acutely, physically aware that gender is something far more complex than the mere oppositions between men and women. This is easy to say but not always easy to live with.

Even before I started school I was uncomfortable with having to be “a boy”, and I am still uncomfortable with being “a man”, and it was clear to me early on that the simple opposites had to be re-adjustable so that it would be possible to be as gentle as a boy or as reckless as a girl. And when I started to write, it was this I wrote about, as if writing was the only place where it I could liberate myself from preset notions about gender.

Or: who I should be

When I was 22 I wanted to find a different way of writing about being a man. It felt necessary: I felt there was a larger emotional register and a deeper involvement and a richer intimacy in men than was evident in everyday speech. And so there had to be a new language, more intimate, sensualized. The first book I wrote was about a friendship between two young boys. I wanted to explore the possibilities that such a friendship could be as intense and symbiotic as it was usual to say that a friendship between girls was. The result was a sort of collection of short prose pieces, a novel in fragments, entitled M¿rkets munn (Mouth of darkness). It was to be about things that are difficult to give voice to, things that linger in the dark even when unsaid. When the book was published in 1986, some read it as a story about gay love. In a way that didn’t bother me even if I was a little surprised since I had aimed for something totally different.

It is impossible for me to look at that book now and as far as I am concerned it can rest in peace. But 20 years later, I once again found myself sitting down to write a novel about gender, where the starting point was a feeling that being a man, at least to me, is something totally different from what I had a language for. I have almost always lived with this feeling, but now I felt that I knew more than before and that in a literary sense I could deliver more. The story I wrote was about a man and a woman, married to each other, and at one point the man discovers that within the relationship his jealousy is transformed into its opposite: he wants to observe his partner with someone else. They meet another man, and a straightforward physical threesome develops: they are just three individuals who establish a sexual relationship. I counted on the situation being extreme enough and clear enough to allow something other than I had previously seen to become visible in the description of love, of sexuality and of ways of being men or women. For instance: a man who wants to observe his girlfriend with another man has to let go of some form of male emotional ownership. Simultaneously, he probably wants to approach the same feeling of ownership from the opposite side, as a sort of voyeur perhaps, as someone who wants to watch and who thereby stages and manipulates others’ actions and feelings.

Sexuality unfolds in specific times and places. The novel is set between 1985 and 2005, the period in which I myself became an adult, but also the period when privatization started, when New Public Management became an apparently self-explanatory way of thinking about the organization of the welfare state. So it had to be about privatization all the way into the inner life of the body. Writing the novel was like making a second debut, but as I wrote, I had the strange feeling that not much had happened in terms of understanding gender in the course of the past 20 years. At least, whatever had happened had moved in the opposite direction from me.

I called the novel Tjuendedagen (The twentieth day). But I don’t want to spend time talking about the novel, I just want to mention that it contains another story and that the two stories meet in a way that doesn’t quite mesh. The second story in the novel is, among other things, about my background – a man who doesn’t want to call himself a man – as a writer about gender. I needed a narrator, and the narrator had to be a woman, and I called her Liv Larsen. Her story starts with her going to Bergen to study in 1985. Exactly as I did. Apart from that, I had no idea what she was about, only that she could not be a man. But Liv Larsen is ambivalent and uncomfortable with traditional female attitudes. She doesn’t like girls who brush each other’s hair, she dislikes the overly feminine ways of dressing, moving, selling oneself. “Self-realization” only means to sell oneself cheaply, she says. And at the same time she is attracted by what she dislikes: she falls in love with girls she herself has no wish to be like.

The strange thing was that while I sat there writing as if I were Liv Larsen, it seemed as if I was writing about myself. I had lived seven years in Bergen where I studied sociology, as had Liv Larsen. But that was not decisive: what was decisive was that her experiences were my experiences, even when I made them up: her feeling for life was my feeling for life, the way I had never before been able to write about it. For the novel it was not decisive that what I wrote were my own experiences, at least only in as far as it gave me a voice I believed in long enough to see the writing through. For those who read the novel it is of no importance if Liv Larsen is me or vice versa. But of course it was not unimportant to me. And after a while, I realized that it was completely decisive for my identification with the “I” and for the writing that she was not a man.

Why? Among other things because it is even more difficult to write an ambivalent, twisted maleness than to write an alternative, twisted femaleness. The understanding of what the female can be has changed in the course of the past 200 years or more, but what is not seen as feminine (and therefore has to be male?) to a considerable degree appears unchangeable and given.

Isn’t it like this? Just try to read the beautiful love declaration from Ali Smith’s novel again and see what happens if we reverse it, if we read it as the description of a man: “He was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

What happens now? Suddenly the opposites seem far less productive, far more familiar. What appears is no longer a complete, living body, but a sort of transsexual drag artist. And look at this:

He had the swagger of a girl. He blushed like a boy. He had a girl’s toughness. He had a boy’s gentleness. He was as meaty as a girl. He was as graceful as a boy. He was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. He was as pretty and dainty and delicate as a boy. He turned boys’ heads like a girl. He turned girl’s heads like a boy. He made love like a boy. He made love like a girl. He was so boyish it was girly, so girly it was boyish, He made me want to rove the world writing our names in every tree.

It was totally different when I read about a boyish girl: the refined turned rough in a much more flexible way. The opposites immediately seemed more useful when they were about a boyish girl. But a girlish boy? We all know what THAT is: we’ve seen that sort of thing before you know.

Is it still like this: a woman benefits from what we see as masculine while a man is only weakened by what we perceive as feminine? A lot of what we refer to as “male characteristics” – decisiveness, courage, power – are not unique to men. And most men have characteristics that are apparently not part of what we understand as masculine – empathy, devotion, care. Even those who really think that a man is or should be a decision maker, for example, can easily also think that men are afraid of conflicts in their relationships. As if these two things belong together, are two sides of the same coin: decision maker at work, conflict shy at home. Is this why I experience an almost claustrophobic discomfort at calling myself a man – because the term itself seems reductive and simplistic in relation to who I am?

So not only are our gender categories too narrow, they describe ideal types, model people, rough sketches that can’t be compared with real people. The diversity of characteristics we all carry in us go beyond the limitations of the stereotypes “man” or “woman”. And so if I describe myself as a man then most of my existence, my inner life but also my public life – who I am together with others – will remain in the dark.

The troubling case of the schoolbags

I started school in 1970. Our school was brand new the year before. Stained brown and with a low, flat roof it fitted into the terrain like an architect’s dream. It was an architect’s dream: each classroom had its own entrance from the schoolyard, a small staircase with two or three steps, and before we were let in each morning, we threw our schoolbags down by the steps. They lay there in a pile waiting for us to pick them up again and carry them on our backs to our desks and the sheets of paper and pencils and books and light.

But wait. There were, of course, two piles: one for the boys and another for the girls. Most of the boys had blue rucksacks and most of the girls had red, but some of the girls had brown leather rucksacks and some of the boys probably had green if I remember correctly. But the one I paid the most attention to was the one belonging to H, he was the only boy who had a brown rucksack with tassels on the flap. I had the same kind, there were tassels on mine too, but it was blue. The brown one stood out, not much but just enough for me not to have dared carry it. But H did. He had brown wavy hair and he wore brown corduroys and a knitted cardigan, which was brown and white, and brown shoes. Everything bore witness to a mother who had carefully created a beautiful picture of a beautiful boy, I think. It suited him, and he wore the slightly too nice clothes with a relaxed dignity, just as he did the brown schoolbag.

Each morning for the first weeks after we started the same thing happened: H walked into the schoolyard and threw his bag onto the boys’ pile on the right-hand side. Immediately, a couple of the other boys came, picked up the bag and threw it onto the pile on the left where the girls’ red and brown bags were. H fetched his bag and put it back on the boys’ pile. It was immediately thrown back onto the girls’ pile again.

It was as if H were too good to be a boy.

The girls’ bags were also stacked rather better than the boys’. They didn’t chuck their bags onto the ground the way we did, they put them down carefully, gathering them tidily, while we hurled ours as if we didn’t really want them. I did so too and I guess H tried to do so as well, but his bag was still not allowed to be with ours. The brown bag was a little too neat and nice, like H’s clothes, and perhaps it made it too feminine. It was in any case too nice to be with our bags, the blue boys’ bags that were to be thrown on the ground as if they had no value. As if it was feminine to care what your things looked like, and as if the feminine was closed off to us: we were not permitted there. Perhaps this was what H raised himself above.

Or was it because he was so pretty? At least I thought so. And that was one reason why I collected his bag and put it back on the boys’ pile where my bag was. I picked his bag up and carried it back, and I remember the feeling of seeing it lying in that pile again, close to mine. I didn’t take the risk of putting it on top of or next to my own, even if that is what I most wanted, I just placed it randomly, somewhere else in the pile. And immediately one of the others came and chucked it back to the girls’ again. But I didn’t give up. Long after H had stopped bothering about it, it was my job to rescue his bag and restore it to the boys’ side. I got more and more furious each time and I never gave in, I grabbed his bag and ran back with it to our side, sobbing, where one of the others stood waiting to hurl it right back. They were encouraged by my anger, of course, and had even more fun because of me. But I couldn’t give in, I was on the verge of tears and it was all so embarrassing. I fought for a lost cause I would never win, and the ritual was carried out every morning for several weeks without me understanding what we were doing, what it all meant.

What did it mean? Why was this so much more important to me than to H? Why was I so afraid to see his bag together with the girls’ bags? In some way I was infatuated with H, I could see that much myself and that was part of the reason I wanted to protect him. I became his self-appointed knight and I saw myself in that light well into the second year when he changed schools and we lost touch. But there was something else, too, that was, perhaps, more important: it was unbearable for me to see his bag lying with the girls’ bags. He was a boy, and his bag should be with the boys’ bags. If not, then what was to become of us? What was to become of me?

This happened four years before Gro Harlem Bruntland became minister for the environment, a little more than 10 years before she became prime minister. The brown school with the flat roof was organically placed in the landscape, and just outside the schoolyard there was a forest. Early 1970s: we ran among the trees; somebody was lost or was hiding and the rest of us had to find him. The boys ran – rather, the other boys ran. They all ran much faster than me while they shouted, hooted, hollered and screamed, broke branches off the trees and swung at each other with sticks and threw rocks. I remember the hard, penetrating laughter all over the place, the stench in the boys’ loo, and the gang that always gathered there where they pushed random victims into the drain from the lavatory and kicked down the dividing walls between stalls. It was as if everything had to be ruined and I didn’t understand why. But I did understand that if this was what it was to be a boy then I was not a boy.

Later, many years later, it dawned on me that there were others that had the same experience. But I guess that is the paradox of the gender categories: everything that doesn’t fit is made invisible. Even though I could clearly sense the things that were not masculine in myself, I was unable to see them in others.

My hair grew long. Actually, my hair just covered my ears, like a helmet. So in that sense too I looked like a normal boy – like the others. I didn’t make me feminine, I made sure of that. But it didn’t help. I didn’t run fast and I didn’t fight, and I still don’t, but now there’s no one who tries to make me either. Nobody says, “Why don’t you hit back?” as my parents and brothers did. I guess they were worried that there might be something wrong with me. And I suppose I worried too.

Many of the girls had short hair, it was perfectly normal and no one suggested they ceased to be girls because of it. But they didn’t become stronger or freer with short hair. Half the girls had short hair, the other half long, but I fear none of them were any freer on the inside. This is what the real 1970s was like, the decade of feminism seen from a height of 1.25 metres: girls were girls, boys were boys, our bags had to lie in separate piles and nobody played with the other side with impunity.

Forty years on

Forty years have passed. I am an adult, I have children who are almost grown up and I have children who are quite small. My youngest daughter is four. She is nothing like me. She likes to run fast, she likes to swing at things with a stick, she likes to shout loudly and it seems she is almost never afraid of anything. If she gets scared it is more natural for her to scream or lash out than to run away. I have only seen her hide once, when a cow wanted to lick her hand. But if an older child tries to take what she is playing with away from her she gets angry. She screams and shouts and never quits no matter how hard or long the dispute. So: decisiveness, courage, power.

When she is asleep with her little hand under her cheek, or when she sits drawing for hours, it is easy to see that she is a four-year-old girl. But when she runs along the street swinging at things and shouting at her pals, is she then a small boy? No, it is perfectly clear to us all that she is the same girl all the time, but the categories are still so narrow it seems natural to say that a girl is “boyish” when we want to describe how strong and free she is. It is not so tempting to say that a boy is “girlish” when we want to show that he is careful or caring. A boy who is like a girl: that’s a shortcoming, something a little twisted or sad, a failing that must be accepted as discreetly as possible.

She is four years old and has short hair, something she herself decided. But I wonder if she will change her mind when she starts school? An experiment: walk into any school and look for girls with short hair. You don’t find them anymore. If a girl between three and thirteen decides that she wants to have short hair she is not spared comments that she looks like a boy, that she is not feminine and so on. Or go into any shop for children’s clothes, or a toy store, and you have to choose between pink and baby blue almost regardless of what you are looking for. The division between the sexes has grown while I’ve been an adult; my kids live with an even more pronounced gender based apartheid than I did.

The son of a friend of mine is also four years old. He has a twin sister and he thinks that he looks like his sister. He does not agree that she is a girl and he a boy. They don’t have the same genitals, of course, but that is no more than a problem of classification which he has solved by saying that there are four genders: there are girls with girlie bits and boys with boy bits, but there are also boys with girlie bits and girls with boy bits. He himself belongs to the fourth category: he has boy’s bits but he is still a girl. It makes sense to me, I would have chosen the exact same if I were forced to choose between so few categories.

Do I have to choose?

Last autumn I noticed a critic who quoted a sentence written by a male Norwegian author my age. The sentence said that a house without a woman was just a house, not a home. What really surprised me was that the sentence was quoted as a particularly wise and noteworthy sentence. What does this tell me? It is as if we never left the schoolyard we grew up in, or as if we’ve been thrown straight back in. That we are as helplessly caught in ideas of what gender does to us today as were those people before the celebrated or despised 1970s.

Is it really still part of our mindset that to be a man one has to be a freely circling satellite, a person without caring abilities, either for oneself or for others? That a house where the main carer is male – or several males – is nothing but an empty shell and not a home? If so, it is both depressing and fascinating. But I no longer run to save my own or somebody else’s masculinity and I’d rather throw my own schoolbag into the girls’ pile. For if it is still only girls who can create a home, and if writing such sad, desolate sentences is a way to be a “wise” male writer, then I would much rather be a girl.

Because if it is so, then a man is nothing more than an incomplete woman. When we talk of working mothers we associate it with burnout, low libido and a sort of grey exhaustion. But the female form of multi tasking bears witness to something totally different: an enormous capacity for work, a huge surplus of energy and a broad human spectrum. Someone who both deals with her job and her kids and her home and preferably also herself: who wouldn’t want to be like that? I certainly would. I don’t in any way believe that men can’t create a home, nor that they become less masculine for the trying. How masculine is it not to be able to look after one’s kids? To have never bought them clothes, not know what size they wear, what clothes they like and what suits them? How masculine is it to be an assistant in one’s own home, someone who merely helps out, who is sent out on errands?

A lot of what is required to create a home is difficult, more difficult than one could have imagined, at least if one has not learned it from the beginning. And when one has not been taught anything at home or in school one has to teach oneself and ask help and advice of those who know. It is not enough to know how to make a white sauce, bake bread, be familiar with a dozen or so healthy and economical dinners that can be thrown together on any given day. It is not enough to wash clothes without ruining them, dry them so they keep their shape and fold them properly. It is not enough to iron, fold bedlinen and towels, pick berries and make jam. What about darning socks or buying curtains? How about buying material and making the curtains yourself?

A lot of this knowledge is quite unevenly distributed. Who knows what is in the fridge, what is missing and what has to be bought? Who plans the family’s life – not just dinners and other food but activities, clothes, presents for birthdays, fetching and bringing and help with homework? Who has a sewing machine and knows how to use it? Who pays bills and keeps track of the household economy? Who cleans the bathroom, polishes the mirror and scrubs the loo? Who cleans the windows? Who buys the car if one is needed? Who takes it to the garage, who changes the tyres (or gets someone to do it), who talks to the electrician or the plumber, who builds a bunk bed for the kids room, tiles the bathroom or paints the stairs?

In my life it is the woman I am married to who does the latter: in our household she is the one who masters the male tasks. For instance, she knows what condition the car is in and what kind of car we actually have, and she knows when it needs work. She is the one who can assess the work of a builder or do that work herself. She gets the tools and keeps the toolbox in order. When my wife lays a floor, builds furniture, puts up shelves or paints the windows, I usually help her. And I am good at helping, I carry and hold stuff and run errands if necessary. But in this context I see myself as inferior. And it gives me a strange feeling of triumph, or freedom, or that the world is moving on. It is like reading Ali Smith, like watching a new language unfold.

And just as important: it gives me the chance to take care of as many of the traditionally female tasks as possible. And here I don’t want to help, I want to be in charge, even when it irritates me that there are certain things I still don’t know how to do, such as make curtains for instance. Cooking, doing the laundry, tidying and cleaning, being at home with the kids, these are completely normal things but to do them well takes concentration and competence.

Three scenarios to chose from

In a single afternoon – not entirely chosen at random! – I walked straight into three scenarios that show the difficulty in being a man who doesn’t want to be one. It was Friday and I had worked at home all day. Now it was early evening and I drove to the store to do the shopping for next week. This is why I had a rather long shopping list. The first scenario took place in the vegetable section while I was picking through the potatoes. A man I know, a neighbour, came up to me. He grinned and said:

“So, you’ve been equipped with one of those you too, eh?” He waved his shopping list around. It was shorter than mine I noticed, and I also saw the round, girlie handwriting it was written in. I often talk to the woman he is married to. She is a nurse and works outside town, they each have a car and the car she drives is noticeably smaller than his. It was easy to see she had kept the handwriting she learned in primary school. He is a friendly and amusing guy but I was unable to smile, I was barely able to talk, all because of the words “been equipped with”.

“Yes,” I said. “But I write the shopping list myself.” It was so stupid. It was so snooty and self-righteous, I could hear it myself but I had to say it.
“Oh,” he said.
“So there!” I said and tried to smile as heartily as he had done, I did after all want him to understand what I meant, that I didn’t want to come across as a babbling idiot. And I tried not to seem self satisfied or snooty. But the doors slammed shut around me and I was back in the schoolyard and this time I was running to put my own bag in the pile that was not the boys’ pile. But how was he to understand that?

“Yes,” he said again and smiled a little fuzzily. He didn’t understand what I was doing or thought I was making a point out of something that didn’t have a point. And he was right of course. But if I had pretended that all was well and said yes and grinned back at him like a real man, one who gets sent to the store with a shopping list written by his wife, if for the sake of keeping up appearances or to be friendly I had agreed that my life really was like that, which it isn’t, then once more I would have obliterated myself, let go of a large part of who I am, of who I want to be. I am not a man who is sent out with a shopping list in his hand. I never was and it is important to me not to become one.

But it is not entirely true. It does happen that my partner writes the shopping list, or that we write it together and then I go shopping. But I can’t admit that publicly. I couldn’t let him think that I had been sent shopping, that I was one of those who “help out” at home like an assistant in his own home, in his own life. I am not such a man, my life cannot be that way, and pretending that it is would be totally devastating. Instead I stood there like an idiot who had to point out that he had written the shopping list himself. I blushed with self-righteousness and with shame at my self-righteousness and probably for a few other reasons, but there was no other solution.

Next: second scenario just minutes later. I am in the frozen foods section. I am looking for coley fillets; there are two types available at the supermarket and this is one of the few things where you can safely opt for the cheaper variety. But it’s not always so easy to find and these particular fish fillets get moved around for some reason, and while I stood there a woman in skiing clothes came up to me. She had rosy cheeks and a fresh outdoorsy smell – she is one of those who use the illuminated cross country ski tracks at night and drop by the store on the way home and I liked her even before I saw her face – she seemed so strong and attractive, her movements were brisk she was clearly in a hurry. So I moved to give her some room. She smiled at me, one of those smiles people give each other in passing and which always seem like a huge affirmation, even if it is a little unclear what is being affirmed. But I liked the way she came into the space and it was easy to let her go first. Wouldn’t I have done exactly the same for any other woman, even if she had not been strong and cute? Yes, probably. But would I have done the same for a man?

And finally: third scenario just after the above. This time I am in front of the dairy section. I was looking for skimmed milk and kefir and natural yoghurt and butter and yeast. It took me a while. Behind me, a man in a leather jacket couldn’t get past my shopping cart, which I had apparently placed a little awkwardly. So I pulled it towards me and gallantly swung my arm out to let him pass.

“Here you go!” I said.
“No, that’s ok.” he said. He didn’t want me to be gallant for his sake. But since I had already moved the cart the only way he could get out of the situation was to accept. He did, and thanked me sort of into the air, a little shortly and oddly, as if it weren’t really happening or as if I weren’t really there. But I was there. I was there, we were a couple of human beings and it was nice of me to let him go before me so gallantly. If I’d done the same for a woman she would probably have smiled back, but since both he and I were men, and since he was a man who did not share my view of how men are allowed to behave towards each other, my gallantry just seemed inappropriate to him. Or perhaps he just thought it was silly.

As I walked towards the tills I met him again, and now I was the one who wanted to pass. He stood by the light bulbs and couldn’t find the right wattage or something and for some reason he leaned across his cart to get to the shelves so he took up all the space in the aisles. He bent forward over the cart so his butt stuck out under his leather jacket and it didn’t look nice and it was strange that he didn’t care how he looked. But I acted normally and waited for him to finish. Finally, he slowly moved on but didn’t let me pass; he didn’t even see me. Now I got really irritated; I couldn’t stay behind him any longer and pushed my cart up to overtake him, a little too hard in that jerky and irritated way I dislike in myself, and quickly got past him. Still it seemed as if he didn’t see me. I didn’t exist. Not as a body and not as a human, I didn’t appear on his radar, not even as someone he needed to be polite to, he stood to gain nothing from me, neither sex nor money nor any form of affirmation. In this sense I was just a vague disturbance, another male animal and therefore an obstacle.

And I don’t get this. He would probably have let any woman pass, just as I would. And why didn’t he care how he looked?

The female stereotype has been expanding for some time now. Look at a woman who wears a boiler suit, at what it does to her: the oil stained hands with nail varnish, the heavy toe-capped boots and the soft, hairless skin on her neck.

But look at a man who wears a dress. Even though we don’t have to go far back in time to find dress-like clothing worn by both men and women, what happens if a man walks through a room wearing a dress now? Is it at all possible? Or is it possible to imagine a man becoming even more masculine because he takes what he wants from the feminine? Why not?

Kurt Cobain could perform in a white dress and not lose his masculinity because of it. It is likely that androgynous expression can exist in rock, as in all other art forms, almost independent of what happens to gender outside it. Just think of Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. Think of Patti Smith or Michael Stipe. Think of Alf Pr¿ysen or Inger Christensen. What does it take for the androgynous to survive outside art?

When I was a kid and came home from school, one of my brothers was sometimes home before me. I could hear the music from miles away, loudly, and I could hear him singing along, for example, to David Bowie. Think of the androgynous Bowie from the early 1970s. “John, I’m Only Dancing”, or “Changes”, and think of all the boys and men in the world who have done just that, sung along to the voice that goes all the way up, that turns light and metallic, coquettish and ingratiating, and that moves across a greater human register than the male register normally allows. As I let myself in, my brother would usually turn the sound down, and when he talked to me his voice dropped to a somewhat deeper and less expressive level than I got to hear when he was singing alone.

Typical masculinity is too limited, too narrow and expressionless for some of us. For me, it is also that I feel I don’t master it too well. Surprisingly, many are proficient in the classic male form of expression and can carry it off with variety and humour. With a certain sophistication! But it’s no use for me, not like that. My version is guarded and abrupt. Some girls and some women – and some men too – bring this out in me: I become boringly responsible and uptight and after a few minutes it becomes unbearable, at least to myself. Then I have to get away, be alone or find the company of someone I can be freer with.

Look. I am wearing a dress. I am the kind of man who has to grasp the feminine in order to recognize my own masculinity.

Published 27 August 2010
Original in Norwegian
Translated by Ine Gundersveen
First published by Samtiden 1/2010 (Norwegian version)

Contributed by Samtiden © Geir Gulliksen / Samtiden / Eurozine

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