"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

We are All Drag Queens

I look at pictures of me as a baby; as a 7 year old; my high school photo; at my wedding; at my high school 30th reunion. Now, at 75, I look in the mirror and ask, “Who are those people?” How can they be me? They are alien beings and there is no reason to suppose that they can all be “me”. This is the fascination of looking at old pictures of ourselves—“really, that was me?!”

The only thread that gives continuity and unity to these images is my memory; oft times not even my memory of myself but of what I have been told: “That’s you,” said my mother of the photo of the toddling, smiling cherub. Memory is the thread that that stitches these images into a coherent, stable unity; into “me”. The memory-stitching that confers stability and coherence to long past images does the same for my experience of what happened to me 5 minutes ago. This is how we creatures of time acquire a sense of permanence, a sense of self.1

The enduring entity I experience as my self is conferred by the gossamer thread of memory. And what a tentative thread it is. Our memory is continually being reconstructed, subjected to alteration without our knowing it, influenced by changing circumstances, moods, personal experiences, and reflections of others. One of the disconcerting experiences of aging is witnessing the loosening of our filaments of memory. As memory erodes, so do “I”. The spectra of dementia that looms over the aged sparks dread that we will lose ourselves; that the delicate stitching of memory will unravel. Dementia exposes as it destroys. What is exposed is our moment-to-moment awareness. What is shattered is the illusion of a permanent self that allows us to adaptively manage in the world; a phantom that keeps us sane.

Identity is a deeply felt feature of our selves. Our race. Gender. Sexual orientation. Ethnicity. Cultural heritage. Language. Occupation. Etc. These so primally experienced aspects of ourselves are not indelibly inscribed in us. They are, rather, attire of the self. We are born into a cultural matrix of ready-made identities that signify meaningful distinctions between people. Each culture possesses its own identity “wardrobes”. Race, for example. Being Black in contemporary America does not have the same meaning as in precolonial equatorial Africa, where it may not have had any meaning at all. Another example: Homosexuality is a term of Anglo-European origin coined in 19th century. It is a term that confers an identity to a person based on same-sex behaviors. By contrast, in Greece and Rome, same sex behaviors between men was common and approved.2 What mattered was not the act, but who was the initiator of the act; accepted when upper class men were the initiators, vilified when the reverse. Status, not the specific sex act, signified cultural identity. Identity anchors us, defines us, viscerally binds us to a stable set of culturally established meanings. They are part of the fabric we stitch together to clothe our phantom selves. 

Garment Matters

Why the outrage against men who dress as women, or women who dress like bikers? Why can the mere clothes we wear and our body adornments provoke harassment, government legislation, even murder?! Because garments and adornments carry potent cultural meanings. How we fashion ourselves can vary greatly: Executive or tradesperson, business man or woman, trucker, biker, military officer, “person of the cloth,” police officer, sports team supporter, cool dude, ersatz cowboy, etc., etc., etc. Clothes communicate. We never simply “get dressed.” We choose to display cultural meanings that are encoded in the clothes we wear, how we wear them, and the way we craft our body. We may not even be aware of the codes we signal, think they are natural, or that we simply wear comfortable clothes. What makes us comfortable varies from person to person, and comfort can include the color of the clothes, the style, the cut, the nature of the fit, etc. All these are selected from the rack of  garments made available in the culture.

We wear some clothes out of obligation; attending funerals, our places of work and worship, graduations. Many of these we happily shed when we can. Other garments are more closely tied to our identity, freighted with meanings that resonate with our sense of self. Gender is one such identity that is encoded in our garments that cannot be so easily shed, even if we want to. Before a baby is out of the womb, a pivotal choice is “pink or blue?” What clothes and adornments? How should I announce my baby to the world? Even if we want to assert gender neutrality by avoiding the conventional markers of gender, this is, itself, a choice defined within the ubiquitous dimension of gender. Gender is a presumed natural, God-given feature of our selves; it identifies us, defines us.  

Cross dressing violates the natural order, undermines the pillars of identity that buttress our sense of self. We can do this by merely wearing pink instead the expected blue! Oh, by what a meagre thread does our identity hang! Violence is an effort to enforce the natural order, to forcefully obliterate the realization that simply donning the “wrong” outfits we can overturn our tidy universe. Everything we wear, however, is but a disguise that tricks us into believing in the fixity of the phantom self. Whatever our attire, we are all drag queens.

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  1. See The Time of Our Life : https://decembersongs.com/the-time-of-our-life/
  2. Historically, strictures against gender violations by males have been more closely monitored and enforced than for women. The reason is patriarchy. Men have been viewed as more important and, thus, violations by men carry greater cultural significance and, therefore, greater punishments. This has been true from Ancient Greece into our current times where drag queens, men dressing as women, not women dressing as men, draws the most vociferous and violent reactions.

4 Comments

  1. Sharon Poe

    Brilliant, Brian! Thank you.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate your kind words.

  2. Marcia McCabe

    Good lord, Brian. The way you write about the subjective experiences of being human and the murky complexity of culture and identity is just beautiful. Clarifying and moving. “The enduring entity I experience as myself is conferred by a gossamer thread of memory, and what a tentative thread it is…” So true and so usually hidden from consciousness that it is startling to read. Thank you for sharing your writings.
    Sending my best to you and Sharon,
    Marcia

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Marsha. As someone who is so attuned and wise about the subjective experiences of being human, I take your comments as the highest praise.

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