Tuesday, November 27, 2007


When I was coming out, a tattoo and a doubly-pierced right ear was a sign of being a lesbian. This seems silly now, I admit, but at twenty and twenty-one these were important identity expressions to my peer group and me along with Birkenstocks, thick wool socks (I came out in Michigan), and large army fatigues held up with wide leather belts. To this day, when I wear that uniform, I feel like a real lesbian.

Each generation defines itself with physical and external markers of identity. All have profound meaning to the people who are marked and to the people who create the marks. I welcome new generational markers – even if I don’t always understand them. (I admit, tongue piercing and navel piercing were initially uncomfortable and foreign to me; though I remember the way some recoiled from my large, comfortable shoes.) I only become concerned when the markers of identity result in permanent and unchangeable actions to our bodies.

I’ve taken those actions. One tattoo and three holes between my two earlobes. Do I regret either? No. Would I do it again? Perhaps not.

Part of my discomfort comes from feminism. As a feminist, I want to embrace my body as it is – and I want other people to do that. As a feminist, I’m uncomfortable with breast augmentation. I don’t think that permanent body alterations are something to support or celebrate. I hold this philosophy to a pretty strict standard in my life. Sure, I’ve shaven my legs on occasion (and the wifey wishes I would do it more, truth be told), but I’ve not done much that permanently alters my body.

This brings me to my concern: increasing people – and particularly young people, which to me still means under thirty-five or forty – are chosing to transition from one sex to another. On one hand, I support people’s ability to have control over their bodies and to express gender in whatever way that they wish. On the other hand, I’m concerned about permanent body alterations.

I worry about the increasing medicalization of our bodies and of gender. Women and queers have never been served by the medical establishment and yet increasing it seems we turn to doctors to give us bodies to help navigate a world in which gender roles are narrow prescribed and offer little fluidity and flexibility for a moment or a lifetime.

Our experience of gender and gender roles is related not only to how we understand the world personally but also to how other around us understand and interpret the world. Lots of the butch women I came out with twenty years ago embraced their butchness because of a feminist analysis which said that gender roles weren’t working – for women or for men, but that it was fine to be gender non-conforming. Today these same women might be told by prevailing analyses that their identity is transgender. That’s fine—if it is an identity that works, I support people’s ability to self-identify. Today, however, more is at stake than self-identity. People are changing their bodies and their sex through medical intervention.

That concerns me. I’m worried about a construction of gender that requires permanent body alteration. My body isn’t perfect as it is and I do things to change it – I change my clothes, I work out, I use lotions and lots of little potions from small pots, but all of that can be undone in a short amount of time – none of it is permanent. Are we sure that surgery and hormone therapy to permanently alter the body is an essential expression of gender identity?

Many won’t be happy that I’ve asked the question, but I think it must be asked. We need dialogue about the costs and benefits of medical interventions and the constructions of sex and gender in our queer community.

Meanwhile, I’ve dispensed with the second earring in my ear. I loved it for the years that I wore it. Today it doesn’t serve me. I’m glad that I could just stop wearing it when I wanted. I want for all of the other young queers to have the same choices as their lives change and evolve.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet. She lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work, including her blog, at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #16 dated November 27, 2007 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

Word Count: 698

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