As an American citizen I have the opportunity to challenge society through freedom of expression and speech; to have open discussion, something many cultures are not allowed to do. As an artist I have the responsibility to challenge what is possible and all things defined; question what is normal and react and express what is felt, something many people may never get a choice in. I guess this is why I feel a sense of obligation and importance to come forward with my own experiences and thoughts and open it up to public discussion to hopefully promote more dialogue and awareness of the social issues we face everyday.
My challenge? How do I feel?
Being told to be like a man; walk, stand and move. Throughout my childhood and teenage years I was constantly teased, "why do you stand with your butt sticking out, you walk like a girl, faggot!" I am naturally sway-backed with a large behind, have naturally long curly hair and a high pitched voice. Throughout my adolescence, I was what one would consider effeminate in both physical feature and mannerisms. I often was confused as to whether I was a boy or girl. It wasn't until college when I was never questioned again about what gender I was. It wasn't easier in the household I was raised either. Growing up in a strict Christian religious household and community as a Jehovah's Witness, being a man was a path already drawn out for me that I had no say in. I was destined to grow up to eventually marry a woman, have children and be the leader of my own household as the provider of my own family. I had to be very conscious of how I conducted myself as a person of God; as a "man" of God. An elder (man of higher position) in the congregation my family went to told my father that his son, me, walks like a girl and should correct me so that I don't stray into an unholy path due to my effeminate qualities. That night we got home, my father brings me downstairs, tells me to go across the room and walk towards him. He yells at me, pushes me down and tells me to do it again like a man. In my several failed attempts, with tears down my face and my father continually trying to literally beat the female out of me, I ask him why is he doing this to me and he says "because you walk like a girl and the elders are worried about what you may become." The memory hasn't seemed to escape me. But as I relay this, being a man in society in general, secular or non-secular, was already a preconceived notion, so really there wasn't much hope for the image of the man in front of me to be self-defined and seen untainted anywhere. What I wear, how I talk, the way I walk and move, the music I listen to, who I hang out with, the job I chose, all of these were the definition of a person I would not get a chance to decide whether I would want to become, if I wanted to be accepted. No questions about it; you're a man and these were the options. I grew up feeling defeated, that I would never be able to reach manhood. The qualities and desires I had mentally, physically, emotionally, and sexually didn't match up to what I was told a man should have and so I broke away from the tight constraints of religion and society to become an artist to freely express and exist in a community without prejudice to gender.
I loved dancing! Growing up, I would always be hopping or spinning around the living room, moving to my heart's desire and nothing could stop me. Oh how I annoyed my parents and sisters! I watched endless dance films and dance programs on TV and and would even record them onto a VHS to watch over and over again and to teach the routines to myself. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Michael Jackson, all the dance icons were my best friends and would do well to imitate them. The living room space, with the coffee table pushed aside, was basically my rehearsal studio. When I would be punished or yelled at to stop, I would go in my room and continue. While most of my peers were a part of sports teams, student clubs or after school programs fulfilling their extracurricular activity quota for college, I spent my after school time volunteering at an Elementary school teaching dance to children. My mom worked for a before and after care program at an Elementary School and from 8th grade (12 years old) through my senior year of high school I spent my time after school putting routines together that I would choreograph and teach to these kids and put on dance shows twice a year that they would perform in the school's auditorium. I later received congressional recognition for the 1,000 plus hours of community service spent there but really I felt the service was to me as my time spent there was my own therapy. It gave me much joy. To say I was addicted to dance would be an understatement; I was obsessed! All I could think about was dance. It was my only release from the pressure I felt from my peers, family, religion and community. Movement freed me.
It's been almost 10 years now since I started my dance training and, perhaps, so eager to break away from the suppression I faced, I have failed to recognize that maybe I had never really ran away and found refuge. Even in my own profession as a dancer, the issues of gender positioning that I faced in the past remains. I'm constantly reminded to dance masculine and to support the woman. From our costuming and dance attire to our separated footwear of pointe shoes, high heels, character shoes, etc. our gender distinctly limits and binds us to move and look a certain role. I look back at my training and I was often told, "you need to be the man," "you dance like a girl!" or "the woman is the picture and you are the frame for her."
Will I always be inhibited by my gender? This has been my life long challenge.
Does not men and woman both experience emotions? Regardless of gender, men and women experience, pain, joy, fear, love. Cannot both male and female be the picture and the frame? After all, both share same attributes of sensitivity and strength and vulnerability. We divide ourselves so easily by our gender as if to separate the fact that because somehow we have different sexual parts we are fundamentally disconnected. Now I'm not suggesting that the sex of a man and woman aren't a big difference because they are and surely we experience significant changes and developments physiologically and behaviorally due to our gender, but I say lets challenge this. Let's challenge the experiences in our life to be deeper than our outer parts. Experience and go for the things that you are intrigued by due to your inner pulse, the mental workings that drive all of us despite our gender.