R.I.P., Pete Burns

The sudden death of singer and Dead or Alive front-man Pete Burns struck me hard when I first read about it this morning. Not only has his music brought great joy to my life, his brave defiance of gender norms was a crucial source of inspiration for me when I was a teenager.

tumblr_nh7u1qg9cx1rl00x0o1_500I first discovered Pete Burns and Dead or Alive in 2006, not long after I came out as a gay man and was beginning to struggle with my gender identity. I grew up in the 1990’s with few examples of queer people in the media. Gay men and women were only beginning to creep into our collective comfort zones but representation was still strictly limited. Consequently, gender variant people were practically non-existent in popular media of any kind. Unlike many of my peers, I saw no one like myself in the media, and felt acutely lost when I struggled to make sense of my gender. What I felt I was and wanted to be did not seem to exist outside of myself. Seeing Pete Burns’s androgynous appearance was like a light in the darkness. He set me on a path of self-discovery and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

Over the years I have gotten used to hearing Dead or Alive dismissed as a “one hit wonder” and Pete Burns’s personal appearance ridiculed but I am deeply grateful to see how many people fondly remember him and his music. His music will always have a special place in my heart, not only for the simple aesthetic joy it has brought me, but for the strength he gave me during a period of great personal change.

Mistaken Identity: Reconciling my Gender

Every now and then, a stranger asks me why I wear womens clothing. If I were biologically female, there would be no curiosity, but because I am male my appearance is perceived rather differently. Some people are surprisingly understanding and accept my answer. Whether I am being addressed by a child or an adult, I respond with the same answer: “Because I like to.” It is the simplest but not necessarily the most comprehensive or accurate way to describe what is for me a complex matter. Over the last eight years I have been on a journey of self-discovery, fraught with much pain and confusion; what follows is the result of my journey and is the best answer I can formulate at this point in time.

Well, they say confession is good for the soul. Let’s see if it’s good for one’s gender identity.

Like many transgender and gender-nonconforming people, I can trace aspects of my current gender identity back into childhood. Though I was raised as a boy, my parents allowed me a lot more freedom than many of my peers did, though I had several childhood friends who never made my effeminacy a problem. I have vivid memories of playing dress-up at an early age, perhaps before I entered kindergarten. I also remember my mother talking to me about what I was doing, telling me I had to stop because other people wouldn’t understand. I did as she asked but I secretly despair over the this demand. At the time I did not understand that my parents were trying to protect me. Despite this prohibition, they still allowed me some slack. I could wear anything I could pass off as boys clothing and I was allowed to play with whatever toys I wanted. (Later on, when I came out, both of my parents were very supportive. My mother even said I was the daughter she never haid. Of course, my sister wasn’t too happy to hear it.) Barbie dolls became a means for living out my repressed desires. Through them I lived a second life; they wore everything I wanted to wear, and for much of my childhood this worked. When I became comfortable with my homosexuality and came out during my senior year of high school, these desires resurfaced.

By that time I was already aware of some aspects of gender non-conformity but my knowledge was limited to transsexuals, transvestites, and drag queens. None of these categories, as I knew them then, represented how I felt about myself. It wasn’t until I discovered androgyny, though singer Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive, that I found a category that fit. His androgynous appearance quickly became my own ideal and still represents represents, to a great extent, what I find so beautiful about androgyny. To see what I mean, watch this.

Though I tend to use masculine pronouns and have chosen a masculine name, I am comfortable being addressed as either ‘he‘ or ‘she.’ My self-perception shifts between ‘he‘ and ‘she.’ They are the two halves that comprise ‘me.’ Even so, I tend to think of myself in feminine terminology (pretty rather than handsome, etc.) and generally feel more feminine than masculine. How I dress often coincides with my femininity and yet, even when I feel masculine, I still wear womens clothing. It can sometimes feel like a matter of taste in clothing, not entirely different from how women can choose to wear pants, but more frequently it feels like an integral party of my being. I must dress as I do; otherwise, I cannot bear to look at myself. Pronouns present a peculiar problem for me, for I am just as unsatisfied with feminine pronouns as I am with masculine pronouns. (I’m even more unsatisfied with the various neutral terms.) I feel impelled by society to be consistent, so I have chosen the masculine pronouns, but I would be happier never having to make this chose definitely. (Perhaps I don’t. I don’t even correct most people who refer to me as a woman.) Alas, it just doesn’t seem that simple.

It was initially very difficult for me to reconcile desire with the traditional values I knew would be used to throw an ugly light upon my appearance. As such, I perceived myself as fundamentally incongruent, as a “coal miner in a dress,” but as I have gotten older I have grown increasingly more comfortable in my skin. Still, I periodically experience the same dypshoria I felt when I was a teenager. I purposefully wear clothing that accentuates my hips to offset the broad shape of my shoulders and I go to great effort to keep my face free of stubble. These insecurities are as much a social problem as they are personal. My self perception is shaped not only through my own peculiar valuations but through those I attribute to society. Whether it is due to the inconsistency of self-perception and the values through which we evaluate ourselves or something more fundamental in my being is difficult for me to determine. However, it is certainly true that the demands of others increases my dysphoria but I am reluctant to say that it is the sole determinant. On the other hand, having a meaningful context within which I can be myself, makes a great difference in how happy I feel about myself.

Warning! Those who might not want to know about my sexual fantasies are advised to skip the next paragraph.

For longer than I can recall, I have had fantasies of experiencing sex as a female. Though I do not regard my penis with any ill feeling, I have never been able to resolve this fantasy. I can’t explain why it exists or what it means in relation to my gender identity. This problem surfaces every once in a while but it doesn’t feel like a major motivating force. It may just be a peripheral problem, born of the wish to be found desirable by the heterosexual men I once loved, but whatever the cause or substance might be, I cannot doubt just how painful this has been for me. Even the memory of these moments bring me to tears. Such was the case when I first heard the Sopor Aeturnus song Cornflowers. It was the first time another person articulated perfectly my own desires.

Despite it all, I feel fairly confident about the security of my future happiness. I not only have my own personal strength and fortitude but the companionship of many sympathetic people who accept my gender identity; I have a loving husband who appreciates my androgynous appearance, even to those aspects I am not always comfortable with (I’m looking at you, facial hair!); and most of the people I meet treat me with kindness and respect. These conditions give me reason to be hopeful. They also help to relieve the dysphoria I have felt throughout much of my life.