A Perspective on Gender Seen Through Flawless Lashes

By Corey Brooke

Before hosting a party in my dorm for the first time, I spent half an hour sitting in front of a mirror trying to attach a pair of the longest fake eyelashes I could find at Target. I had no idea what I was doing, and glue dripped onto my clothes and into my eyes—but for all its power to stain and irritate, the adhesive would not keep the lashes on my eyelids. I never doubted, though, that the trouble would be worthwhile: I was going to make the lashes work, and, eventually, I did.

That night, I was in control of my body. I had fun with how others saw me and even how I saw myself. I felt self-consciously and intentionally beautiful. Nevertheless, I took nothing about the lashes seriously—I wore them sardonically, though not without personal effect, like some sort of joke fluttering up and down on my face, reminding myself and my friends that I do not have to perform beauty norms (or even gender norms) in order to have a good night and feel satisfied with my appearance. Ultimately, I freed myself in an entirely new way, reshuffling dictations about tackiness, about glamour, about gender. But what was it that freed me, and how?

Before answering that question, it is worth saying that I am not a woman, have never considered myself one, and am inclined to believe that I never will. However, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “on ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (usually translated “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”), she implied that gender is not something we are but something we do. Nothing deep in my soul or biology demanded that I bat fake lashes—my own desires motivated me to play with gender, to act in a way divergent from the performances of either manhood or womanhood, and my consenting to that motivation led me to feel unburdened. So, when I ask how it is that gluing on women’s cosmetic eyelashes seemed to liberate me, I am asking about the effects of disrupting gender. For an answer, I look first to experiences of gender among drag queens and multicultural queer youth on social media.

* * *

Last October, Facebook began deactivating the accounts of those not using their legal names on the social media site, including drag queens who used their drag names in addition to Pagans and some trans people. The policy, still in place, was and continues to be controversial. What surprised me the most initially, and what I find most compelling, is that many drag queens prefer to use personal accounts, rather than public pages, to disseminate information about drag-related events, issues, and discussion. I should note that many drag personalities do act problematically, especially often for the appropriation and caricaturing of black female culture. Still, I believe that others perform an important role in disrupting our ideas of what gender means to our identities. With this in mind, why did Facebook’s deactivation of drag accounts inflame the drag community and their supporters when the use of public pages (still an option) should seem to suffice?

From the insistence of drag queens that their drag personas deserve Facebook profiles, I read a clear assertion that personhood acted out in queer, gender nonconforming ways is just as legitimate as more normative conceptualizations of identity. To rebel against the tides of “man” and “woman,” either consistently or impulsively, shifts, refocuses, and creates identity, changing the experience of being, which is, after all, an action rather than a noun.

So, when I glued lashes on my face for the first time, I changed my experience of gender and others’ experiences of my gender, indeed re-envisioning (through perhaps more glamorous eyes) my identity. Stepping outside of my habits of gender allowed me to examine other aspects of my selfhood.

* * *

I find further insight in the recent explosion of the use of “flawless” as a conceptualization of beauty. Young racial or ethnic minorities and queer peoples especially use the term on social media to describe themselves or celebrities with similar experiences of race, sexuality, and gender (for example, Laverne Cox, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama)—perhaps as an affirmation of a countercultural beauty that norms have taught them not to see in themselves or others.

An article Javier Jaén wrote for the New York Times, entitled “How ‘Flawless’ Became a Feminist Declaration,” explores the background and implications of  “flawlessness,” contending that “‘flawless’ feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution….[the word] recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed.” Flawlessness reclaims and upturns beauty by one’s own terms.

Further, beyond locating marginalized peoples within the fold of beauty, the epithet “flawless” explicitly critiques beauty altogether. More than fifty years before Beyoncé’s “***Flawless”, Jaén notes that drag queen Flawless Sabrina used the term to characterize herself as “a paragon of perfection” even despite her self-attestation that she “was anything but perfect.” Certainly, it seems that “flawless” has stayed sardonic, necessarily poking fun at dominant conceptions of beauty through assertive claims of beauty from those outside of beauty norms.

So, when I decided determinedly but not seriously to spend a night in cosmetic lashes, I unwittingly partook in a queer tradition of al at once playing with, critiquing, and locating oneself within the narrow umbrella of beauty. I had made myself flawless through my own luxe-lidded eyes and, by my own terms, I had claimed an experience of beauty for myself apart from the tantalizing and destructive cultural myth of what is beautiful.

* * *

So, what can queer voices teach us about gender identity and beauty? They suggest that, gender being an act of performance that defines aspects of our experience of identity, we might as well live gender on our own terms and find our beauty through pride in that craft. For me, strings of plastic curling out from over my eyes provided a great first taste of the liberation that can come from self-consciously steering one’s gender trajectory. I do not doubt that other people might redefine their relationship with gender quite differently from how I have. Nevertheless, I believe that drag queens and marginalized youth on social media can teach us all something about the value of performing and shaping our identities through gender.

Dear Cielo and Peter

By Estrella Almaguer

I know this might seem a bit strange, but just bear with me. I am composing this letter to you with the best of intentions.

Can you remember the last time Mom or Dad mentioned anything about the LGBTQA community? Probably not. Do you even know what this acronym stands for? Perhaps. The point is that you likely have very little knowledge about this group of people, and that worries me. I was once in your shoes, which is why I want to share my new perspectives and lived experiences about the LGBTQA community with you, through this letter.

Coming from a big city like Chicago, people might assume that I knew a decent amount about the LGBTQA community prior to coming to St. Olaf. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I grew up in a bustling neighborhood with various grocery stores, restaurants, parks, churches, schools, baseball fields, and a bike path that runs through the woods and stops at a beautiful lake. The smell of fresh air, fresh-cut green grass, and fresh corn on the cob fill the streets of my neighborhood. The sound of laughter coming from children playing outside, the cheering and chanting coming from the baseball fields, the ringing of bells from the paltero man’s popsicle cart, the vibrations of cars driving by, and the jingle song coming the ice-cream truck make me feel at home.

Our neighborhood is predominately Hispanic, and therefore, the Hispanic population was the majority in our elementary and middle schools. Most households in our neighborhood practice Catholicism, which is why these families are not very knowledgeable about, much less accepting of, gay and queer rights. These families are very loyal to their religion, and they firmly believe that God created a man and a woman so that these two sexes could be together. Whether or not we realized our neighborhood’s influence on us at the time, the demographics of our neighborhood played, and unfortunately continue to play for the two of you, a huge role in our lack of exposure to the LGBTQA community.

Do we have any LGBTQA relatives in our immediate family? Not that we know of. How about friends? Can we name a handful of our friends who identify with the LGBTQA community? Not really. Have you stopped to think about this? Let’s not be sheltered about the harsh realities that the LGBTQA community is facing today, such as the struggles for marriage equality, protections for transgender people, and access to health insurance.

Here is some key terminology that I learned since leaving Chicago:

LGBTQA is an acronym that replaced what was formerly known as the “gay community.” The acronym was created to be more inclusive of diverse groups. LGBTQA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and asexual or ally.

  • Lesbian: An individual who identifies as a woman and who is predominantly sexually and romantically attracted to other women.
  • Gay: An individual who identifies as a man and who is predominantly sexually and romantically attracted to other men.
  • Bisexual: An individual who is sexually and romantically attracted to men and women.
  • Transgender: An individual who identifies as the opposite sex from the sexual characteristics that he/she was born with.
  • Queer: An individual who feels more comfortable identifying with a term that is fluid and inclusive of diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities.
  • Questioning: An individual who is unsure about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and prefers to identify as “questioning,” rather than adhering to a label that does not designate how they feel.
  • Asexual: An individual who lacks sexual attraction to anyone, or expresses low or absent interest in sexual activity.
  • Ally: An individual who is supportive of the LGBTQA community.

I felt so sheltered when I came to college and I wouldn’t want you two to feel the same way. I did not have anyone to brief me on these social matters. Coming to St. Olaf gave me a new perspective on the conditions that the LGBTQA community is forced to live under. I have friends who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, whom I hold dearest to my heart. These individuals have been honest and openly vulnerable with me about the stigma they feel is bestowed upon them by society every single day. These individuals just want to feel like they can be true to themselves, even if they are a little different than everyone else. Taking classes about this marginalized group of people and listening in on Wellness events that discuss issues facing the LGBTQA community has educated me on the lack of equal rights that this population experiences.

There is another important term that I want to highlight, a term that you can relate to. A heterosexual is a person who is romantically and sexually attracted to the opposite sex and/or gender. For example, heterosexual females are attracted to males and heterosexual males are attracted to females. Over the years, I have witnessed, experienced, and learned about the overwhelming pressure that society puts on us to conform to heterosexual practices. I have taken multiple classes where I have discussed the social constructs of femininity and masculinity. The word masculine, as we think it, means strong, muscular, well-built, confident, brave, powerful, robust, dominant, athletic, and independent. On the contrary, the word feminine means tender, gentle, dainty, emotional, nurturing, affectionate, submissive, weak, and dependent.

Regardless of your sexual orientation, I want you to be knowledgeable about the LGBTQA community because many of them actively challenge our society’s gender norms. Learning about the LGBTQA community can also help you understand your own sexual identity better. Whether or not you identify as a member of the LGBTQA community, these disregarded people deserve your respect and support. I encourage you to be an ally and to begin to acquire a deeper self-understanding of your own identity throughout the process, just like me.

Much love, your sister,

Estrella Almaguer

Finding Together

By Madeline Burbank

The music pumped louder, and I giggled as I had to shield my ears while skirting by the DJ table​. Wading into the sea of students all swaying, bouncing, and jamming to the beat, I finally made it to a group of my friends. We grinned at each other and mouthed giddy remarks, inaudible so close to the speakers.

They were playing the kind of pop music that I never really cared for, but surrounded by people who all knew the words and grooved along, the meaningless lyrics suddenly became sacred, a holy cycle of the same four chords, celebrating being alive in this moment together. I even sang along.

My friends and I danced in a loose circle. Some couples and groups were wrapped up in each other or grinding, and from the whoops and clapping sounds, a dance-off had started not too far away. Some wallflowers still bobbed at the sidelines, people-watching.

The ballroom was packed. Suddenly, I realized: I probably won’t ever be in a room with this many queer people again.

But this realization made the biggest impact on me, not because of the magnitude of the occasion or the number of people, but because for the longest time that day, I hadn’t thought about anyone (or myself) as being different.

Different is not bad; everyone is similar and different, really (though twisted structures of power and domination “other,” oppress, and victimize certain groups). While I’m conditioned, like most Americans, to pinpoint differences in sex and race whenever I encounter another person, I’m also particularly tuned in to perceived differences of gender and sexuality, because for me, queer means community.

Some people boast about the accuracy of their “gaydar,” and if that is a thing, it must have been “system sold separately” when I was packaged, because I don’t have much sense for it. And while my conclusions can be inaccurate, I’m still sensitive to small cues and clues (admittedly socially constructed and ultimately arbitrary details) and try to reach conclusions that will inform me how relate to others.

There is hardly a monolith in the alphabet soup of LGBTQIA+, but there are still shared experiences to relate — especially for college students — and embers of solidarity to stoke. Still, for all its benefits, keeping subconscious track of how many people possibly or openly identify as queer when I enter a room keeps me too focused on categories and details that really shouldn’t matter – undercut hair here, a bow-tie there, a casual remark open to interpretation…

So this experience at the dance helped me reflect on how I do that every day, and how I should try to alter my thought process going forward.

Learning and reflection was the backbone of that weekend at Illinois State University. The dance punctuated the schedule of the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference (MGLBTACC), which had gathered students from across the Midwest for a whirlwind of workshops: gender-inclusive housing, trans language politics, living as undocumented, slam poetry, advertising, homelessness, peer education. I can’t detail all of it here, because there is a literal book that participants received, mapping out the workshops and session choices for the day.

Even though the topics of the day kept queer lives and issues center stage in my mind, I had been welcomed into and helped create a space of community where we didn’t have to scope each other out; we were fully present and open. I didn’t know how anyone explicitly identified unless they articulated that in a workshop, and for the first time, it didn’t matter. I was able to see everyone as more purely human, something I’ve been actively trying to do for years.

The caveat to this moment of community is that it also helped me understand the darker side of normativity and how the majority or dominating group (usually white straight people) becomes invisible in its ubiquitousness. Also, everyone attending was college-educated, and while I was around more people of color and people with physical disabilities than attend St. Olaf, I know it still wasn’t a proportionate, completely representative demographic of Midwesterners. Nor did we treat each other perfectly. Still, so many people were more informed and striving to be more informed on topics of racism, ableism, sexism, and other issues that affect people, and I really appreciated that.

After all, these issues don’t just target people in the queer community; they exist within it, too. As I was dancing with friends, I turned in a circle, making use of what small space I had and enjoying the people-watching as I danced around. I found myself facing a couple that had been behind me. A woman wearing glasses was holding another woman close as they danced, but I couldn’t see the other’s face. I paused, concerned about how intoxicated her stooping suggested that she might be, wondering about her health. The more alert woman wearing glasses suddenly reached for my arm and tried to pull me to her. Uncomfortable and uninterested, I yanked my arm back and turned to walk away. Before I got farther, though, she stepped forward and groped my rear.

I retreated to the other side of the circle, not saying anything to my friends. At first, I tried to brush it off. It’s a dance…things get awkward…she seemed kinda drunk too. I wanted to continue enjoying the dance, and for the most part, I did. But as the night went on, I felt worse. It really bothered me. I have been verbally sexually harassed before (by men), but never physically, and for it to come from a woman in a group where I had felt so safe… The physical violation was magnified by the ideological shock.

So, I realize that this story started out so upbeat and is ending kinda grim, but my point is not to get cynical. Community and feelings of belonging and safety are so important, and we need to build them up. Sometimes a group can feel like a haven, but it’s also important to recognize that it’s not a haven to retreat to.  A group is a team to build affinities with so we can share those feelings of belonging, and more importantly join forces to face the issues that affect all people. We are stronger together, and we also have to work harder to unify that togetherness.

In Memoriam

By Josiah R. Mosqueda

On April 26th, 2014, my friend Robert committed suicide. He was 17 years old, and had only recently come out as being gay. He was very much a part of our family; he was one of my sisters’ best friends, and would hang out at our house all the time. His death left a void in our hearts.

Robert’s death also struck me hard because of the similarities between us—we both loved reading (especially science fiction and fantasy), we both were involved with choir and show choir, we were both out as gay at a school that provided no support for LGBTQ students. When I was 17, I myself contemplated suicide very seriously, tired of being in a world that condemned me for loving whom I love.

It is a sad reality for me that Robert will not be the only queer friend to die before I do. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for LGBTQ people ages 10-24. In Minnesota alone, there has been an epidemic of LGBTQ teen suicides in the past five or so years, a sobering thought.

Many allies of the queer community call the sweeping acceptance of marriage equality across the nation the movement’s greatest achievement. Yet what good is the ability to get married if our youth do not live long enough to exercise these new rights?

Robert’s death reminds me every day that the work of true equity and acceptance for LGBTQ people does not end with legislation; it’s about combating microaggressions we face everyday, normalizing queer people and our experiences, and embracing diversity wherever it is.

I do not mean to make Robert into a martyr—he himself would have hated that idea. Suicide is a terrible plague that is killing our people silently and violently. It must end. Our youth are the future, and we must make this world a safe place for them to explore, create, and be who they are.

Of my friend, I can say this: He had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known. He was funny, with a dry sense of humor that I found refreshing. He liked Starbursts. He played the saxophone, with skill that I envied. He was tall and lanky, with glasses that hid his bright intelligent eyes. I still hear his voice sometimes in the whisper of the wind, his laugh echoing in the silence after thunder strikes. I will never forget him.

Te quiero, Robert. Siempre!

The Outlier

By Colton Rod

I knew that I was gay at the beginning of high school, but chose to hide it from everyone around me. Upon starting college, I continued to feign an interest in women, even after starting a relationship with another guy. In January of last year, I finally started to come out to the people in my life. Why, you might ask, did it take so long for me to be open with others about my sexuality?

Most would assume I was afraid of disapproval from family, friends, and teammates.

That wouldn’t be entirely true.

Perhaps fear of discrimination and violence?

Not quite.

People tend to be surprised when I reveal the reason for the apprehension.

Truthfully, I was uncomfortable with the idea of being identified with the LGBT community, as I never saw a place for me within it.

That may sound insensitive, but please hear me out.

I was raised ignorant of the fact that gay people existed, in a household seemingly intolerant of homosexuality. As I grew up, I realized that my father referred to flamboyant gay men as “femmes” in a detectably derogatory way with zero opposition from my mother. Although they’re some of the most supportive people in my life today, their beliefs were instilled within me and have continued to dictate my views on gender and sexuality.

Sexual orientation, however, must go beyond the scope of one’s environment as I turned out to be gay.

Even though I identified as gay, I had little interest in participating in what society views as stereotypically gay. I like to believe that I’m not incredibly flamboyant, I have no desire to dress in drag, and I tend to care little about fashion. In fact, I prefer traditionally masculine things such as competing on sports teams and hunting or fishing with my dad.

My parents and the rest of the environment in which I was reared stressed gender norms: things being specifically for boys, and things specifically for girls.

Coming out as gay didn’t alter these beliefs.

From hearing others’ stories upon coming out, many feel this huge sense of relief and freedom in that they can finally be the “real” them. People expected me to have this same sentiment when I came out – that I was going to totally reinvent myself by talking, dressing, and carrying myself in a new way. This simply was not the case. I made a promise to myself before coming out that I was going to be the same person before and after, the only difference being the gender of the person I dated. I loved my life, my friends, and the person I was before admitting to the world I was gay. I’m continuing to be that same person today.

I hadn’t been “acting” straight. I was being myself with this one exception.

Still, people expected me to be someone new. When word of me being out spread around campus, I remember other gay students coming up to me and saying things like, “Welcome to the team!” While these were really kind gestures in which they were extending support in the chance that it was needed, it left me feeling uncomfortable.

No one asked me if I wanted to join.

The thing is, I never really had a choice.

Herein lies my struggle to find a role within the LGBT community: choosing to hold on to the ideals of my upbringing combined with my lack of choice of sexuality.

Similarly, even some of my heterosexual friends threw me into the community.

One day at practice, in reference to one of our recent graduates that seemed to fit the gay male stereotype more than I, one of my friends said to me, “Thank God you were on the team to redeem gay people.” Upon hearing this, I laughed and took the comment as somewhat of a compliment. But looking back, why does not fitting the stereotype become a compliment? And why do gay people need redeeming in the first place?

For me, it served as a compliment because I was validated in my desire to not be perceived as a stereotypical gay man. Although I have effeminate characteristics, such as a mild obsession with Ke$ha, I like to be recognized for my masculine characteristics.

Even though I’m gay, I’m still a guy.

As for needing redemption, there are many underlying assumptions about gay men. I recently read Why are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots?, a collection of essays that “challenges not just the violence of straight homophobia but the hypocrisy of mainstream gay norms.” The author, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, claims that gay sexual culture is now “straight-acting dudes hangin’ out” and has compiled the book to challenge it. She sees this as a problem – that I’m scared and “acting straight” out of fear. She couldn’t be more wrong.

I am not that collection of essays.

I’m not saying that there is a problem with being gay and fitting the stereotype. People are entitled to live their lives the way they see fit. My quandary is society’s assumption that I will act in a similar manner just because I identify as gay, and also that any gay man would look down upon the way that I live my life.

These have led to dissociation from the LGBT community. Although I’m positive there is internal diversity within the group, there is a certain connotation that comes along with being labeled “gay.” But guess what? There isn’t one right way to be gay.

Perhaps there is a role for me in the LGBT community; it just isn’t one that has been predetermined for me. There is no need for me to conform; I can still be me. Maybe that is my role within the community: continuing to challenge what society views as the stereotypical gay man.

With this in mind, hopefully I can feel more at ease with the LGBT community, becoming more comfortable being a part of it, as I continue to grow. By being more open-minded, I can pave my own path within the group and find a place for myself within it.