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No one — and certainly no one who witnessed the lifts and lunges of those loincloth-clad marchers from Tourisme Montreal — would suggest that this year’s Pride Parade wasn’t revealing. But the weekend’s festivities in San Francisco showed more than we think. For five hours, the parade gleefully exposed the schism that Western culture uses its most formidable powers to conceal: the division between sex and gender. Fortunately, with a trip to the videostore, lawyers who missed the revelry can still capture something of the revelation. And they should. The gap between anatomy and identity is the subject of the summer’s most affecting new rental. It’s also the basis of law’s most malignant old lie. Kim Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” released last month on video, is a film about sex — or, more precisely, about what sex really is. The movie’s point isn’t intercourse, but identification. After all, sex is a method of classifying human beings based on their body parts. Underlying the taxonomy are two rigid presumptions: that the human species offers only two sexes, male and female; and that gender — our manifestation of sexual identity through dress and demeanor — is a natural and immutable function of anatomy. So well-packaged and presented are these two assumptions that their accuracy is never questioned. Or almost never. Peirce’s film announces with its title an evocation of the American playground’s nastiest gender rule, that there’s something suspect about the codes we allow to dictate the most intimate aspects of our lives. The resulting story offers a realization that’s brand new to most of us — that gender is, or ought to be, a matter of choice. The protagonist of “Boys Don’t Cry,” Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), is an anatomically correct woman who decides to live life as a man. And Brandon loves the option he’s exercised. Peirce’s most engaging scenes show Brandon delightedly molding himself to the male role: demanding a hairstyle that stops just short of a buzz cut; using socks to contour his crotch; taking real pleasure in the posturing that defines masculinity in America. “You know, I woulda had those guys if you hadn’t stopped me!” he crows after a tavern brawl. No film character since Flower Drum Song’s Linda Low — “I Enjoy Being a Girl” — has relished his own gender construction quite so much. When Brandon hitches a ride with a carload of young malcontents, it’s like a trip down the rabbit hole. Brandon wakes up in Falls City, a town where nobody knows him as anything other than the amiable young man he’s always wanted to be. Happily, he joins a makeshift family headed by John (Peter Sarsgaard), a volatile ex-con. He falls in love with Lana (Chloe Sevigny), a bored cannery worker. And he rejoices at having an opportunity to fit in. When Lana derides him for taking part in a dangerous local variant of “chicken,” he responds cheerfully, “I just thought that’s what guys do around here.” If Brandon’s luck seems too good to be true, it is. After all, mainstream mores don’t permit us to choose our gender. So Brandon becomes a victim of one of the hundreds of crimes that we like to ascribe to free-floating bigotry. Nevertheless, the assaults that diminish and then destroy Brandon have an all too identifiable source — the rule that our passions must be consistent with our physiques. Mainstream society uses violence to enforce that rule. By inculcating each of us with the notion that someone else’s aberrant dress or desire calls our own identity into question, culture convinces potential assailants that eliminating gender ambivalence is an act of self-preservation. Once John confirms that Brandon’s anatomy is actually female, he and his addled lackey rape Brandon — an assault that the attackers see as restorative, a heterosexual coupling that reconstructs Brandon as female. “You know you brought this on yourself, little buddy,” John explains. Dr. Laura seems to agree. Schlessinger, the Tokyo Rose of sexual intolerance, doesn’t overtly advocate violence toward unconventional gender expression; but she, and public figures like Tom DeLay and John Rocker, are lethal because they lend credence to the idea that feminine women and masculine men are the only gender options humankind has to offer. The effect of that pitch is all too predictable: Our most incendiary language — replicated in the shouts of “pussy,” or “faggot,” or “dyke” that fill “Boys’” most violent scenes — suggests a violation of nature’s fundamental male-female matrix. On the other hand, neither Schlessinger nor any of our other contemporary gender propagandists will ever be as deadly as American law. Today, law’s real threat to unconventional gender expression isn’t in anti-sodomy statutes or police bias. Certainly, law acquiesced in Brandon’s ultimate annihilation: “When they went to poke you, where’d they pop it in at?” the sheriff sneers when Brandon reports the rape. Then the lawman alerts Brandon’s attackers to the charge and leaves them free to find and murder their accuser. But Peirce skims over police-responsibility issues — well-articulated in the 1999 documentary The Brandon Teena Story — to make a larger point. Courts do evil in legitimizing the notion that sex and gender are inseparable and that the rules are irrefutable. They do so by designating culturally imposed practices — establishing straight relationships, living in nuclear families, choosing one form of intercourse over another — as naturally-evolving conditions that existed before law and that are beyond the power of statute. Or judges characterize gender constructs — “women don’t want to sell on commission” — as sexually fixed conditions that law shouldn’t tamper with. But crediting Mother Nature is a ruse, a cover for a system that is far more concerned with controlling adult behavior — that is, with enforcing heterosexuality — than with ratifying the incidents of birth. Notably, transsexuals — who collaborate in hiding the rift between sexual identity and gender preference by altering the former to conform to the latter — fare well under our legal system. In fact, as explained in the aptly titled 1995 Harvard Law Review note, Patriarchy Is Such a Drag, the law rewards the appearance of heterosexuality by facilitating surgery, by rewriting official records to erase the earlier sex-gender disparity, and by permitting marriage to a member of the now-opposite sex. The greatest evil in “naturalizing” sex and gender regulations is that reverence places the rules beyond challenge. Thus, most Americans don’t realize that modern science suggests there are at least five sexes. Or that in the fetus, the brain and the anatomy develop at different times, rendering a disparity between body and behavior entirely natural. Or that large numbers of pre-Christian communities and Native American nations boasted transgendered warriors — and honored them, an indication that at least some societies perceived a benefit in hailing from both Mars and Venus. It’s reasonable to wonder why culture invests so much effort in denying the severability of anatomy and gender, and why the price of exposing that schism remains so high. Most gender theorists suggest that the answer is economics — specifically, the lust for personal wealth that would become modern capitalism. Historically, rigid gender roles appeared at the same time that the emerging advocates of private ownership set out to dismantle matriarchal communes: Patriarchs disposed of group proprietorship by replacing matriarchy with new codes allocating rights and opportunities on the basis of sex. Then the new powerbrokers eradicated even the words to describe gender identity without sex-identified rules. Not surprisingly, Brandon is constantly taxed to explain why his personality isn’t dictated by his anatomy: “It seems complicated, but it’s not really.” Brandon is wrong. Gender construction is one of society’s most complex projects, an enterprise that feeds on our most basic insecurities, that evokes our most unreasoning brutality, and that constantly denies its own existence: We are supposed to believe that we are what we are. But in truth, there is no gender identity until we create it. And we can make it whatever we want. “You’re born naked. Everything after that is drag,” RuPaul advises. Who better to know? Diverted by its sequins and stiletto heels, we sometimes forget that drag is the ultimate commentary on the politics of gender construction — on the relentless social dictates that “this is how women (or men) look, or think, or manifest ambition, or show sexual desire.” Drag queens don’t want to be women, of course. Instead, they want to borrow the artificial indicators that society uses to designate culturally approved sex partners for men. So divas study the canons of femininity. Then they hyperbolize those rules with more jewelry, and subvert them by combining bras with beards, and joyously rewrite them to suit individual self-image. The result offers not two, but endless possibilities of self-description. Once again, this year’s Pride Parade offered us that array of options — a chance to remember that our species is richest in its infinite variety, an occasion to recognize that America’s fiercest enemy is the curtailing of imagination, an opportunity to believe than an event billed as “It’s About Freedom” can, at least for a day, make all of us free. Terry Diggs is a San Francisco appellate attorney who teaches courses on law and film at Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University School of Law.

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