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Transgender Characters And Other Gender Politics

AntoniaAC's picture

Gender in America in the 1960s could be wrapped neatly with a bow by the word rigid (cisnormative). The nation's consensus was that a person’s biological sex assignment as male or female at birth was the person's gender identity that was upheld throughout life. Masculine and feminine were the traditional structural identities that people were confined to. While prior to the Stonewall Riots transgender and queer people existed, their visibility was erased by police brutality, discrimination, and misrepresentation. In her novel, Getting Mother’s Body, Suzan-Lori Parks creates a character, Dill Smiles, whose gender identity is represented as ambiguous throughout the novel. Dill, in a contemporary context, is a transgender man whose identity is presented through his self expression, attire, and mannerisms. Through this dynamic character, Parks, shines positive light on gender nonconformity, but, in my opinion, she “slipped” when she she redefined Dill’s character as female under question at ESem conference (Dalke).

The concept of transgender has received a greater awareness as the queer movement has progressed but Dill was forced to live within the realms of his society and its level of “tolerance.” While butch lesbianism was the primary means of passing in a heterocentric society historically, Dill’s dysphoria with his biological sex is a rejection of the idea that the character’s sexuality is in question. His mannerism like, “[peeing] standing up,” helps to validate his desire for the male preference to the reader even while other character in the novel use she/her pronouns (192). It is important to take into consideration that the narrative is written in first person for multiple characters who allow their own prejudices to connote Dill’s gender but does not necessarily represent Dill true identify.

At numerous points in the novel, Dill Smiles’ gender presentation is denigrated by the other character. One mockingly refers to Dill as, “Mister Dill” but instead of being genuine continues to harass by saying “she ain’t no real man.” While invalidating this theme contextualizing the limitations for gender-queer and transgender people in the 1960s cisnormative culture. Many of the male characters, hyper-masculinized by Dill presence, resort to slurs like, “bulldagger, dyke, [and] lezzy,” to persecute Dill and to remind him that he is not in fact a “real” man (34).  Yet, Parks switches tone when a character response with, “Yr sisters more of a man than I am” revealing the depth of Dill’s masculinity and affirming Dill’s identity. Adversely, however,  many of the male characters, hyper-masculinized by Dill presence, resort to slurs like, “bulldagger, dyke, [and] lezzy,” to persecute Dill and to remind him that he is not in fact a “real” man (34). The battle between appearing merely masculinized and being considered the male gender is depicted when after being assumed as male his biological sex is outed by Willa Mae who, “went and told whoever would listen, North and Little and them, that [Dill] weren’t a man” (191).  It is through Parks intricate details that the reader understand that lesbian is not Dill’s identity; Parks employs voice of Willa to validate Dill’s male gender by having Willa says, “I found out what kind of man Dill was by feeling around in the dark. . . I didn’t tell nobody. . . [but] when I did, I felt bad. . . I tried [to take it back]. . . but the words had already run down the road.” Her attempt to undo the outing and reclaim Dill identity as a transman solidities the desire Dill has to be “passing.”

The problem with Parks ambiguity about the Dill’s character identity is that readers and the author run a fine line of misgendering. In all disclosure, Dill may have in fact been constructed to be butch lesbian, but as Parks said her books are left, “Up for interpretation,” and the diction chosen to portray Dill speak of Dill’s non conforming gender identity.

In theory, Parks created a dialogue on the queer experience of a transgender African American man in a 1960s. However, when asked by a fellow peer of mine the identity of the character, Parks used primarily she/her pronouns to define the character. This, in my opinion, invalidated the struggles that were faced by Dill in his pursuit of encompass, in all ways, the male identity. The use of “she” would not be negative if it were constructively incited instead of a erasion of the queer identity. As one of the most targeted groups in America for discrimination and violence, transgender people of color need positive representation like Dill. Dill is characterized by his strength,  his endurance of prejudice, and his honesty to his morals. In the 1960s, it would be an act of naivety to misgender Dill as a woman but with the tools many Americans have been provided with today it is a not only an obligation but the character’s right to be referred to by their proper pronouns.

At first Parks’ gendering of Dill was in no means but when she said, “I am the mother of the character so I am allowed to call her she,” she crossed over the line and began to sound ironically enough like Dill’s mother. The discrepancy, was by no means an intentional act of transphobia. However, I believe, it is fair to say it was a slipped because mothering or fathering a trans son or daughter does not give a person the right to invalidate that identity. Park writes “We all got dreams,” and for Dill its is to be accepted by society, the readers, and his mother-- Parks.


Works Cited

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother’s Body. New York: Random House. 2003. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

You begin with some sweeping generalizations—“wrapped neatly with a bow”--about how gender was seen in 1960's America. I’d like to challenge you, first, to back up those claims (what are your sources? A felt sense won’t do…). See, for example, “The 1960s: A Decade of Change for Women,” , which traces the deep cultural changes in the role of women in American society in that decade….

Then you switch to a close reading of the novel. I really appreciate your finding so many quotes which support your claim that not only other characters, but Dill’s creator, misgender him. I’m especially taken by your claim that Parks herself “slipped” when she described “Dill’s character as female under question at the ESem conference.” I agree that her “ambiguity” about Dill’s identity is an act of “misgendering,” one that invalidates his struggles. And I’m a little amused/confused by your saying that it’s not just her “obligation but the character’s right” to be correctly gendered (according to current understandings and language). Do characters have rights? In what sense? Do they have “standing” to have rights? I’d be curious to have you explain your thinking here.

Especially intriguing (outrageous?) is Parks’ claim that, as “the mother of the character,” she is “allowed to call her she”; and I agree heartily that “mothering or fathering a trans son or daughter does not give a person the right to invalidate that identity.” All that’s grand!

And/but I’m thinking that, for your revision, you should do some research on the history of black trans people. The Massachusetts Trangender Political Coalition has a posting about “5 Black Tran Women Who Paved the Way (leading the Stonewall Riot, for starters!): Buzzfeed provides a longer list of “16 Extraordinary Black Trans Leaders You Need to Know”: . And the Transgender Law Center has posted an essay on “Inspirational…Black Trans History”:

I’d like you to read these short pieces, then do some further research on black trans men in particular, in order to locate Dill in a larger, and more informed history. What do you say? If you like this idea, could you do some of that reading before our conference this week?

Looking forward to seeing where you might go with this,