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Transgender Characters And Other Gender Politics

AntoniaAC's picture

Gender as a social concept in America underwent dramatic change in the 1960s for women and men. At the start of the decade the ideal American family  was centered around rigid roles consisting of the “Breadwinning father, [the] stay-at-home mother and [their] children.” There was major progressive change in the roles of the specific genders at the start of the second wave of feminism,  but while the roles changed genders did not. With the publication of the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and the increase of women in the workforce, progress for the female sex was become tangible, but unfortunately this did not translate to those outside of the cisnormative binaries. Betty Friedan, along with many feminist in the following decades, saw “the problem with no name” as a oppression limited to and “endured only [by] white, upper- and middle-class mothers and wives” rather than a  “universal female problem” felt by ALL women (Fetters).  With the 60s sexual revolution sexuality began to shift, but the qualities of masculine and feminine were still very much traditional identities that people were confined. The youth led movement while transformative was isolated to urban metropolitan areas and its social change was not felt until later into the 70s. As President Nixon claimed most American’s were part of the  “silent majority,” who were not interested in the counterculture’s craze with sex, drugs, and the rock and roll (

While prior to the Stonewall Riots in 1969 transgender and queer people existed, their visibility was erased by police brutality, discrimination, and misrepresentation.  Incidentally, Marsha Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major were all trans-women of color who were notably the first to resist arrest and “throw the first bottle” in the riot starting the gay rights movement (Aaron). However, for the most part trans activism was lead by those with an MTF identity and the experience of transmen of color is underreported and not equatable. As the movement became more mainstream, in later years, even those women were pushed aside as the white gay male leaders took charge. Progress is being made, currently, to create laws and bring about positive gender queer visibility but, “According to the World Health Organization, being transgender is [still considered] a mental illness” (Love).

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. The novel is set in the 1960s and offers a contextual image of a African American person living in rural Texas whose gender representation, similar to historical experiences, is marginalized and devalued by those surrounding them. 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 the 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, 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 an obligation to respect the identity of the character and referred to them 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

Aaron. “5 Black Trans Women Who Paved the Way.” Massachusetts Transgender Political

Coalition. February 21, 2014. Web. 28 Oct 2016.

Andelin Kearns, Christine. “The Changing Concept of Gender in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.” Web. 28 Oct 2016.

Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems with the Feminine Mystique.” The Atlantic. Staff. “Nixon calls on the ‘silent majority’” 2009. Web. 28 Oct 2016.

Love, Shayla “Transgender identity is considered a mental illness by WHO. But that may soon

change.” The Washington Post.

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


Anne Dalke's picture

I’m glad that you decided to contextualize Dill’s experience in a larger historical narrative; @ your next conference, let’s talk a little bit about some of the details of that revised opening paragraph: how to choose your sources (am not sure President Nixon quite works in this context!), how to incorporate your sources into your sentences, how to put together a works cited list, and so forth.(For example, what’s the reference to “Dalke” signify? Something I said in class?? It’s unclear….) More careful proofreading for multiple small errors is also still needed! (Please re-read paragraph 5 before your conference next week, and come with corrections for the sentences there).

Putting this fictional character into a historical context doesn’t seem to shift the argument of your paper, though (does it?). The final paragraph of this draft is identical to the final paragraph of the last one; does knowing (a bit of) history really not make any difference in the claims you are making? Might it? (Think about an answer to this question, too, before our conference).

Also interesting to me is your characterization of Dill as having “strength,” “endurance of prejudice,” and “honesty to his morals.” Really? What are his morals? How is he honest? How much of who he is, is dictated by contemporary norms of masculinity? How much is he trapped or hampered by such scripts? Seems to me that a larger tragedy underlies your analysis of Dill’s character, that of normative gender performance; there’s a particularly poignant line in which Dill dismisses “a woman’s word against a man’s word. Her word against mine.” Assuming a man’s role, Dill assumes (mostly successfully) the prerogatives of a man, including an authority that outweighs that of any woman.

All interesting questions for us to go on exploring together. But in the meantime, you’ll need to turn your attention to brainstorming what your first draft of a paper about All Over Creation, due this coming Friday, might look like. What intrigues you about Ozeki’s novel? What ideas are you interested in exploring? Do you want to pursue questions of gender identity? (If so, who will you focus on?) Are you curious about the relationship between “identity and environment” in the book, for example, about what effect the very different landscapes of Idaho and Hawaii have, for example, on the interactions among the characters?

Looking forward to finding out!