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Gender Performance and Drag


Gender Performance and Drag

The celebrated philosopher Judith Butler rejects both the notion that gender is an essential characteristic of persons and the claim that sex determines ones gender. “Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. “Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. Many assume that sex determines gender, that the sex one is assigned at birth determines his/her behaviors, traits, interests, and career throughout life. This assumption fails to notice that the expectations for “women” vary from Hollywood, California, to the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, i.e. a Hollywood fashion model would be seen as odd in Vicksburg, Kentucky, and a mountain woman, wearing Brogan boots to hoe the fields would be seen as odd on Rodeo Drive, or maybe not so much any longer. According to Judith Butler, gender is a performance, it is something each of us does on a daily basis; everyone does drag every day, blending mixtures of masculinity and femininity. Not only are the images in these photos in drag, but the viewers attending this gallery exhibit are also in gender drag, i.e. performing male or female in the way that they decorate their bodies, move as they walk and carry their books and supplies.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer History have been one long challenge to the notion that sex determines gender. Indeed, gender stereotypes make sense only within a heteronormative/heterosexist society. Amusement is apparent on the faces of two moms, a lesbian couple, when someone asks them who will teach their son how to build a tree house or work on cars. Gay dads wear the same expression when someone asks them who will teach their daughter how to be a woman: heterosexuality is assumed normal in order for these questions to make sense. Lesbians, gay men, bisexual persons and transgendered individuals negotiate gender traits on their own terms. LGBT lives break the gender binary and make freedom from gender stereotypes possible for all persons.

Ron Williams’ images capture gender as performance. From frivolous to somber, confrontational to campy, the individuals captured in these photos refuse to be reduced to a spectacle for the viewer to catalog or label. These images may be received by some as celebratory and others as challenging, but they are each undeniably and richly human. If the images provoke feelings on the part of the viewer, that may say more about the viewer him/her/hierself* than it does about the image. I know that, as a 52 year-old gay man, these images in the Ridley Gallery, on the Rocklin campus, in Placer County, make me feel at home and at peace. These are my sisters and brothers, the Hogwarts family that I discovered onlyafter I left the family that physically birthed me. Both families gave me life.

Johnnie Terry/LGBT Studies and Philosophy Professor

*Hier or Zie is a non-gendered pronoun used to refer to individuals who reject the gender binary.


Genderally Speaking – gender expression photo exhibit – Sierra College


A Sierra College student critique of “Genderally Speaking.”

“The pictures exhibited by Ron Williams were so unique and definitely not something that you see everyday. In his picture you could see how full of life these men and women were and how confident they were in themselves, something many of us strive for. It was beautiful to see picture full of smiles, colors, and confidence especially when these men and women face so much prejudice and discrimination based on societies narrow definition of normal. The makeup and the clothing were so extravagant and colorful that it automatically made you happy and made you question your own wardrobe, haha. I think there’s truly something to be said about being so unapologetically yourself and knowing whom you are and being comfortable with that. And I appreciate the photographers quote-

“Whether it’s masculine or feminine, I believe people passionate about their gender expression, in radical and creative ways, are the bravest of souls”.

Gender expression is an important part of our lives and to see someone basically flipping society on it’s head and saying screw it, I’ll do what I want is really inspiring and hopefully will be influential in loosening the boundaries we put on men and women to conform to the rules of gender. My favorite picture was a close up on a male in drag and the little smirk and fierceness in his eyes emitted so much confidence that for a few seconds I felt encouraged and confident myself. Drag queens could really teach society a thing or two about confidence and self-expression in a time where self acceptance is a rare virtue and many men and women feel pressure to look like one another. It makes me happy to know that we are no longer in a time where a school is sued for an exhibit like this one and where we are educating people about LGBT culture and the impact it has had on our society that we often will ignore.