"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 13, 2015

When Gender Referred Only To French Nouns

Languages always came easily to Harvey Bingham.  He studied Latin in the 7th grade, maxed out the classics curriculum in high school, took four years of advanced French at Yale, and learned four other languages after graduation.


Although he sounded like a native speaker, had mastered even the most Latinate forms of Portuguese (the personal infinitive which was very much like the ablative absolute), and could intensify verbs in Hindi and nouns in Italian with ease, he had one weakness – gender.  He could never remember whether a noun was masculine or feminine.  In his hurry to learn languages and display them quickly, he had never bothered with the article.  Whether a pear in French was le or la was irrelevant.  The point was that when he spoke French, he spoke it fluently and without accent.  His vocabulary was rich, and he had learned how to agilely work around words that he didn’t know. What were a few mistakes in gender after all?

How wrong he was, of course, for a French, Spanish, or Italian speaker would grimace when masculine and feminine got mixed up.  There was no such thing as poire or un poire. Anything except une poire grated and annoyed.  All Harvey’s fluency went for naught because of an article.

Only after his wife who had grown up in France and learned the language properly told him that articles were not add-ons but integral parts of nouns; and that French students learned them together as one, did he understand the importance of getting gender right. If you mess up on the le or la it was as if you said ‘doughnut’ and not pear. It took him a while to retrace his steps and relearn much vocabulary; but once he had sorted out those noun endings which were probable keys to gender (words ending in vowels, for example) and could focus on irregular nouns, he recouped most of his losses.

Harvey could not remember when gender referred to more than just French nouns, when it replaced ‘sex’ as the male-female descriptor, and when it became a political cause; but he had trouble with both. ‘Female’ for him like most men of his generation was a gestalt term.  On hearing it images of soft breasts, rounded hips, full moist lips, long silken hair, and long, shapely legs came to mind.  No matter when or how the word was used, he could only think of women, their sexual allure, and their beauty. ‘Male’, too, had a connotation, perhaps more idealistic than for most; but still fully gestalt.  It mattered little that this conjured image was more like Sir Lancelot than Harvey P. Bingham.

Marilyn Monroe

‘You are what you are’, is the mantra of 2015, and you are responsible for figuring out what that is.  Unfortunately there are a bewildering number of choices.  Under Male one can choose from ‘Fully male, Apollonian, and kingly’; ‘Sensitive male, still with Y chromosomes but in touch with feminine side’; ‘AC-DC, plugged in or plugged into’; ‘Feminine, but not girly-girl’; ‘Transitioning’; etc.

“Are there any crossovers?”, Harvey asked me over coffee.  I reminded him of the movie The Crying Game where a man falls in love with a woman, but the woman is actually a man.  She is tender, caring, and softly feminine until she finally lifts her dress, too emotionally involved to hide her sex any longer. 

“Impossible”, Harvey said. “The guy would have known.”

Perhaps, and the movie is not clear on this score; but it turns out that love wins out in the end.  Sexuality – gender – is less important than the true emotional bond that has formed between the two lovers.

Image result for the crying game images

“Too complicated”, Harvey said.

I explained that genitalia matter less than one’s sexual core.  The essence of sexuality is far more important than any external configurations. Shakespeare was way ahead of his time when he wrote of the convoluted sexual desire the Poet felt for his Young Man:

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.


Nature wanted to create you as a woman, but she, being female, decided to make you a man whom she could desire; and so you are outwardly a man but inwardly a woman.  The Poet is a man who cannot love a man, so he loves the woman inside the man.

“I want no part of this”, Harvey said. “I am not of the One Percent”, by which he meant the 1-3 percent of Americans who classify themselves as LGBT.  “I am in the first percentile. Indisputably, unquestionably, and happily male.

Judging by the amount of press coverage, one would think that the percentage of LGBT Americans would be far higher than that concluded by repeated and reputable surveys. A lot of the coverage is for the curious, not the socially active.  Most Americans, although more than a bit put off by the idea of gay sex, want to know more.  It is even truer for lesbian sex.

A friend of mine had been married to a college sweetheart for a year. He knew that she was far more adventuresome than he ever had been, but had taken her fidelity for granted. On one day he learned from his neighbor that his wife had been seen passionately kissing Trudy Baumann, a gorgeous German model for Vogue; and that he, quite faithful, had the clap.

My friend asked his father, a physician, to treat him, and when his father asked how what kind of sex two women could have to give each other diseases, he replied, “By rubbing pussies.” 

“That still doesn’t answer my question”, Harvey persisted. “Do trannies care whether their partners once were women or men?”

I admitted that it was a very good question, but that I didn’t know the answer. “There must be some kind of signals that male-to-female transsexuals and female-to-male ones  give off so that there are no surprises”, I said, “but in any case, the statistical universe of such people is very, very small. One can always excuse a few mistakes.”

Image result for images transgender people

Both of us agreed that it must be very difficult for young men and women these days, never knowing what lies behind a zipper or under a skirt; but they are far more agile, accommodating, and understanding than we ever were. Although we both had heard rumors that Jonathan Edwards was the ‘queer’ college’ of the university we didn’t believe a word of it, for assigning homosexuals to JE would have meant a level of sexual complicity and disclosure that would have been unheard of in those days. 

Image result for images jonathan edwards college yale

Things are quite different today.  Margaret Lovell, a graduate of Smith College, one of the famous Seven Sisters (Vassar, Smith, Radcliffe, Holyoke, Barnard, Pembroke, et al) the all-girl equivalents of the Ivy League, would have been surprised and shocked to find that it had become the school for lesbians, but Smith has done quite well in its new niche and even publicizes its ‘LGBT’-friendly campus environment’.  

Image result for images smith college campus

Harvey and I are too old to matter much to anyone any more.  Our ideas about simple sexual relationships between men and women are outdated if not disparaged by women who have been brought up to challenge the very nature of human sexuality.

The statistics are encouraging, holding at between 1-3 percent LGBT, so few of us  have to worry about Deuteronomy or other Biblical injunctions, pay attention to media hype, or wonder what’s beneath the blue silk skirt.  Most of us say ‘Live and let live’, and mean it; but deep down we wish that things were the way they used to be.

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