David Bowie. Boy George. Eddie Izzard. Quentin Crisp. Nicky Wire. Antony Hegarty. Most of these men are household names in the United Kingdom. And they all have one thing in common: they’re ‘gender benders’. Whether it’s by style, mannerism or personality, they as androgynous symbols challenge the gendered norms assigned to society.
Regardless of their eccentricities, they’re respected artists and creative types, the kind of celebrities regarded as forward-thinking example-setters.
I’ve called them ‘gender benders’ to give them a vague group label—but their reasons for transgressing expected performative roles are far from synonymous.
Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire, for example, simply enjoys wearing dresses on stage because they remind him of his mother, who he is very close to.
Comedian Eddie Izzard dresses in drag during stand-up routines, simply calling himself “a lesbian trapped in a man’s body” rather than identifying with any fixed orientation.
And Bowie – who has referred to himself both as “bisexual” and a “closet heterosexual” – used androgyny as a device for social change and creative expression.
None of these men are freak-show attractions. They’re just people. In the UK, the media accepts such celebrities – because they’re talented singers, actors, and artists.
Canada just doesn’t have this.
Popular celebrities in our country are rigidly on either side of the line: homosexual or straight. There’s no ambivalence.
The Canadian characters that do push boundaries are either kept to the side or presented in a box with a familiar label. Transgendered folk singer Rae Spoon – well, have you even heard of him? And Peaches, though outspoken about her open mentality towards sexual orientation, is packaged more as a titty-sucking shock-value pornstar than a talented artist.
But why is this? While Canada has a proud artistic culture, the creative side of its personality is overshadowed by the consumerist conservatism of the States – where Janet Jackson can’t flash a bit of boobie and androgyny is to be mocked, not accepted; where labels are expected on people just like products on a shelf.
In the same way that your average Canadian pays more attention to the MTV Video Awards than the Polaris Prize, too many eyes are diverted away from the freedom of expression we could have in Canada.
It’s important for pop culture to not only give these figures a stage, but to present sexually ambivalent individuals as a welcome part of our society.
Alex is the Editor of SocietyEye.com, an online arts and culture magazine.