Norah Vincent’s Gender Trouble
The late writer’s lessons on breaking the gender binary
‘With the help of a new wardrobe, a shorter haircut, a layer of artificial stubble, an extremely tight sports bra, and a Juilliard voice coach, Vincent lived as “Ned” for 18 months’ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
When the late writer Norah Vincent decided to live as a man for the purposes of a journalistic experiment, she did so with the expectation that her life would be easier. Men, after all, enjoy many types of structural and social advantages in American society, advantages Vincent explored in her 2006 book chronicling that experiment, Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again. Much the way that other great immersive journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich, reported on the working poor by laboring in a series of minimum wage jobs (and who happened to die weeks after Vincent’s own death this past summer by suicide at the age of 53), Vincent undertook an investigation into how a more literal version of “the other half” lived.
With the help of a new wardrobe, a shorter haircut, a layer of artificial stubble, an extremely tight sports bra, and a Juilliard voice coach, Vincent lived as “Ned” for 18 months. Throughout her experiment, Vincent successfully passed in various male milieus, from a bowling league to a strip club to a high-powered sales firm straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross, earning the confidence of her many male interlocutors along the way. To her surprise, what she found made her more sympathetic to the plight of men, whom, she wrote, suffered as much or more from society’s gendered expectations than did women.
Vincent’s main takeaway from her time living as Ned was a deeper appreciation for “the toxicity of gender roles” that “had proved to be ungainly, suffocating, torpor-inducing or even nearly fatal to a lot more people than I’d thought, and for the simple reason that, man or woman, they didn’t let you be yourself.” For the male members of our species, this toxicity stems from anxiety over being perceived as feminine, “the result of men actively working to squelch any creeping womanly tendencies in themselves and their brothers.” Ultimately, it “wasn’t being found out as a woman that I was really worried about. It was being found out as less than a real man”—that is, a man who does not conform to stereotypically masculine gender norms. The English language has plenty of words for this type of man—pansy, sissy, fag, queer—all of which denote that class of human being who was, until very recently, among the most despised of minorities: the homosexual.
“The greatest fear of the American male is that he will be homosexual,” I write in my recent book, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, and Vincent’s reporting confirmed this. The damaged men with whom she bowled, drank, and ogled women, “took refuge in machismo because they feared inappropriate intimacies between men. A feminized man is a gay man, or so the stereotype goes.” Living in a society that pressures them to exhibit traditionally masculine virtues (“hierarchy, strength, competition”) and smother feminine ones (“supplication, apology and need”), men go through life as if they are under constant surveillance, with dire penalties exacted for falling short. “The worst of this scrutiny,” Vincent wrote, “came from being perceived as an effeminate guy … most men were genuinely afraid, almost desperately afraid sometimes of the spectral fag in their midst.”
Vincent’s response to this social trauma was to advocate an escape from the “straitjacket” of gender, to expand the possibilities of what it means to be a man or a woman. As a proudly butch lesbian, she spoke from personal experience. “I have always lived as my truest self somewhere on the boundary between masculine and feminine,” Vincent wrote. Despite her refusal to fit into a binary box, Vincent was fiercely protective of her femininity, her lesbianism, and her womanhood. She saw no contradiction in her masculine gender presentation and her female sex. Standing nearly 6 feet tall and wearing 11.5 men’s size shoes, Vincent never felt herself “to be a man trapped in the wrong body. On the contrary,” she identified “deeply with both my femaleness and my femininity.”
In the years since Self-Made Man was published, so dramatically has our conversation about gender shifted, and so fearsome are the consequences for questioning the novel dogmas surrounding it, that the book reads like samizdat. While Vincent’s conclusion—that the oppressive conflation of sex and gender should be ruptured—was undoubtedly forward-thinking, today it would strike many progressives as retrograde. For those who fashion themselves insurgents on the newfangled cultural vanguard of the radical transgender movement, gender nonconformity no longer widens the broad spectrum of gender but narrows it by fusing gender expression with biological sex—defining effeminate men as women and masculine women as men.
In her book, Vincent barely addressed the transgender question, doing so only to deny that she identified as the opposite sex. “Am I a transsexual or a transvestite, and did I write this book as a means of coming out as such?” she asked, using words to describe those with a cross-sex identity (and, in the case of “transsexual,” those who had undergone a physical sex change) which have since been replaced with the much more expansive term “transgender.” While Vincent’s answer at the time was no—she “rarely enjoyed and never felt in any way fulfilled personally by being perceived and treated as a man”—today she would be deemed by many to be transgender or nonbinary, whether she liked it or not.
This new understanding of transgender as an internal, subjective feeling that may or may not correspond with one’s objective sex—a philosophy which emerged very recently yet has now been adopted by many American institutions—presents a challenge to homosexuality, a biological reality and facet of the human species that has existed since time immemorial. By their very nature as same sex-attracted persons, gays and lesbians have always been nonconforming in their gender expression and roles.
And as long as the vast majority of humanity is heterosexual, we always will. Because our same-sex attraction defies that which is “normal,” many gay people have been told, particularly at a young age, that we are actually members of the opposite sex trapped in the “wrong body.” This form of homophobia is particularly gruesome in Iran, where gay men are often forced to undergo sex changes in order to rectify their same-sex desires, as well as in certain parts of Africa, where lesbians confront the threat of “corrective rape” to “make” them heterosexual.
In the supposedly more enlightened West, a nonviolent but conceptually similar campaign of erasing homosexuality is afoot. If the oppressive gender norms Vincent critiqued were the product of conservative social conventions, today, in a strange development, those same conventions are being unwittingly reified by progressives under the influence of radical transgender ideology. Under this faddish new dispensation, gender nonconformity, a trait inherent to being homosexual, is being conflated with gender dysphoria, a medical condition. It is having a particularly deleterious effect on gender nonconforming young people—many of whom would otherwise grow up to be gay but who are increasingly being told that their defiance of gender norms is a likely indication that they are the opposite sex. As a result, homosexuality is being transmuted into transgender.
Much of this erasure is due to the linguistic hegemony of the word “transgender.” Until the 1990s, people with a cross-sex identity typically referred to themselves as “transsexuals,” a term that inferred one had undergone a physical sex change. “Transgender,” by contrast, defines a much broader spectrum of identity, encompassing not only those who identify as a member of the opposite sex but increasingly anyone who doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles. This has led to an explosion of young people identifying as transgender.
At increasingly younger ages and in ever larger numbers, masculine girls and effeminate boys are being encouraged not only to explore their gender variance—a perfectly healthy and welcome development—but to embrace a transgender or nonbinary existence. From there, it can be a straight path to irreversible medical interventions—puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery—to “correct” their “sex assigned at birth.” Almost 50 years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, we have unintentionally achieved a new means of pathologizing it.
Almost 50 years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, we have unintentionally achieved a new means of pathologizing it.
Of course, none of this is to say that transgender identity isn’t real or legitimate. But the rapidity with which so many young people are declaring themselves transgender and nonbinary is worthy of skepticism. In 2020, almost 700,000 people in the United States under the age of 25 identified as transgender, nearly double the amount from just three years prior. According to Dutch doctors who have been researching adolescent gender dysphoria for decades, 80% to 95% of pre-pubertal adolescents will desist from their feelings of gender dysphoria by later adolescence, and the vast majority of them will grow up to be gay.
Vincent herself was just such a child. “Practically from birth,” she wrote, “I was the kind of hard-core tomboy that makes you think there must be a gay gene.” Had Vincent been born later, it’s entirely possible that well-intentioned educators, doctors, and other authority figures would have interpreted her gender nonconformity as a sign that she was transgender and encouraged her to transition. Testimonies from an increasing number of “detransitioners”—many of whom attribute their youthful decisions to transition as resulting from internalized homophobia—attest to this phenomenon.
The slow erasure of homosexuality and the concomitant ascendance of transgender in its place extends beyond individuals to the culture at large. The routinization of gender pronouns in email signatures, verbal greetings, and so many other areas of daily life has codified in humorless bureaucratese what had been, for gay men going back generations, a teasing form of endearment (referring to one’s friends as “she” or “her”). Over the past decade, activists, journalists, celebrities, and the New York City government have engaged in a revisionist campaign to rewrite one of the seminal moments in the history of gay liberation, the Stonewall Uprising, by concocting a false narrative that it was led not by gay men and lesbians but “trans women.”
Or consider last year’s remake of West Side Story. Discussing the film, then still in development, in a 2018 interview, Rita Moreno, a star of both the original and the updated version, addressed the evolution of the character Anybodys, a female tomboy whose desperate attempts to join the Jets are stymied due to her being a girl. In 1961, when the original film premiered, the motion picture industry’s infamous “Production Code” prohibited overt depictions of homosexuality. Half a century later, Moreno enthused, Anybodys’ authentic nature could finally be realized on screen. “Anybodys can be what she was always meant to be: a lesbian,” she said. “That’s really what she was and what she was meant to be, but at the time that was as far as they could go.” Upon the film’s release three years later, however, Anybodys had been converted into a transgender man.
One of the great, largely unheralded, accomplishments of the gay rights movement—and of gay people as individuals—was blurring an all-too-rigid gender binary. By expanding our notions of what it means to be a man or a woman, gay people didn’t just liberate themselves from constricting gender stereotypes. They liberated society. Thanks in large part to the courage of an earlier generation of gays and lesbians like Norah Vincent, heterosexual men can express affection for one another with less fear of having their manhood called into question, while heterosexual women face less pressure to conform to traditional (and ruthless) feminine beauty standards. The fear of being called “gay”—a word that, not so long ago, rolled off the tongues of American teenagers as easily as “retard” did decades before—no longer haunts us as it once did. And yet, just as we reached the point where we could celebrate this long overdue disruption of gender norms, a new movement, marching under the banner of “progress,” seeks to reimpose them.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.