Cross Dressing and the War by Lu Vickers

For though many instincts are held more or less in common by both sexes, to fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's. Law and practice have developed that difference whether innate or accidental. Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman's rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us; it is difficult to judge what we do not share.--Virginia Woolf, from Three Guineas
 
Virginia Woolf's comments on the nature of men's and women's relationships toward war surfaced in my mind the day the terrorists turned our airplanes into missiles. War is inextricably tied up with gender. Men make war. Women don't. Woolf wrote those words in 1938, as the Second World War became more and more inevitable, and she could hardly bear hearing the "old tune of human nature:" Here we go around the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree. Give it all to me, give it all to me, all to me. Three hundred millions spent on war. What she wanted more than anything was to break that circle---women could lead men to a different song and a different conclusion "by not repeating [men's] words and following [their] methods but by finding new words and creating new methods."
 
As the mother of three boys, I've been thinking about gender for a while. I didn't want to raise boys who grew up to be the kind of men Woolf derides, men who feel fighting is synonymous with manhood. I rejected the blue/pink dichotomy. I held my boys when they cried. I taught them to comfort each other. The oldest changed the youngest's diapers. When I brought home a grass hula skirt from Tarpon Springs, they all took turns wearing it, even Jordan, who at eleven, is the most gender conscious. He danced for a solid hour wearing the skirt AND the coconut shell pasties.
 
Then there was the day my five year old son Samuel called me into the bathroom to see something. He stood before the toilet, peeing. "Look Mama, my penis is a weapon. Doesn't it look like an arrow?" I had to say it did, and walked out of the room wondering as Woolf did, whether men's urge to fight is "innate or accidental." Given the spear-like nature of their love-making apparatus, I wasn't so sure.
 
The afternoon the Twin Towers exploded I took my boys out of the house to escape the television with its looping images of that second airplane ripping into the second tower. We needed to head for some green, some peace and quiet, so we went to the playground down the street, a playground ironically named -- at least that day -- Optimist Park. My neighborhood swarms with boys and they all seemed to be drawn to the grassy field that day where they buzzed like bees, playing at fighting. One minute I was talking to my friend Michael about the unbelievable horror of what had happened in New York, and the next minute I was shouting "No contact" at some big kid who'd just gotten a little too physical with Samuel. The boys shrugged at me, then fell into each other's arms again, a tumble of sweaty boy bodies, their violence now as tightly choreographed as a barroom brawl in an old western. It was the theatre of the absurd.
 
The next day I couldn't get the fighting boys out of my thoughts even though they were as wispy as the grey shadows of birds next to the red and black carnage in New York. They flitted in and out of the corner of my mind. They fought. They laughed. They fought. I thought of how we supplied them with shiny silver swords instead of guns, how we couldn't help but admire them when they painted their bodies with mud after a rain and pretended to be warriors, how we admonished them to Be Nice in the face of all their aggression, as if those two words could work magic. I wasn't going to forbid them their testosterone induced buzzes, but they damn well better not hurt each other.
 
I've found that the world outside of Optimist Park is much more forgiving of unfettered masculinity, than of masculinity that is fettered. And my boys pick this message up too. Jordan might have danced hula for an hour but he refused to wear GAP clothes to school one day because GAP means Gay American Person. And he wouldn't walk next to Samuel in the mall because Samuel at five hadn't figured out that real boys don't paint their toenails red.
 
I thought of my youngest son, Elias. At 2 and a half you'd think he'd be exempt from the societal rules that govern other boys. He just got out of the womb. He doesn't need any encouragement to get in touch with his feminine side.
 
His fascination with objets feminins began when we went to Weeki Wachee Springs, home of live mermaids. While our oldest boys were taken with the goats in the petting zoo, Elias fell in love with the mermaids. I bought him a mermaid with red yarn hair and he carried her everywhere. He bathed with her, slept with her, hauled her to pre-school. I was enlisted to braid her hair in the morning and then re-do it about fifteen times before we left the house. I was tempted to throw her in the garbage. But I didn't.
 
She went to Italy with us that summer. One day I took the two youngest boys into a toy store. Samuel begged for a plastic dart gun, and Elias begged for a Barbie, two of the most politically incorrect toys ever. I should've said no to both, but being tired and tired of their whining I caved in. Elias flung the mermaid aside, and so it was Barbie that made it into all the pictures I took of Elias: Barbie and Elias in Milan; Barbie and Elias on the beach at Follonica; Barbie and Elias in the boat at Positano. The Italian-tour-Barbie was the beginning of a fetish that has lasted over half a year and is still going strong. Now he has Lisa and Mara, and the mysterious Black Barbie and Precious and Alexis. One of his greatest pleasures is to hold one Barbie and hand me the other so we can waggle them at each other and make them talk, our voices pitched improbably high.
 
I hated Barbie when I was a child; I would've much rather had a G.I Joe and a Jeep I could push through the dirt. And like Elias, I let my preferences be known. My mother wasn't happy. I renamed myself Sonny after one of my friend's handsome father, and I played outside with my shirt off until my mother insisted my flat chest was different from my brother's chests because I was a girl. I touched my tiny nipples in disbelief. At Christmas I asked for a cowboy outfit, envisioning calfskin pants with chaps. When Santa Claus brought me a red skirt edged with white fringe, I cried and refused to wear it. So you'd think I'd be sympathetic to Elias's sweet predilections. And I obviously have been. To a point.
 
Elias's pre-school teacher told me his favorite activity at school is to play dress up with a little girl named Elizabeth. He wears the pink dress; she wears the white one. I knew that if I surprised him at home with a pink lame dress that he would swoon. And why not? When Jordan expressed an interest in fire trucks; I took him to fire stations all over the city. When Samuel expressed an interest in butterflies, I made him a butterfly net and took him to St. Marks to catch Cloudless Sulphurs. Elias was drawn like a moth to the pink aisles at Toys R Us. I watched as he gazed longingly at the fuzzy feather boas and pink satin tutus in the dress-up section. But I couldn't bring myself to buy him one.
 
I'd had to fend off comments from strangers every time I went somewhere with my Barbie-toting son. At the park a little girl flounced over to where Elias sat in the sand box, his red toenails bright as blood against the white sand. "He a girl?" she asked, looking at his feet.
 
"No," I said. "Hunh" she said snootily, twisting around to stomp off.
 
At Publix the bag boy raised his eyebrows when I explained that "No, he's not a girl, he just likes Barbie dolls."
 
"You need to nip that in the bud," he said solemnly.
 
At the farmers' market, two old ladies cooed at my pretty little girl, then gasped when I told them she was a boy. They patted my shoulder reassuringly. "He'll grow out of it, honey, don't worry," they said, as if he'd just done something embarrassing like spinning his head 360 degrees. So, convinced that my son didn't need any more encouragement to get in touch with his feminine side, I found I could not buy the dress.
 
Until the day after the Towers fell. I thought of Woolf and of the boys fighting in the park, and I wondered why people are so comfortable with gun-toting little boys, but so disconcerted and upset when a little boy plays dress-up. Maybe it's because femininity is so devalued, so much so that one of the "solutions" to the terrorist threat is to "capture Bin laden and turn him into a woman and send him back to Afghanistan where he can don a burqa, and get a taste of his own medicine." What about turning him into a woman and having him realize how futile and horrible war is, period. What about having him quit the circle that's been rounding the mulberry tree ever since men could walk upright?
 
The day after 9/11, while many people headed to Walmart to stock up on American flags, and American flag embossed lapel pins, coffee mugs and bumper stickers, I drove past yard signs that read "God Bless America. Now let's kick some ass," and "God Bless America: Revenge." I thought of the words "cannon fodder" and how my house is full of it, so I headed to Toys 'r Us to buy a shiny pink sequined skirt for Elias. I figured the world could do with a bit more estrogen right then, even it was induced artificially.
 
I'm not suggesting we make our boys wear dresses, but if something as simple as wearing a dress or a little fingernail polish would keep our men from making war, I would suggest it. No, I'm not advocating cross dressing as a deterrent to war; I'm just suggesting we shouldn't make everything so either/or the way we are doing now with Iraq. We've seen what happens when people feel their choices are limited. And we'll keep seeing it if we don't change; if we hang onto those ideas that force our men into battle out of habit, whether "innate or accidental." It's time we asked ourselves why we are more threatened by a two-and-a-half year-old boy toting a Barbie than by a boy carrying a gun. It's time we stopped seeing the spilling of blood as the heroic, manly thing to do.