JJ Vincent asked a 37-year-old about gender, identity, self-expression, and what defines a man.
Meet Tommy Paul, a musician, actor (Dyke Central), emcee, professional smartass and licensed minister/wedding officiant. I’ve known him for years, and was seriously happy when he said that he’d answer my 10 Questions, nine about gender and one that I just had to ask.
Q: The dictionary is being rewritten. How would you define gender?
A: I really…I don’t have a good definition for it myself. There’s sex, the physical sex your body is assigned at birth, and then gender is a crazy quilt of social influence and personal feeling/identify. In addition to being male or female or trans or genderqueer or intersex, you can also be feminine or masculine in the extreme, or in parts, or stripes. Maybe a nice houndstooth check. Like, how you feel and how you present can be the same or different things entirely. And then that’s really based on a kind of dovetailing between what you intend and what people interpret. Also it’s a noun. That’s helpful for dictionaries.
Q: How would you identify your own gender?
A: I identify as male, but I’m also a transguy, so for just over 30 years I was female. I didn’t necessarily identify as female for all of that time, but it’s kind of like being picked for a kickball team at school in the sense that even if you don’t want to be on the team you’re on, you have to at least look like you’re kind of trying. I’m also queer still, so that’s a whole other thing, where being transmale has made me relax about it a lot. I was more concerned with how masculine I was presenting when I was technically female than now. Now I’m more comfortable with the feminine aspects of my personality that make me collect Christmas miniatures and bake.
Q: What do you think makes someone a man?
A: I for sure don’t equate physical attributes to the definition of manliness. For myself and the people I choose to surround myself with, being a man has everything to do with how you interact with the world, and how much responsibility you take for your part in it all. Really, it’s all things I could equally say make someone a woman as well because to me “being a man” means “being an adult” and doing the right thing even when it totally sucks. Especially if it totally sucks.
Q: There’s a lot of current discussion about children being raised without gender. If you had care of a very young child, how would you approached gendered issues (toys, clothing, activities)?
A: Probably the same way my parents did. They weren’t hippies or new age or any of that either. Just stone cold Slavic, which means not limiting play time. I had war toys and dump trucks, Transformers, Barbie, whatever I expressed and interest in was fine. They didn’t deliberately choose genderless toys, but we got a lot of stuff my bother and I could share, dinosaurs, Legos, that kind of thing. When my brother wanted a cabbage patch doll for Xmas and I wanted a Lone Ranger set, we both got exactly that. Slavic parents, in my experience, seem to think that what you play with in childhood is some kind of career marker. If your son wants a doll, he’s going to be a good father. If your daughter wants a dump truck, she’s gonna be a general contractor. They never assume something like that is because your kid might be gay, because they don’t apply adult sexuality, social standards or personality traits to children. I liked to argue, so they thought I was going to be a lawyer. That’s the way they approached it, and I see no reason to do otherwise. As for clothes, I personally don’t think children have any sense of style, so it doesn’t really matter. They grow so fast, they’re gonna wear it for a couple months before it’s too small, so there’s no point making a fuss about it.
Q: Most forms and surveys have boxes on them for M or F. Would you change this if you could and if so, how what would you put instead?
A: I usually do actually. I tend to draw a little box and a letter T and then I check my own box. No one has ever called me on it. I do it at the doctor, the dentist, anywhere I’m invited to share my gender on a form. If not given the option online, I check M, but if I’m able, I always alter the document. It got me an O on my wristband the last time I went to the ER, which was fun.
Q: Do you think topics of gender identity and expression should be discussed in schools? Why/why not?
A: To a certain extent, sure. I think it needs to be discussed less than people think, but more than currently. Kids are really smart and really accepting of things that are explained to them, in my experience. I was teased a lot at school, but nobody ever sat anybody down and explained what was going on. I think a lot of teasing/bullying comes out of kids being fearful of things they don’t understand like poverty or sexuality or human development…those are heavy topics of great anxiety when you’re a kid. And who gets bullied/teased? The Other. The poor, the queer, the foreign. So explaining that people are different in X number of ways at an early age could well stop a lot of that kind of thing down the line. I also think that topics like gender expression are easy for kids to understand when broken down to an age-appropriate level. I’ve seen a number of articles about children with gender expression that differs from the norm and they almost always mention that the school, the teachers and their support staff are all on the same page. When that happens, it seems like it’s a smooth transition for the kids and they just end up doing what kids do about things they understand, which is shrugging, looking disinterested and saying something like “It’s no big deal.”
Q: A question about relationships. If a person identifies themselves outside of the traditional M/F, should this be a early topic of conversation? Should it be a topic at all?
A: At some point it should be. I feel like it’s an irresponsible surprise to spring on someone in an intimate moment. Like, “Hey, before I take my pants off….” isn’t always going to end positively. So bringing it up at some point is prudent. That being said, it is of course rude to ask. “What’s going on below the beltline?” is probably not a first date question. See if you’re interested in them as a person first, THEN figure out if you want to see them naked. I find the former often helps inform the latter. There are a lot of etiquette variables though. If you meet at a drag show or something, it’s probably a good time to go ahead and throw that info out there whereas if you meet at Single Parents Bible Study, you might wanna hold off until a more appropriate time somewhere between when you meet and when nudity is impending. The best question anyone ever asked me about something like this was “Is there a way to say ‘Whatever’s in your pants, I’m gonna be excited either way?'” and my response was “You could just say that.” Or, y’know, “I’m Bi.” LOL.
Q: Going back to your comments about your Slavic parents and available toys, I’d like to ask how your upbringing influenced your opinions and ideas about gender roles.
A: It’s funny because Slavic households… there’s that line in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where the mom says, “The man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck and the neck turns the head whichever way it wants.” That’s pretty accurate. Women are very much in charge of everything relating to the home, the kids, the house finances. They’re like generals. And that’s another thing, toughness is a very admired trait for a woman to have in our culture. So there’s this weird dichotomy that a man should be the breadwinner, and the protector of the family, but he must also be very sweet, funny, sentimental and like babies and playing with kids whereas women should run the household and volunteer at church but also be able to pull a plow while carrying at least one baby. We want our men to cry and our women to chew nails. Regardless of your physical sex or gender, you’re expected to be able to do both sets of things. Like, you have to be able to cook a holiday dinner AND replace a fan belt and if you can’t do one of those things, then you’re not as good as someone who can.
Also, a LOT of Serbian men cook, like, especially for big family events. It really depends on who is good at what, and then that’s the basis on which the roles in the household are doled out. My Mom is the finance guy, my Dad is the one who cries when he gets overwhelmed by how much he loves us. That’s what they’re good at independently of each other, so that’s what they do.
A: Ok, so I grew up in a really small town, and on Main Street there was a year-round Christmas store called “Trims & Treasures” and it always smelled like apple pie. It was in this creaky old Victorian building and it was cozy and awesome. I love Christmas. I love most holidays really, but Christmas is my big, go-crazy holiday. I used to collect Micro Machines when I was about 10-12, which was the same time Trims & Treasures opened. They had this display of miniature Christmas stuff, like, a two foot tree completely decked out with tiny lights and ornaments, little tree skirt under there, tiny icicles, tiny tinsel…something in my brain just snapped. It was the collision of two worlds. Tiny stuff you could collect + Christmas = Win. I’m also notoriously hard to shop for, so my family leapt on the opportunity. I still get at least 3 or 4 miniature ornaments every year, and at this point can do the tree in seven or eight different themes. Sometimes I do it all Disney, Warner Brothers, Harley Davidson and Coca Cola mixed, blue & silver, purple & gold…I like to say it’s the gayest thing about me. I have probably 200-ish ornaments and at least 4 sets of miniature LED lights, and it all fits into one Rubbermaid tub. So it also makes it easy for me to go totally bananas on a tree without having to actually get a cut tree and store a bunch of stuff I don’t have room for.
A: I like a combination of comfort & style so I generally go for pants and a dressy shirt and then layer it up because a.) I like it and b.) I live in the SF Bay Area and the temperature turns on a damn dime. So a nice waistcoat or cardigan with a sport coat and a bit of flair. I quite fancy bandanas as handkerchiefs because they’re cheap and come in a ton of colors so they tend to make a fairly dashing pocket square. That being said, I’m not afraid of kilts, and when I had one would often mix it into my formal wear for a nice Sean Connery effect. I’ve never liked flowy
things or like, silk or anything and I don’t like a lot of busy patterns, so menswear does me just fine. Growing up in the country, you couldn’t wear baggy stuff for fear of getting sucked into a machine of some kind, so I like it tailored too. Basically, I try to look as much like an H&M ad as possible…LOL.