Segal: God in drag

David Segal
Continental Divine

When my wife paints her nails, our kids usually want in on the fun. Our daughter (3) and son (6) enjoy the bold colors of nail polish and the look of it on their fingernails. And why shouldn’t they? Sometimes I let them paint my nails, too.

And yet, each time there’s a voice in my head saying boys shouldn’t wear nail polish. I don’t heed the voice, but I hear it. It is so ingrained that it’s easy to accept without questioning. Gender is a powerful construct, and gender rules don’t break easily.

Sadly, people who don’t fit gender norms often suffer consequences, from taunting to violence. My wife and I asked our son if anyone at school had said anything about his painted nails.

“Yes,” he said, “at recess some of the boys said, ‘Boys don’t wear nail polish!’”

“What did you say?” we asked.

“Yes, they do,” he said.

“What did the other boys do then?” we asked, expecting drama.

“They said, ‘Oh,’ and then we went off to play.”

Children quickly internalize the gender rules of their culture, but they can be taught differently.

Why are we so attached to gender? It’s the first thing we ask or announce about a newborn. Gender is the water we swim in, and without effort we barely notice it and the ways it determines our choices, behavior and self-worth.

RuPaul wants us to notice gender. The legendary drag queen (and TV host, supermodel, recording artist and Emmy Award winner) achieved success and fame by challenging prevailing gender norms. Many people think drag is just men dressing as women, but as RuPaul explained on NPR last week, “Drag isn’t just about looking like a woman. … It’s an expression of shapeshifting.”

Most people, RuPaul said, “feel more comfortable where the roles are assigned to them, and they don’t have to think that much.”

It’s “easier” to assign neat labels to everyone and have them act accordingly. It doesn’t require us to question our assumptions or confront our own insecurities.

But there’s a cost to putting people in these boxes, particularly to those who feel that conventional gender roles don’t suit them. They are forced to conform or to suffer the consequences of nonconforming.

We tend to think of those who don’t conform to gender roles as marginal, and that’s part of the problem. Gender roles govern behavior for everyone.

A case in point: as the podcast The Gender Knot reported recently, the education system (in the UK and U.S.) fails boys — yes, boys. Because of a well-developed feminist critique of gender bias in classrooms, we continue to study to try to address the ways in which girls are marginalized in school, as we should.

But equally real and less appreciated is that boys struggle in the classroom, too. The same aggression that we tend to reward in men as assertive leadership can be a liability for school boys. Teachers and administrators too often treat aggressive boys as discipline problems — or worse, as criminal elements — rather than as struggling students who need support and mentorship.

“Boys will be boys” becomes a recipe for dismissiveness, a way to write off behaviors that should be red flags for underlying challenges.

With the Super Bowl upon us, take the NFL as an arena of extreme gender norms. Look at the implicit message we send about what is tolerable among men: The league is full of players who cheat, abuse their partners and use drugs. Yet there isn’t a single openly gay active player in the league — because somehow that would be over the line for this hyper-masculine sport?

Gender norms box us all in, but we seem to crave the security of labels and the illusion of knowing and controlling the world around us. RuPaul wants to liberate us from that need.

“You don’t really have to understand everything, you know?” RuPaul said in the NPR interview. “And there’s such freedom in that.”

As a rabbi, I felt my faith antennae go up when I heard that. The religious life calls us to embrace mystery and uncertainty, to learn to live without all the answers.

Sure enough, RuPaul has her own thoughts on spirituality: “I don’t have to know what God is. I don’t have to think of it as a male or a female. I just know that there is something I can sense. And I don’t have to know what it is. And the same is true for gender. We are all God in drag.”

Genesis 1:27 says that God created the first humans “in the image of God … male and female.” Ancient Jewish and Greek myths portrayed the first humans as dual-gender beings, later split in half by divine beings jealous of their wholeness and power.

We carry both masculine and feminine within us, which is part of what marks us as divinely created. To fit neatly into the gendered boxes that culture has constructed is to deny our God-given diversity.

How do we free ourselves from those limitations?

According to RuPaul: “It’s the same story from the beginning of time. Know thyself. Understand what you really are, not the clothes you’re wearing or some pronoun someone is calling you.

“Start from the inside.”

David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him at His column runs the first Sunday of the month.