Genderbending at the Madhattered
By Kameron Hurley
23 February 2004
My friends are cyclical, like the eight seasons—always changing, always the same. I never believed this. About them. About myself. I didn't like politics.
I photograph the perpetually gendered in little rural towns outside the city, towns with names like Ash and Beech and Coriander. After half a year of churning along muddy rails, knocking on knotty doors tied with twine; after half a hundred debates with operators about misdirected calls, charges, disconnected or nonexistent lines; after all that, all I wanted was to be back in the city, drinking at the Madhattered, thinking about anything but politics.
My friends kept tabs on when I'd be in; we'd meet at the Madhattered thirteen hours till dawn. Nib and Page were always there first, always arguing: debates about heterosexist dogma, or who could drink the most tarls without compromising gender propriety. Margin would drink mandalas and tell me it was barbaric that there was actually a country where drinking processed food was taboo.
Rule showed up the same every night, of course. He'd walk in, tall and straight-hipped, denouncing social authorities and gender prescription. He'd come in with his beard plucked because the government wouldn't let him get it surgically eradicated. His wish for smooth cheeks fell outside his gender prescriptions, especially since he was queer. "Nothing personal," Rule told me the first time we met, when I asked him to be female for the night, and he admitted to his inability to alter sex. "Just born that way."
Rule always ordered the drinks: mandalas straight up, sprins over ice, four tonic and tarls . . . and then he'd order drinks for the rest of us.
By the end of the night, we were always drunk, and Margin would be slumped over in the seat next to mine, wearing a blue tunic or pink tutu and enough makeup to paint a landscape. Margin would blubber about the latest love he or she had lost that night, Page and Nib would be yelling about whose turn it was to be male in their ongoing adolescent opera, and Rule would be wearing a dress, illegally. Around two hours till dawn, when the perpetually sexed couples were going home to baths and babies and picket-fenced houses, we'd start to talk photographs. History. We would start talking about who we were, who we wanted to be.
Those were the worst nights.
But I need to tell you what I did outside the Madhattered, before Liquid Sunshine and the end of adolescence. Before perpetualism, complacency, adulthood.
Photographs form our historical memory, our past. The image of our forebears, sexed in the ideal of their vision upon our discovered landscape of sand and stone, is our starting point: they upon the black shores, wrapped in lingering sea-fog, posed among amber forests, recording our landscape as significantly as the record of their own existence; back when the landscape was still significant. Each of us is remembered in the same way. Photographers, through photos, prove our existence. Mine. Yours. Ours.
I'm one of those photographers. I help document every mature citizen who's formulated a sense of gendered identity. In little towns like Tansy and Burdock in the north, most people are photographed male; that's the perpetual gender they chose, the one the government ordains they're recorded in. You're stuck with perpetualism until you've dried up your breeding potential. Some change back afterwards—many do before I come to town—but really, it doesn't much matter after the photograph; whatever you've chosen as your twenty-year perpetual sex is the one you'll be remembered by, the one that forms your perpetual identity for posterity. In a little town south of Tansy called Grass, I once waited four weeks—a whole season—for half the elder population to shift itself back to female so I could capture the images of themselves they were bound by law to portray for posterity. All those perpetuals, adults, so certain of who they were, where they belonged. I envied them: their unchanging core of identity, their sense of themselves as a part of our historical present, permanently recorded for our future.
After I met Sunshine, I called every night I spent in those tiny towns, and every night Sunshine laughed and said, "Cue, have them send you home. I'll remind you who you are."
But the Historiographical Society has its own agenda, both now and then, and by the time I got back to the city, high summer was usually over, the leaves were turning lavender, and I'd almost forgotten those peculiar things about Sunshine that fascinated me from the start.
When I first met Sunshine, I had my imager set up outside a couple of storefronts in a backward little town called Sage. Some neuter youths were throwing stones at the windows of one of the tuck shops, and I wanted to bring a copy of the photograph back to the city and put it into the Sage collection in the archives. I was going to call it "Violence Outside the Window," which I thought was quite clever. We're normally not allowed to photograph underage neuters. They're not considered a part of historical memory until after they've chosen a perpetual gender. In this case, however, the town elders had had trouble with these neuters vandalizing storefronts, and they employed me to provide the artifact with which to procure compensation from the neuters' families.
After I'd snapped a few images, the neuters caught sight of me at the end of the street. They started throwing stones at me. I panicked, looped my imager around my neck, left the tripod, and ducked into the first door along the street that opened for me—
and tumbled into a thin blond man giving a seasonal presentation on sex mutation theory to a room full of prostitutes. The man and I crumpled onto the maroon carpet in a tangle of arms and legs. I got a mouthful of his hair, my imager banged into his groin, and he punched me so hard he gave me a black eye.
The imager didn't break, and Sunshine wasn't really hurt, but he spent the next three weeks being female out of spite. I asked her to lunch to make up for it. She said she didn't like to eat in public because her last partner was from Thosaline, and Thosalines considered eating in public aesthetically unappealing.
We settled on iced water. I had a citrus in mine.
Sunshine gestured with her slender hands when she spoke. Her voice was soft, and she was very open, articulate. She was the only person I'd ever met whose mannerisms remained the same no matter their sex. Sunshine still looked me directly in the eye when male, and used the same effeminate gestures. His laugh still came out a girlish giggle. Sunshine's indifference to gender prescriptions unnerved even my friends.
I loved Sunshine for it.
Sunshine was slim and straight-hipped, even when female. The government had recommended she become perpetually male, as bearing children would likely kill someone with hips like hers. Because of that, he hadn't had any identity issues since he was a neuter. I always envied her that. She worked as a social health worker and disease counselor for the city University, which explained his lecture at the brothel in Sage. He practiced yoga and knew jujitsu.
Sunshine asked for my call number at the end of our iced-water date. She said she wanted to get a copy of the prints when they were done.
I didn't get back to the city for another two weeks after that, and then I spent four days locked up in my flat waiting for her to call. I drank a lot of citrus-flavored water. Margin and Rule called me three times, concerned about my mental state.
"She's a small-town flirt," Margin said. "I've met a thousand like them. Get off the floor. Come meet us at the Madhattered."
But I didn't go. And Sunshine called. When she asked me out for dinner (attempting to get over her previous lover's aversions), I spent the next three days trying to decide which sex I should show up as. An hour before I was to meet Sunshine, I made a hysterical call to Rule asking for advice.
"Listen," he said, "anyone the social authorities are going to tag as perpetually male's going to want to spend a night with a male. Might help some in making up for that twenty years of perpetual pairing with a woman he's got ahead of him. Government's got their dirty fingers in everything."
So I met Sunshine as a male, and we ate a little, and talked a lot. I never ran out of things to say to him. We had both studied political theory and both had an aversion to Revisionism, Rule's political party of choice.
Sunshine took me back to his flat. Inside, bright washes of color lined the walls—paintings.
"You want a drink?" Sunshine asked.
I nodded. He brought me back a tonic and tarl from the coldbox as I looked over the paintings.
"You did these?" I asked.
The paintings were a wash of bright colors—orange, magenta, crimson, neon yellow, turquoise, vermilion, lavender. In one of them, a pair of figures of indeterminate sex danced and embraced. A frame of words bound them, too small to read. Another canvas portrayed the form of a sexed male wearing gendered female clothing, and a sexed female wearing gendered male clothing. The script border read, "They say love has a bitter taste. But what matter? What matter? I have tasted you. Love is bittersweet."
I studied Sunshine with new eyes—the thin, yellow-haired man beside me. These were caustic paintings. Anti-government. Anti-gender prescription. Rule had told me what they did to people who created work like this.
"You could be bound for painting these," I said.
He sipped his drink, still staring at the "love is bittersweet" painting.
"I wanted to show you," he said, "in case you thought I was too revolutionary to associate with." He had a smatter of freckles across the fair skin of his nose and cheeks. I wanted to touch him.
"It's just one more thing to like," I said.
Sunshine kissed me.
I spent the night.
Margin told me I must be in love.
We huddled over our table at the Madhattered. I spilled everything. Nib and Page were babbling about their lesbian sexuality course at Book's School of Sexuality. They were having trouble remaining dually female for consecutive days; too much like perpetuality, they said. Margin wore a tutu and red heels, but I wasn't so certain she was totally female-sexed that night. Rule's politics were catching.
"I don't want to be in love," I told Margin. "Love is as changeable as sex."
Margin rolled her (his?) eyes. "What, you think it's just about the sex? It's never just about the sex. Maybe for the queers and the perpetuals, but not for us. Too much variety. Why choose one over another, if not for love?"
But I didn't want to be in love. I knew what that meant. Sacrifice. Obligation. Perpetuation. Two people pair up and they have to know who they are: forever, unchangeable, as permanent as a photograph, as history.
Sunshine asked me to move in. Sunshine made room in the flat for me. I brought in my photographs, my imager, my set of recording disks, my gendered wardrobes, my set of photography books, gender-theory books, and sexual evolution books. I carved out my own little corner of Sunshine's world.
Sunshine went to jujitsu class twice a week and painted four times a week. Whenever Sunshine was gone, I went through the painting studio in the flat's spare bedroom. I liked to touch the brushes and dabble my fingers in the paint. I liked handling the things Sunshine had held. The smell of that room always reminded me of Sunshine: wet paint, fresh canvas, watered down color. The paint drippings on the floor made their own unique Sunshine portrait. Whenever I missed my lover I would move quietly through that room, breathing in the scent of Sunshine.
The government sent me out every year, usually from high winter or low spring to low autumn, which meant that I only spent about half of every year with Sunshine. Sunshine spent odd moments on the Great Work, the one I always heard about when I came back, the one that gave a new pattern to the paint-drippings portrait on the uncovered studio floor. The Work itself, though, Sunshine always spirited away before I came home, and switched to working on smaller projects: half-covered canvases smeared in orange and lavender, smudged photographs and small portraits framed in elegant script. I searched the studio for clues of the larger piece, but found nothing unusual about the new pattern on the floor but the slow, sensual silver arcs of spattered paint by the door.
So I ignored the Work. Sunshine did not speak much of it in our three years together, and I never brought it up. I didn't see a need to. There were always other projects, always different conversations.
"Do you believe being perpetually sexed really means you know who you are?" Sunshine asked me one night after we'd made love. I'd gotten back from another terrible historical imaging in a muddy town called Root whose elders quietly told me they did not believe in "unnecessary technologies"—like plumbing. I'd found myself shivering in an outhouse at fourteen in the morning, wishing I was home. Here. With Sunshine.
Sunshine and I lay side by side, blankets bunched up around our feet. Our fingers touched.
"Of course," I said. "Only perpetuals are part of the historical landscape. Perpetualism and identity precede imaging."
Sunshine sighed. He was male that night, and he'd lost weight since I'd last seen him. Blue and silver paint stained his fingertips.
"You think your friends are waiting to be perpetual, or do they like being like they are, like the eight seasons, cyclical, always changing, always the same?" Sunshine asked.
"They aren't the same," I said, "except Rule. Queer. Changeless."
"But they are," Sunshine said. "Believing that being perpetual precedes identity, you'd be arguing that your friends change identity every night."
"Why are you asking?"
Sunshine toyed with the edge of my pillowcase. "Something I've been thinking about. About images and identity. Honestly, Cue, if you were different every time you swapped, I'd be living with two different people. You're always the same."
I sat up, offended. "This is—"
"Aren't I always the same?" Sunshine asked.
"You do it on purpose."
"Have you ever dressed like a woman while you were a man?" Sunshine asked.
"Only with you," I said.
"Too political for you?"
"I love you."
I looked over at him. He had never told me that before.
"I love you no matter what sex you are," Sunshine said, "and that changes things."
"I want us to be a couple."
I stayed silent for a long while. Then, "I'm not ready to be perpetual."
"Let's not be perpetual. Let's be an adolescent couple, forever."
"You can't use 'adolescent' and 'couple' in the same sentence," I said.
"I want to be bound to you. Just you."
I reached over and took Sunshine's hand. "Let's not talk about this anymore."
Sunshine pulled his hand away. He stood up quietly, pulled on his robe. I heard the door to his studio close.
Rule told me I was a fool.
"You're telling me a beautiful painter says you're the love of their life and you blow them off? You're stupider than Margin gives you credit for."
We were, of course, at the Madhattered. Page and Nib were male and female, respectively, arguing about whether or not Nib looked better in Page's tutu than Page did, which technically wasn't an appropriately gender-prescribed discussion. Margin was flirting with someone named after a kitchen appliance. Rule was drinking tarls.
"I'll never understand what a bright person like Sunshine sees in you," Rule said. "You can be mewling. A lazy coward, when the mood suits you. Sunshine needs fire. Someone whose thinking works outside the perpetual."
I glanced over at Page and Nib and Margin. "You think any of us is ever going to be perpetual?"
"No, Cue. I think we're the lost children of history. Perpetually adolescent."
Sunshine remained male for almost four months: four seasons, half the year. He spent his nights in his studio. He locked it whenever he left.
I received my government contract for the year, a detailed itinerary of little towns on the outskirts of the northern province, most of which hadn't been photographed in almost a decade. I told Sunshine that I'd be leaving the next day. He said nothing. Something was slipping away.
The day I left, Sunshine walked me to the silver tube of the train.
"When you get back my project will be done," he said.
I nodded. I was female that day. The first town on my itinerary was Lilac, a last resting place for female queers. I wasn't allowed to photograph the town, of course, because queers can't legally formulate a self-willed gendered identity—and are therefore outside the realm of history. I was only going there to take a written census for the health authority.
"I've been thinking about being a couple," I said.
Sunshine glanced up at me.
"When I come back I can be perpetually female," I said, "and you can be perpetually male. We'll sign the government forms for—"
Sunshine put his finger to my lips. "You don't understand, Cue." He kissed me. He left me.
I called Sunshine every night, but the operator could never get a connection through. "No one's picking up the receiver," the operator said.
I photographed four women in Evergreen and thirty-two men in Beech. In Coriander, a bridge washed out, and eight men and twelve women died before I could photograph them, erasing them from history forever. I met three men named Stove who took me out for tarls and toast. I slept with a woman named Cup after I photographed her nude, surrounded by her twelve perpetually sexed children.
"It's so good to see them all as real people," she told me.
I went by mule and rickshaw and carriage and steam car. A town named Magnolia, a blond woman named Comb. A stir of queer men outside a pub in Fern being given handouts and then beaten away with sticks. Mothers now perpetually male, fathers now perpetually female. Neuter children plucking at my imager, tugging at my sleeves. The black, lined face of a person named Ripple whose sex I never knew, because all I saw was the face and hands, gesturing for the imager through the folds of a black robe. Eighteen women in Hyacinth wearing crimson headbands. Two nude men in Willow with bodies lean and sinewy as whips. A man named Rubble. A woman named Stone.
When I got back to the train line it was already low autumn, and as the train curled toward the city, the rain started, slow and steady, streaming past my windowpane in ever-changing rivulets. Different patterns, different paths, but always rain.
I climbed the stairs to the flat Sunshine and I shared, but there were no lights on. I unlocked the door and palmed on the light.
Sunshine's paintings were gone. All of Sunshine's things were gone. I walked slowly through the flat, the living space, our bedroom. Her books were gone, his black suits, her red tutu, the silver scarf I gave him for her birthday. I turned on the light in the studio. The room was bare. The floor had been scraped clean. White walls, white floor, an empty room looking out onto the cloud-heavy bay.
I stood in the doorway, numb.
The phone rang.
I dropped my traveling case and ran to the living area, picked up the receiver.
"Connected," the operator said.
"Sunshine!" I cried.
"Fuck, no! Why aren't you here?" Rule said.
Margin's voice crackled in through another line. "Sunshine's opening is tonight! Why aren't you here? He told you, didn't she?"
"Where?" I said.
"Where else, fool, the Madhattered," Rule said. "Get over here. You're missing it!"
"I'm coming," I said, and dropped the receiver. The operator yelled at me. I darted down the stairs.
The Madhattered was crowded, more crowded than it had ever been. Adolescents and perpetuals vied for space. Three extra bartenders tossed drinks. Margin wore a black tunic and four-inch green heels. Rule dressed in a snazzy suit with a blue kerchief. Page wore a silver tutu. Nib wore a gold tunic and thigh-high boots. I hadn't had time to dress up. I wasn't even sure what sex I was.
"Where is she?" I asked.
Rule pulled me up to the table. Page and Nib and Margin all leaned in. Rule pointed to the open gallery doors by the bar. "We've been in. You have to see it, Cue. This is a good crowd, but it won't last."
"Why not? What's wrong?" I asked.
"Go," Margin said.
I pushed my way to the gallery, through the mass of tutus and tunics. In the first room were half a dozen of Sunshine's paintings, all of which I'd already seen, in one form or another. Sunshine wasn't there. The second gallery, behind the first, was more crowded, and more people were talking in there, a low rumble of voices. I squeezed my way past the crowd. Someone elbowed me. A drink spilled across the front of my blouse. There was only one work in there, made up of seven canvases. A little rope cordoned it off from the press of people. I was forced up against the rope. I gazed at the paintings, only—
they weren't really paintings.
They had begun as photographs. Seven canvases. Sunshine and a faceless partner. But when Sunshine added paint, they merged into something else.
I saw seven paintings arranged vertically along the far wall, two-by-two, progressing closer to one another as they moved inward to frame the final painting mounted below them. The images were of Sunshine, altered photographs of Sunshine's unmistakable form:
—Sunshine, male, dancing
—Sunshine, male, and his male
—Sunshine and her female partner,
—Sunshine, male . . . or female? dancing
—Sunshine, a female, with a—
That final image, that blended image, I realized, was Sunshine, dancing. Just Sunshine; not male, not female, just the person I loved, sexless, genderless, Liquid Sunshine, painting Sunshine's past, present, future.
Sunshine had created Sunshine, carved a history of this one image, this one self. No imagers, no photographers. Just Sunshine, painting over the image that photographers like me would have set down as truth. Remaking it.
I stared. For how long I stared I don't know. At some point I realized my cheeks were wet. I wiped at my face. My tears.
A hand on my shoulder.
Sunshine smiled. "You like it?" she asked.
I couldn't say anything.
"You understand," she said.
I understood. I remembered the little villages, the rain on the train window. I remembered Ripple beckoning to me in black robes. Margin and Page, Nib and Rule. My friends, always changing, cyclical, like the seasons, always the same.
"I wouldn't have taken those photographs you altered," I said.
"I know," she said. "I still love you for it."
She smiled again. Turned. The stir of people pulled her away.
I could have reached for her. My fingers and hers, twining together, a merging, too late, of two bodies, two people, just us, not perpetual, not sexed, just people.
But I did not reach out. I wanted to watch her go, a ripple through the wave of bodies; there, then lost, adrift and then swallowed.
I went back to the flat. I sat down on the floor of the empty studio and cried.
Liquid Sunshine—I always thought of the piece that way—drew attention from government authorities and moral purists. Rule told me three months later that Sunshine had disappeared after an exhibition in a neighboring city, Lavender.
I sat up for three nights wondering if it would have been different if I had reached out for Sunshine's hand that night, if I had told Sunshine that, I, too am infinitely malleable, that I, too, am capable of painting my own past and future, creating my own image. But I would have been lying to the one person I loved. And to myself.
Rule and Margin became a perpetual couple. Margin bore three children. Page and Nib never settled, and were lost to history. I have no images of Sunshine but memory. They are fewer and fewer these days, often mixed with more recent faces, freckled women in purple tutus in Flower, a blond man in Lotus named Glass, three brown neuter children in Wisteria with paint-stained fingers. I signed a permanent government contract. I don't come back to the city much. I don't like to. It reminds me of my adolescence. I am perpetually female now, and every year I ask for assignments further afield, census trips to remote queer villages. I ask for them because sometimes I think that the farther I go from the city, the farther I will get from Sunshine . . . the farther I will get from myself.
I longed to create my own perpetual identity for so long that I never stopped to think that perhaps I would not like it when I discovered it. Sunshine was right: we all stay the same, there, in that place that is ourselves, the blending point of sexed identity, gendered existence, infinitely malleable. Sunshine knew that you could find that place where the malleable was your view of the world, your view of yourself, but I never found that. Maybe I don't believe in it. But Sunshine did. Sunshine believed in everything.
Copyright © 2004 Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley attended Clarion West in 2000, received a BA at the University of Alaska in 2001, and received a Master's Degree from the University of Natal in South Africa in 2003. Kameron currently lives in Chicago. Her most recent work has appeared in Talebones, The Leading Edge, and Deep Outside.