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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

'Will I be a boy or a girl today?'

The Edmonton Sun

CHICAGO -- When it comes to gender, Alex Polanco is not easily pegged. Some days, he wakes up in the morning and feels male, pulling on jeans and a T-shirt and leaving it at that. Other times, he wears makeup and one of the wigs he keeps in tidily packed boxes in his bedroom closet.

"I don't want to call it a split personality - but sometimes, I feel like a girl. So I put on the costume, what feels comfortable," says the 18-year-old Chicagoan, who refers to himself as "tranny boy." He often switches back and forth around friends he trusts or in urban neighbourhoods where he feels free to express himself.

Gender-bending is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Nineteenth century author George Sand was famous for her cigar-smoking and pants-wearing.

More recently, against a backdrop of increasing equality in the workplace, youth and pop icons have been slowly pushing the limits on gender roles - from long-haired rock bands to David Bowie's androgynous look and Madonna's celebration of drag in the 1980s and '90s.

Now, macho men get makeovers on mainstream TV and a popular TV talk show host is a lesbian comic who feels most comfortable in slacks and sneakers. Academics who specialize in gender and pop culture say today's youth are continuing to test the boundaries of gender - and challenging societal standards in the process.

"I think the fluidity of gender is the next big wave in terms of adolescent development," says Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University who's conducting a long-term sexual orientation and gender survey of youth and their families. "Gender has become part of the defining way that youth organize themselves and rebel against adults."

While researchers have yet to quantify the trend, Ryan says that, in the last five years, she's seen more young people coming out as transsexual - those who believe they are one gender trapped in the body of the other. She and others in her field also are seeing a noticeable number of young people who are taking it further by purposely evading gender definition.

They are "gender fluid," expressing androgyny with wardrobe, hairstyle or makeup - sometimes going as far as calling themselves a "boi" or a "grrl."

To some youth, playing with gender identity and roles is as much about fun and self-expression as anything. "There's a kind of tongue-in-cheek aspect to it," Ryan says, "as well as a celebration of oneself."

Elayne Rapping, a professor of American studies at the University of Buffalo, is among those who've seen more students playing with gender roles - something she says her own peers in the '60s and '70s did with sexual orientation.

"A lot of people went back to straight lives. But that doesn't mean that it didn't open doors for a lot of people to come out and stay out," says Rapping, author of Media-tion: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars.


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