Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Romancing Gender Fluidity: Edie Danford's UNCOVERING RAY

During a phone conversation my spouse and I had with our daughter a few days after she moved out of our house and onto her college campus, said daughter described to us her first dorm meeting: "Yeah, we went around the circle and told everyone our names, where we were from, what we were thinking of majoring in, and what pronoun we preferred to be called by." Not a question many in my generation would have been asked, that last one. But awareness of gender identity—in all its perplexing, liberating, limiting, socially-constructed, cis, trans, and non-binary complexities—is something that many college students today are being asked, and are expected, to add to their cultural and interpersonal repertoires.

As are many romance readers, especially ones who search for diversity in their romances. Which was why I was so surprised when I started to read the first book in Edie Danford's Ellery College series, and realized that that Uncovering Ray was the first romance novel I can remember reading that features a genderqueer protagonist who is also a biological woman, and who identifies (at least some of the time) as heterosexual.

And then I began to wonder about my wondering...

Ray's performance of gender is decidedly androgynous: purple hair in an Elvis-style pompadour; tats; makeup on some days, and not on others; clothes that often evoke a David Bowie vibe. Ray's gender is so androgynous, in fact, that many Goodreads reviewers think that Ray's biological sex is being deliberately kept secret, not only by Ray but by the novel itself. But I think that is a misreading of the novel and its project.

Early in the book, Wyatt, a student at Ellery College (which bears some striking resemblances to Dartmouth), attempts to draw Ray into conversation while Ray is working at the Ellery Inn diner by talking about the gender studies class he is taking. When Ray asks Wyatt why he's chosen Ray to discuss gender issues with him, Wyatt says:

"But the professor said it was important to move beyond our comfort zones. To think about alternative points of view and how we react to those. Like... transgender or bi or pansexual, or, um, you know, one of those other things I don't know much about. Yet.... I'll admit I'm clueless about a lotta shit... But I'm pretty sure the girls I've been with have been absolutely satisfied being heterosexual women."

Ray, who sees Wyatt's "conscious, knowing" smile at that last line, decides to "fuck with him" by telling him "Well, whaddaya know... I'm pretty damn satisfied being one of those too." (29)

Ray's declaration seemed pretty clear to me: non-binary gender-wise; female biology-wise. But many reviewers aren't quite so sure. Perhaps because they are responding to Ray's refusal to answer Wyatt's subsequent question: "Is that, um, how you identify? What you prefer?":

"Hmm. Is that how I identify?" I pressed my forefinger to my chin and rolled my eyes toward the ceiling lights. "I dunno. Maybe I'm not sure. Maybe I didn't check my underwear this morning." I fixed my gaze on his, steady. "Maybe I didn't fill out the questionnaire right. Or maybe I just don't give a fuck." (29)

Ray prefers to think about gender not in terms of fixity, but of fluidity: "Humans are fluid.... Labels don't stick to skin.... It all changes...moment to moment, person to person. You don't need a class or a survey or a PhD to figure the fuck outta that one" (30).

Ray's position, though, makes me wonder: where does this leave the reader? The novel's title—Uncovering Ray—simultaneously acknowledges a readerly desire to know, to reveal, the "truth" behind a person's gender. AND at the same time, it makes at least this reader feel uncomfortable about that desire. To "uncover" Ray would be to strip Ray of Ray's gender performance, to remove the clothing, the makeup, the jewelry, so I could get down to the biological Ray. Contemplating such an act of uncovering makes me deeply uncomfortable, makes me feel like I'm violating Ray.

But since I am reading a novel, and a deeply character-based one, am I not reading to "uncover" Ray? To get at the essence of Ray the character? Does the novel simultaneously invite me to uncover Ray AND invite me to experience deep discomfort when I accept its offer by reading?

Somehow, I'm guessing that if Ray's dorm leader asked Ray what pronoun Ray would prefer to be called by, Ray likely would have given just the same answer Ray gave Wyatt (or given Ray's prickly, acerbic character, tossed the well-meaning counselor the finger). Because Ray is one hot mess: on leave of absence from Ellery after a mental breakdown; recovering from a bad romance, a recent car accident, and a life-sapping bout of depression; estranged from a judgmental family and with only a few close friends to call Ray's own. And early on in the story, Ray's ex-stepfather kicks Ray out of the house where Ray has been holed up: "I think you need a push. You need to think of this as an opportunity, not another failure" (52). Ray is not up for other people's intrusive philosophical inquiries into Ray's performance of gender, no matter how open they are to Ray's fluid gender presentation.

Fluid is great, but completely unconnected is quite another, is what I think Danford's book is trying to explore. Which is part of what Ray starts to recognize through interactions with Wyatt, who on first glance seems to embody the stereotype of typical college frat guy. But Wyatt, who, though he is a leader in one of the college's largest frats, rejects the gender and class biases that have underlain frat identity for so long at Ellery. Wyatt wants to create change by working within the system, rather than rejecting it outright. And Wyatt is attracted to Ray precisely because of Ray's fluid gender performance, not in spite of it. In some ways, despite his cisgender, heterosexual identity, Wyatt's identity in other areas of life may be almost as fluid, as nonconforming, as is Ray's.

As Ray gradually begins to grow closer to Wyatt, readers discover that it's not Ray's gender fluidity that is the problem that Ray needs to face in order to move forward. Ray, in fact, is quite comfortable with Ray's own androgynous gender presentation. Instead,  Ray has to learn how to incorporate the idea of fluidity into other parts of life—in particular, in how Ray relates to family, and to the world at large:

It was pretty embarrassing, really. I'd always liked to think of myself as a rebel, as someone who shrugged off labels, someone who just didn't give a fuck about power. But Wyatt, here...he made me think about all that stuff in a new light. Rebellion was a fluid thing. It worked better if you stopped to think about it every now and then. Make adjustments. (183) 

And perhaps that is what Danforth's book is asking readers to do, too: not only to stop and think about gender performance and identity, but to make adjustments when they realize how that very act of thinking about gender has the possibility to "other" those who perform gender differently than do they.

Illustration credits:
David Bowie: The Telegraph
Hello, my pronoun is: Star Tribune

Uncovering Ray
Samhain, 2015

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