There is a whole cinematic history of fops and cowgirls, ladies' men and marcelled waves and tough, wisecracking broads; and where we once understood that one might be male, effeminate, and very heterosexual (all of Spencer Tracy's rivals for Katharine Hepburn come to mind), or female, masculine, and very heterosexual (Rosalind Russell and Thelma Ritter), we seem to have now forgotten that. We barely grasp the high-heeled, Chanel-clad lesbian or the football-playing, beer swigging gay man, as if, surely, some norm is violated when women who don't have sex with men like lacy lingerie anyway, and men who don't sleep with women still enjoy televised sports, cars and sweatpants. In our collective cultural wish not to be out of it or old-fashioned, we've chosen to be simpleminded. We pretend that sexual orientation and personal style are one (which is why it makes headlines when conservative Republicans are caught fooling around with other people's wives, and even their husbands).
As the University of Hawaii School of Medicine professor Mickey Diamond, PhD, said to me, "Nature loves variety. It's people who can't stand it." Somehow, presented with all of Nature's possibilities, a wild assortment of gender, erotic preferences, and the vast array of personalities, we throw most of it to the ground and insist that what it is, there can only be two, and they should match (like the plaid couch and twin armchairs of Donna Reed.)
No one knows why the loss of the mother early in life seems to lead some women into the helping professions, some to divorce often, some men to have extramarital affairs, and others to cross-dress. No one knows why some men with terrific heterosexual parents as models grow up gay and why others with terrible parents or none at all grow up heterosexual. (Although I don't expect to see a lot of studies devoted to the latter.) No one knows why so many women prefer the Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges, and no one knows why most men—gay and straight—leave the lid up. I am as much a believer in these differences and mysteries as anyone; I just don't want to think that the differences between us are so much greater than the differences, the combinations, within us and within both genders.
No one knows how much of our identity is a biological result or a mix of the biological, the psychological and the cultural. (These things are difficult to unravel. Since we are all born into a culture of one kind or another, how do we sift that out of our assessments?)
Lots of us know that we are not the magazine cover, not the "standard," that we are interesting mixes of our father's narrow shoulders and our mother's longshoreman vocabulary, or of his determined patriotism and her gentle skepticism; that even if we drive the minivan to soccer practice, camouflaged in "nice lady" clothing, even if we happily prefer makeup to masonry, most of us are really cactus and platypus, blue potatoes and Sarah Bernhardt at 55 performing brilliantly as Hamlet...and that this is not only a good thing but a natural thing. Nature contains multitudes, and although she makes mistakes, human creativity, choice and life's large possibilities are not among them.
Amy Bloom is the National Book Award–nominated and National Book Critics Award–nominated author of Come to Me: Stories, Love Invents Us, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You: Stories and Normal.
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