She follows her nose and stands once more before the doors of a quintessential dilemma. Male or Female. Here is her paradox. A staccato voice seems to challenge her, berate her. Hombre or Mujer. Mann or Frau. Homme or Femme. Gentleman or Lady. Come on, decide. She knows them all. She is them all. Not fluid or all-encompassing, gathering the harvest of the reaping fields, but fractured and split and bleeding. Her inner core weeping out of itself. There is nothing for hermaphrodites. It’s too confusing. The words rattle around in her earbones, androgynous and humming. How can she choose? She cannot choose. To choose is to sunder.
― Mark O’Flynn, The Last Days of Ava Langdon
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
The structure of the house was hierarchical, with my grandfather at the top, but its secret life – the life of pie crusts, clean sheets, the box of rags in the linen closet, the loaves in the oven – was female. The house, and all the objects in it, crackled with static electricity; undertows washed through it, the air was heavy with things that were known but not spoken. Like a hollow log, a drum, a church, it amplified, so that conversations whispered in it sixty years ago can be half-heard even today.
― Margaret Atwood, “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother”, Bluebeard’s Egg
I see stunning men walking on the street everyday. Some walk shirtless because it’s hot and they feel more comfortable that way. Do I scream out at them, beep at them or whistle? No, I smile to myself in appreciation of them and drive on by. Why? Because I believe they have the right to go about their lives without me imposing my sexual desire upon them.
―Miya Yamanouchi, Embrace Your Sexual Self: A Practical Guide for Women
Her name was Asia. His was Europe. Her name was silence. His was power. Her name was poverty. His was wealth. Her name was Her, but what was hers? His name was His, and he presumed everything was his, including her, and he thought he could take her without asking and without consequences. It was a very old story, though its outcome had been changing a little in recent decades. And this time around the consequences are shaking a lot of foundations, all of which clearly needed shaking.
Who would ever write a fable as obvious, as heavy-handed as the story we’ve been given?
His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.
Then you my goddess with your immortal lips smiling
Would ask what now afflicts me, why again
I am calling and what now I with my restive heart
Desired: Whom now shall I beguile
To bring you to her love?
Who now injures you, Sappho?
For if she flees, soon shall she chase
And, rejecting gifts, soon shall she give.
If she does not love you, she shall do so soon
Whatsoever is her will.
Come to me now to end this consuming pain
Bringing what my heart desires to be brought:
Be yourself my ally in this fight.
Our world seems increasingly fractured by mistrust and hate. Can music, especially that of the human voice, heal those fractures?
Sevdalinka or Sevdah music is a genre of folk music that flourishes in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. These elaborate and virtuosic songs are set in moderate or slow tempos and speak of love, loss and longing. Traditionally, these melodies have been unaccompanied by instruments, giving the singer complete control over rhythm and tempo and creating the potential for intensely emotional and spontaneous performances. Sevdah is related to Portuguese fado in subject matter and in origin, stemming from a synthesis of Asian, Greek and Sephardic sources.
Božo Vrećo, lead singer for the band Halka, is a popular singer of Sevdalinka. He combines traditional elements with an extremely modern sense of identity and gender. His voice is virtuosic and tender, powerful and gentle. Moy Sevdah, or My Sevdah, is his first solo album, completely unaccompanied, and it is a stunning exploration of the genre.
Sevdah was originally sung by women and provided a place where the feminine spirit could pour out its frustration, desire and disappointment. Some songs speak unabashedly of physical desire and a few have comic or ironic elements. Men followed suit later with their own sevdalinka, exploring their psyches through music as well. Božo Vrećo embraces both masculine and feminine sevdah, employing his otherworldly high tenor in songs sung by both women and men. To farther emphasize this choice, his wardrobe is ambiguous, interchanging gowns and dresses for suits and long caftans that recall dervishes. Sometimes bearded, he wears eye makeup and posts pictures of himself online smiling with his long black hair in curlers.
Despite all this, Božo Vrećo does not identify himself as transgender nor as a cross dresser, as some have labelled him. In his view, we all contain masculine and feminine elements and he is only being true to that which he is. In conservative Bosnia, where LGBTQ rights are not popularly accepted, he enjoys enormous popularity. This immense talent and sensitive persona wins hearts remarkably easily. I don’t know about you, but this gives me hope for the human race and awe at the power of music and expression.
This video, Lejlija, or Leila, is a short taste of the passionate beauty of Božo Vrećo’s art. It is a heartbreaking lament sung by a young girl who is dying, addressed to her mother. She will never be married and will never have the life that they hoped she would have. Tomorrow, when the village celebrates Eid, breaking bread as the daily fasting of Ramadan ends, she will no longer be on Earth. She clings to life, symbolized by bread, even as she knows she must leave it, and dances in a style reminiscent of the Sufi dervishes, who do so to abandon their own egos. Her intense sorrow is partnered and sweetened by the certainty that she is being lovingly carried to the next life, both by her fellow villagers and by the emissaries of God. The dark man, stern, yet loving and patient, is a portrait of the Angel of Death, Azrael, who serves God by collecting the souls of those who are departing this life.
The words and music of Lejlija were written by Božo Vrećo and are dedicated to his mother. Absolutely enchanting.
Video via Božo Vrećo on YouTube.
On the eve of Eid, she fell sick, mother’s only child Lejlija.
She suffered, grieved, wailed and said: My dear mother, if I die, clothe me in traditional clothing!
Unbraid my hair like golden wheat, let it fall down my face!
Let them carry me, the young men on both sides, and let them sing songs and not sleep at night while guarding me.
Like a new bride, bathe me with water from the pitcher for my long journey, mother, from hand to hand I’m lovingly carried, mother, lovingly carried.
Moy Sevdah is available on Amazon and iTunes. I wholeheartedly recommend the entire album, which includes seventeen songs, some of which are more virtuosic than Lejlija, which is somewhat subdued.
Gender identity is more complicated than society likes to admit. Does it remain a valid means of classifying human beings?
“I’m sorry, but I do hate this differentiation between the sexes. ‘The modern girl has a thoroughly businesslike attitude to life’ That sort of thing. It’s not a bit true! Some girls are businesslike and some aren’t. Some men are sentimental and muddle-headed, others are clear-headed and logical. There are just different types of brains.”
Society has traditionally defined gender by anatomy and physiognomy. We have divided ourselves into male and female groups and assigned acceptable roles and attributes to each group. These assignments were made long ago to further the bearing and raising of children and to ensure human survival. With over seven billion people on our planet and natural resources that are diminishing, the need for procreation is lower than it has ever been. This has contributed to a world in which people who have more complicated gender identities can recognize and explore those identities. That isn’t to say that such exploration is easy.
Here is a wonderful, valuable human story of a person born male, who despite a “manly” career as a pilot in World War II and considerable success in life, never felt male. When Robina Asti decided to be herself, others had a very hard time with it. Despite the struggle, Asti found herself in a meaningful, loving relationship. Then, at the age of 92, faced with the death of her beloved husband, she found her gender questioned again.
Why are we so uncomfortable with allowing people to be authentic in their expression of gender? People like Asti and Patton do us no violence by living their lives in this fashion. Perhaps our culture has a guilty conscience and fears that stories like this will invalidate our journeys and our faiths. We should know by now that only we have the power to do that.
Our tradition has difficulty understanding people who are not completely male or completely female, and yet such people are born every day. Biological gender (and this doesn’t even take into account other aspects of gender) is determined by five factors: the number and type of sex chromosomes, the presence of ovaries and/or testicles, sex hormones, and both internal and external reproductive organs. If, at birth, all five criteria do not register as male or female, that person is intersexed and does not fall into either category. Some are hermaphrodites, having characteristics of both sexes while others simply don’t have all of the criteria present. Often these babies are “corrected” immediately. But what if gender is not an either or, but a biological continuum, with male at one end and female at the other? Our words have failed us.
Mothers and Children II George B. Petty, Chicago, ca 1911-12 Public Domain Image via Wikimedia
Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it. Why speak of Time when you are Time, and shape the universal moments, as they pass, into warmth and action?