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Loving — and respecting — the sissy

I want to go pick up Mississippi Sissy (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95), a memoir by entertainment writer Kevin Sessums (Vanity Fair).  After reading John Scagliotti’s review of the book at Counterpunch, “Kevin Sessums and the Power of Sissydom: A Sissy’s Manifesto,” you’ll understand why this new book represents a compelling read. Scagliotti is the award-winning documentary filmmaker of Before Stonewall (which is excellent).

What makes the review so engaging is that Scagliotti eloquently gives high props for Kevin Sessums’  courage to take on the stereotypes of what it means to be a man, and how he can relate in a very personal way to the power of the sissy as  Sessum defines it when he bares his soul, relating it to life growing up in the deep South in the 1960s. This is clearly a book every man, gay or straight, who felt the cultural signals to quash any native effeminacy in themselves out will want to read. Scagliotti:

Kevin comes at you with arms akimbo, a sassy mouth, and an intelligent sashaying analysis that directly attacks the core of all of us men who have ever dared to travel close to the world of effeminacy and scarily denied any of those attributes-our limp wrists, slight lisps or empathetic sigh-that might have been perceived by others as girly and repulsive. Men who have committed violence are lost forever. Men, especially those of us who are gay, who have recoiled from their effeminate better selves stand guilty, with only a glimmer of hope for redemption. There is nowhere to hide once you start with this book. Kevin Sessums has written a sissy’s manifesto, and in it we can all see our trespasses.

…Those of us who are less than manly are especially desperate to find a candle in the dark. And where better to search than in the heart of such mean-spiritedness: in the white South, where pathetic attempts to define “American values” come to us via media transmissions from the mouths of nasty old men like the Falwells and Dobsons and (not-so-old) Scarboroughs; where a particular kind of hypermasculine kill-’em-all white sensibility has been so cultivated (think most of our military bases and genocidal presidents) and revived (think George Bush and his posse) that even Vermont’s Howard Dean was afraid to pursue the three G’s, God, Guns and Gays, below the Mason-Dixon line…

For those of us who don’t have to deal with other people’s discomfort with our cultural gender expression in terms of mannerisms, this book sounds like an essential effort to help us step into the shoes of a sissy. It’s sorely needed, because even in the gay community, we’ve got problems with The Sissy.

The sissy archetype is “dangerous” for boys in a way that the tomboy archetype for girls will never be. Girls can wear pants, get dirty, fight and play rough with the boy kids — for the most part they have the freedom not to be forced into gender expression stereotypes for a lot longer period than boys do. The “need to fem up” may hit with a fury later for girls, but I don’t think most tomboys get to experience something like this:

Sessums’ earliest memory is of his father’s first inkling Kevin was headed down the path to becoming the worst thing a boy could ever be-a big ol’ sissy. Kevin was 3 and a half, and he’d talked his mother and aunts into making him a pretty skirt out of material left over from a maternity dress they were whipping up out of a Simplicity pattern. Out they sent little Kevin in his new skirt to meet Daddy coming home from work. “I sashayed up to my father and began to spin and spin so he too could marvel at how cute I was,” Sessums writes. Well, Dad freaked and, chasing the small boy down, grabbed him by the neck and screamed, “You think you’re a goddamn girl?” Then he ripped the skirt off the boy, threw it in an oil drum and lit it on fire. “He lifted me again and made me stare down into the fire. ‘See that? Take a good look,’ he told me, shaking me extremely close to the sprouting inferno. ‘That’s what happens when boys try to be girls.'”

That’s raw stuff. “Masculinity” meant so much to Sessum’s father that the best way for him to convey how important it was to follow the right path was to scare the f*cking sissy out of his son.

More, including a question for Blenders, after the flip.If that incident isn’t enough to set you off, I’m sure that the another painful incident that was seared into Kevin Sessum’s young sissy brain will nearly bring you to tears.

At a very early age Kevin seemed to know more about the power of the sissy, more than his father or many of us young men dealing with the masculine impossibilities that were being forced on us at the time, could ever understand. Once when he was 5 his coach father “scooped me up from the cheerleaders” and carried him into the victorious basketball boys locker room, full of shower steam, hot naked raucous teenagers shouting and snapping each other’s red fanny cheeks with terry-cloth towels. Left alone there for a few minutes, Kevin couldn’t remember ever being happier. Then a player on his way to the showers picked him up, “lifted me to his chest, the sweat of his neck slick against my cheek.

“You ok buddy?’ he asked before kissing my scalp and putting me back on the concrete floor. I scampered over to his vacated locker area. I picked up his jockstrap.” So the kids start laughing, and then coach-dad arrives and pries the jockstrap out of Kevin’s hands. He sends Kevin to the coaches’ locker room, where the other coaches remark, “Can you believe this sissy is Ses’s?” Kevin throws up [on] one of the coach’s shoes. His father comes in and he is wiping the shoes and Kevin is crying. “My father turns to me, he was even sadder than I was. Then, for the very first time, the sadness morphed into that more perplexed look of fear. I did not take my eyes from his. It comforted me to know that my father, who was afraid of nothing, was afraid of me. I unfolded my arm, I put my hands back on my hips.”

The defiant sissy who cannot pass, who refuses to pass, is what foments anti-gay violence of the type you see by hypermasculine, insecure young men who feel they have license to “beat the gay” out of a peer, or worse, go out and try to pick up “a fag” and kill him in order to set the cultural world of gender expression back into balance.

Sessum’s father knew this and it scared the sh*t out of him — that he, a man’s man, could produce a male child that is hopelessly effeminate. The power of the clear sense that Kevin was born that way was hard for him to accept, and we see that in our culture today when effeminate men and butch women are often marginalized and told to “pass,” lest they hurt the movement’s assimilation into the dominant culture. Obviously some people choose to appropriate particular expressions of gender by choice, but when you shoot out of the womb and express culturally “inappropriate” gender mannerisms before you can learn what they even are still scares and perplexes a large swath people of this country. Scagliotti:

The heroic gift of the sissy-and I mean the real high swishing sissy-is that he can’t pass. He’s going to be a star or a drag queen or dead, but if he survives he’s not going to be able to find safety in a lie. As a Namibian friend of mine said in an interview for a documentary film I made about the dangers of coming out in the developing world, “I can’t help it if my hips swing from left to right when I walk.” While there might be some humor in it (who can forget the campy protagonist trying impossibly to learn to walk like John Wayne in La Cage Aux Folles ), there’s something far deeper, because the sissy’s inability to pass, to lie convincingly, exposes everything that’s warped and twisted about the supposed truth of masculinity. How much suffering does a father have to force on his son because of his fears of not fulfilling his masculine destiny? What about the coach, the bully, the torturer, the pledge master, the squad leader in Iraq, the CIA interrogator at Gitmo or that grand chickenhawk of a man, our commander-in-chief? If sissies ran the Pentagon, George Bush would be cheerleader-in-chief, preoccupied more with putting together a cheering squad for the Army & Navy game than a death squad in Baghdad. It all sounds silly, doesn’t it? Until you start thinking about the real crazy horror that’s called normal.

Blenders out there — what are your stories about realizing our society’s notion of gender conformity and how has it affected you?

Hat tip, Jim H. in Hawaii.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding