fantasies, gender, mental illness, outsiders, prison, stereotypes

Gender Swap

If you do a lot of reporting at society’s margins—namely prisons, halfway houses and psychiatric institutions—the importance of fantasy to your subjects becomes painfully evident. Talking to prisoners and mental patients I have learned to appreciate their fantasies. Sometimes I envy them. For example, one of my subjects always talks about food he would like to eat. He has never been out of the country and he frequently asks me about German and Austrian cuisines. We talk about different dishes until our mouths water.

Inspired by my conversations with outsiders, last semester I assigned a gender-switch essay to my freshman students at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. I asked the girls to imagine themselves as boys and vice versa, and to write about the constraints and freedoms of the opposite sex.

The male students hated the assignment. “I almost cringed because being called a woman is considered an insult to me and to many other guys I know,” one boy wrote in a typical response. “If I was forced to be a girl for a day I really have no idea what I would do cause I like doing the things I do now as a guy, I like going to the gym, playing sports and eating as much as I want without the worry of being called fat.” I didn’t know what I should be more worried about: the boy’s gender stereotypes or his run-on sentences. Most boys were so resistant that I hardly got them to write at all.

To be fair, there was one exception: the brave gay student who, after we read Terrence McNally’s play “Andre’s Mother,” decided to come out to his close-minded Philippine parents. In his essay he reveled in fantasies about maxing out his credit card at Victoria Secret, trying out tampons and eating Nutella while on his (or her?) period.

All of my female students said they often felt constrained by their gender and by the expectations tied to it. They had to be home earlier than their younger brothers, were expected to be more chaste and were forced to do more chores around the house. The girls were also sick of the prospect of earning less than their male counterparts—a topic we had explored a couple of weeks earlier.

Most of the girls’ essays made me sad. But there was one that made me laugh out loud. The girl, who chose to remain anonymous, decided to imagine herself in her brother’s skin and mind for a day. With her permission I edited her essay and submitted it to the college’s literary magazine, The Underground.

It begins like this:

If I Were a Boy

My name is Leonardo Vasquez, but my friends call me Trump. I’m a light-skinned Dominican. I stand at 5’11 and the ladies love my light eyes. The first thing I did this morning around six AM was text all my ladies a good-morning message. I make them feel special but in reality I have a chick for every day of the week. I mean, what do you expect? I am young, handsome and I live on my own. I have a main bitch in my life, my Siberian Husky Amber.

To read the whole essay click on the image below.