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Transgendered activist tells story

Meghan Martin | Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Transgendered writer and activist S. Bear Bergman visited Notre Dame yesterday to perform “Ex Post Papa: Life as a Freelance Dyke Dad,” a multimedia presentation billed in its promotional material as “theater about mentoring, gender and getting your parenting a la carte.” A dramatic monologue of a string of anecdotes set against a backdrop of black-and-white photographs taken by Bergman’s wife Nicole, the performance pulled together Bergman’s experiences as a mentor and advisor, or “Ex Post Papa,” to friends living outside the world of “straight society.”Bergman’s first task was to clarify the meaning of ‘gender’ and its greater implications. “I am definitely of the opinion that there are more genders than just male or female,” Bergman said. “I don’t identify myself as a woman. I identify myself as transgendered. To be transgendered is to transcend, transgress … to cross genders. Someone who is transgendered crosses our cultural concept of genders.”Dressed in khakis, a brown shirt and a pale yellow necktie, Bergman addressed the issues facing transgendered people in today’s heterosexual society, from deciding whether to use the men’s or women’s restroom to utilizing the proper pronouns when referring to their own identities. “People look, don’t they? They stare, especially when I get close to the bathroom… Don’t think it doesn’t hurt,” Bergman said during the performance, a picture of a bathroom sign projected on the back wall of the stage. “Wearing a hat? Or a tie? The little skirt-wearing girl doesn’t wear a hat – or a tie. The little pant-legged boy does.” In a talkback session with audience members following the performance, Bergman discussed the way in which something as simple as pronoun usage is influenced by our two-gender society, replacing the accepted ‘he’ and ‘she’ with ‘ze,’ while ‘his’ and ‘her’ were replaced with ‘hir.'”It’s not that I’m against pronouns,” Bergman said, “as long as people understand what my gender is. I definitely use pronouns as a teaching tool … I enforce pronouns when I feel it’s useful for people to talk about the concept of non-standard gender.”Bergman was asked after the performance to define non-standard gender, and the use of the word ‘queer’ throughout the monologue to identify people who identified themselves as non-homosexuals.”The handy thing about the word ‘queer’ is that it’s the least descriptive and the least proscriptive word we have,” Bergman said. “Using the word ‘queer’ to describe a non-standard set of sexual behavior and desires is a way to describe something that is not only a sexual orientation, but also a cultural orientation.”Bergman went on to recount something that a “smart friend” once said. “I use it whenever I can: ‘To be queer is to pursue your harmless heart’s desire in a society that will punish you for it,'” Bergman said. “Queer, for me, is also describing the cultural and political orientation that goes along with being non-standard in many ways.”Bergman said that the visit, which used humor and personal experiences to tackle a subject not often addressed within the confines of straight society, was part of a concerted effort to break down stereotypes and provide the kind of support Bergman experienced while tackling gender identity. The support of Bergman’s father was the subject of much of the performance. “I have no student loans, no dresses in my closet, and no doubt where my father is. Every day… being a father includes protecting, it includes supporting,” Bergman said. “Meanwhile, my father is now the gay answer center for parents… [His answer?] ‘Just love your kid. Is she moral, decent, kind? Does someone love her the way your daughter deserves to be loved? Gay, straight – doesn’t matter.'”Others, Bergman said, were not as supportive. “It does make people sometimes very uncomfortable,” Bergman said. “I understand gender in this society very well. I am totally in favor of gender. What I am against is the bipolar gender system that says we are man and woman. People begin to police their behaviors and their desires … to make sure we are staying within the boundaries of man or woman.”That is why, Bergman said, there should be more Ex Post Papas. “I want an Ex Post Papa center – I want Ex Post Papa training,” Bergman said. “I want a lot of classes: how to take care of the people you love … but mostly I want it for the boys and girls who need us… It’s not like you don’t need each other. The soil nourishes the roots, but the roots hold the soil together.”In a talkback session with audience members after the performance, Bergman discussed the differences between biology and gender, and the way in which modern society often confuses the two. “People think that if they understand my genitals, they will understand my gender,” Bergman said. “That is completely untrue. Gender and sex are not the same thing. They are a product of societal and cultural systems that classify people… dependent upon their sexual organs and secondary sexual characteristics.”Bergman’s performance, unprecedented on Notre Dame’s campus, was sponsored by a number of on- and off-campus groups. Organizations such as OutreachND and the Psychology Club joined with such academic institutions as the sociology and psychology departments, among many others, to bring Bergman’s performance to campus. Bergman said that the performance, based on years of activism and personal advocacy, is brought to campuses and other venues to elicit a change in the way people with non-standard sexual orientations are viewed and treated.”I feel like people should be able to express themselves in gendered ways, … completely regardless of our cultural constructs of man or woman,” Bergman said. “Society should change to accept you the way you are.”