My love for Patti Smith, or sex, gender, androgyny and freedom

10 years ago

I remember, back in the day in the early 80’s, when I first saw the picture of Patti Smith on the album cover for Horses. That narrow white face, that long dark hair—and the lanky body in boy’s clothes—Patti was breaking all the rules I’d grown up with and it simultaneously thrilled and scared me half to death. Somehow, I knew Patti dug men, knew it from the way she leant into Lenny Kaye’s side, and the casual toss of her hair, but I also knew she dug cross-dressing, and androgyny, in a way that spoke to me but I was scared to admit, it confused me so much. And there was no question in my mind but that Robert Mapplethorpe, the gay photographer who took the photo, had been her lover.

Of all the singers hanging in the clubs in those days—Debbie Harry, Willy Deville, Tom Verlaine—Patti compelled me the most because she so clearly didn’t care about being pretty, looking like a girl, or pleasing anybody. And I cared about all those things in a big way, even as I was busy being a serious, no-make-up wearing, no high-heels-walking, downtown, feminist writer. And Patti also was clearing comfortable with blurring her gender, bending it, enjoying the ambiguity of being a woman in boy’s dress, following, perhaps, boys’ rules. And that was another thing I wanted to do, round and curvy as I was, but I was scared to death of trying that, too.

Patty was dangerous.

Everything she was, everything she stood for (in my mind) called to me, but I was afraid that if I gave into my own impulses to be as brave and as freely gender-bending as Patti Smith, I’d cross a point of no return. Raised in a middle class Jewish family, one generation from the East European exodus, I’d been trained to want early marriage and a family—but even though I knew I didn’t want exactly those things, I intuitively believed that if I embraced my attraction to Patti, there was a risk I’d move so far beyond what my parents wanted for me—and what I unconsciously expected of myself--that I’d hit a point of no return. And I didn’t want that.

Of course, at twenty, I didn’t have the words to articulate all this-I just knew that Patti Smith, amazing and talented as she was, was too deep into the outlaw thing for me to own her as my hero. Even if in my heart I wanted to be as brave as she was, as free as she was, as much myself as she seemed to be her own self, I was too scared to let any of this out. Instead, I hid my admiration of Patti and my interest in the ambiguity, freedom and power she represented to me. For twenty-three years, she was on my do not listen list, assiduously ignored.

In the years to come, I got married, became a writer, had a kid, stopped writing and got into the Internet. I focused hard on making a life in one of the more liberal Eastern suburbs, was devoted to my husband, monogamous, hard working, a dedicated and caring mom. The questions Patti's persona raised about sex and gender and ambiguity and freedom were questions that still made me uncomfortable, so I (still) blocked them out.

And then, one day, things became different. Long married, I got divorced. Long a parent, my son left home and went off to college. And coming from many years of being repressed and afraid, I became braver. Suddenly, I was single and making life over. Revisiting the questions Patti Smith raised for me--about sex and gender, femininity and androgyny, about being yourself and showing it, no matter what others thought—suddenly became both relevant and important.

In the spirit of exploration, I started talking to friends about gender and identity and about sexuality. I re-read beloved feminist writers like bell hooks who talk about female power and identity and started reading blogs like Sex Geek and Freaksexual, as well as broader compendiums like Sex in the Public Square. My interest was to uncover what had been hidden, to own what I needed to claim. Slowly, thoughtfully, I revised my own assumptions about gender and identity; about femininity, masculinity and sexuality. The work I did led to many of the weekly pieces I’ve written for BlogHer, particularly ‘On not choosing monogamy, ‘ and have also informed the intimate relationships in my life.

A few months ago, I went out and bought my own copy of Horses, the first CD Patti Smith released, and the one with her black and white Mapplethorpe portrait on the cover. Recorded more than 30 years ago, songs like Horses and Gloria and land of a thousand dances are just as powerful for me now as they were then, perhaps more so, now that I am more willing to admit how much Patti’s raw energy, her blend of poetry and fury, her gender-bending edge, not only appealed to the girl I was in those years right out of college, but still appeal to the woman I am today.

Poet and mother, rebel and outlaw, elegant boy and sexual girl, accomplished musician and force and for social change, Patti Smith is someone I am happy to reclaim as my hero, a worthy prism to chart my own change.

Blogs and posts to note

Below the belt, deconstructing gender, one kick to the groin at a time
“We've all had the conversation before but I just don't think I'll ever be ok with the fact that labels rule our society with such a dominating force. They are what give us the ability to sort through things, create order, establish a foundation for all prejudgment, and break it all down at the same time. It's as if our lives would slowly disintegrate if we didn’t have ways to label the places, things, and especially the people around us.”

Sex Geek, falling off the end of the acronym
"I think that there is a heterosexual world, society, even hegemony… but not a heterosexual community. I think there are many communities of various sorts that are implicitly, overwhelmingly or exclusively heterosexual, of course. There are certainly lots of communities out there (some religious ones spring to mind, for starters) that explicitly exclude or are very unfriendly to queers. But that’s not quite the same thing as creating or participating in a community based on one’s heterosexuality, or feeling a sense of community or bonding with others specifically because of one’s acknowledged heterosexuality."

Jaded Hippy
"What I'm most interested in cultivating is women having authentic relationships with their sexuality and sexual desires (as well as career choices). I am most interested in that, and in spreading those authentic identities into the mainstream, so that men will understand just what empowered female sexuality looks like. When men and women can truly recognize this, I believe things will change. Porn will change, parts of our rape culture will change, objectification of women will change. They will have to, because once recognized, I don't think people will enjoy the fake stuff anymore."

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