Image: Alex Polanco combs his wig
Morry Gash  /  AP
Alex Polanco adjusts his wig in his Menasha, Wis., apartment on Aug. 1, 2005. Polanco exists in a gray area, where gender is often blurred and where he feels no obligation to choose one gender over the other.
updated 10/1/2005 7:11:41 PM ET 2005-10-01T23:11:41

When it comes to gender, Alex Polanco is not easily pegged. Some days, he wakes up in the morning and feels male, pulling on jeans and a T-shirt and leaving it at that. Other times, he wears makeup and one of the wigs he keeps in tidily packed boxes in his bedroom closet.

“I don’t want to call it a split personality — but sometimes, I feel like a girl. So I put on the costume, what feels comfortable,” says the 18-year-old Chicagoan, who refers to himself as “tranny boy.” The term is deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the gray area in which Polanco exists, where gender is blurred and he feels no obligation to choose female over male — or vice versa.

He often switches back and forth around friends he trusts or in urban neighborhoods where he feels free to express himself.

“I’m not trying to be permanently that person,” says Polanco, a tall, lanky teen who recently moved to northern Wisconsin with a friend to attend a community college. “I just like the opportunity to be a man or a woman, if I want.”

The concept of gender-bending is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Nineteenth century author George Sand was famous for her cigar-smoking and pants-wearing, while “female impersonators” worked their way from underground clubs in decades past to more prominent billing on the Las Vegas strip.

More recently, against a backdrop of increasing equality in the workplace, youth and pop icons have been slowly pushing the limits on gender roles — from the long-haired rock bands of the ’60s to David Bowie’s androgynous look and Madonna’s celebration of drag in the 1980s and ’90s.

Gender roles continue to bend, blur
Now, macho men get makeovers on mainstream TV and one of the most popular TV talk show hosts is a lesbian comic who feels comfortable in slacks and sneakers. And academics who specialize in gender and pop culture say today’s youth are continuing to test the boundaries of gender — challenging societal standards in the process.

“I think the fluidity of gender is the next big wave in terms of adolescent development,” says Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University who’s conducting a long-term sexual orientation and gender survey of youth and their families. “Gender has become part of the defining way that youth organize themselves and rebel against adults.”

While researchers have yet to quantify the trend, Ryan says that, in the last five years, she’s seen more young people coming out as transsexual — those who believe they are one gender trapped in the body of the other. She and others in her field also are seeing a noticeable number of young people who are taking it further by purposely evading gender definition.

They are “gender fluid,” expressing androgyny with wardrobe, hairstyle or makeup — sometimes going as far as calling themselves a “boi” or a “grrl.” For his part, Polanco calls his gender-bending friends “bro-sis,” a combination of “brother” and “sister.”

Pushing boundaries for play, politics
To some youth, playing with gender identity and roles is as much about fun and self-expression as anything. “There’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek aspect to it,” Ryan says, “as well as a celebration of oneself.”

But often it cuts deeper, even for some young transsexuals who’ve chosen to move from one gender to the other.

Image: SYNERGY dance
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Alex Polanco, right, dances with Paula Burba at a SYNERGY dance in Chicago. SYNERGY encourages its members to express their gender as they see fit.
“At the very basic level, it’s about telling society that we’re not going to adhere to your rules. At some level, it is very political and anti-mainstream society. And on a different level, it’s also very personal — trying to figure yourself out,” says T.J. Jourian, a 24-year-old graduate student at Michigan State University who specifically calls himself a “transmale” — not just male — because he doesn’t want people to place his gender into a simple box.

Born a female, Jourian does not always hide his high-pitched voice or mannerisms that many would consider more feminine. “Although I identify as a man, I have been socialized in this world as a female, and that experience plays a huge part in shaping my masculinity, my politics and my perspective in society,” Jourian says.

Andy Marra, the 20-year-old head of the board of directors for the National Center for Transgender Equality, agrees.

“People assume that gender is cut and dried — and it’s not,” says Marra, who describes her “gender identity” as female and “biological gender” as male. “But what about a gay male who’s effeminate — or for that matter, a straight male who’s effeminate or straight woman who’s butch?”

Sex in shades of gray
Several scientists, including Craig Kinsley, met this summer at the annual International Behavioral Development Symposium in Minot, N.D., to discuss the biology of gender.

“It so complex, so unfathomable in some respects, that it is no wonder our politicians find comfort in defining a world that is populated by only ’men’ and ’women,”’ says Kinsley, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond. “But trying to define males and females as just males and females really just misses the point.”

He says there is “clear and incontrovertible” evidence that biology — genes, hormones and the brain — is a major factor in creating a wide range of gender identities and sexual orientations.

That makes perfect sense to Polanco, who figured out that he was gay by age 16, but who also realized something was different about his gender.

He vividly remembers the first time he dressed as a woman as a younger teenager — how he wore a short skirt and tube top with a fur vest, carefully put on fishnet stockings with platform heels, and glued extensions into his own dark, curly hair.

“Wow,” he remembers saying as he stared at himself in the mirror for several minutes. “I couldn’t believe how good I looked.”

‘We were like best friends’
He now keeps a photo album of shots taken of himself both as a woman and a man. Included in it, is a a boyhood photograph taken with his mother, who died of AIDS when he was 14.

“We were like best friends,” he says, his dark eyes staring at hers in the photo. “She had long, shoulder-length hair. I look a lot like her.”

Image: Alex Polanco walks his dog
Morry Gash  /  AP
Alex Polanco walks his dog Clide along a quiet Neenah, Wis., street near his apartment on Aug. 1, 2005.
His mother did not live long enough to learn about her son’s sexual orientation or to know that he did not always feel like a boy. He has since told the grandmother who raised him that he is gay but hasn’t shared his gender issues with her, out of fear that she won’t understand.

Ryan, at San Francisco State, says it’s a common struggle for families she’s interviewed. “The ones who are having a hard time are seeing only the gender rules and norms and how their kids are violating that,” Ryan says. “So they’re reacting out of shame, ’What will the neighbors think?”’

Still, that hasn’t stopped young people from experimenting.

Elayne Rapping, a professor of American studies at the University of Buffalo, is among those who’ve seen more students playing with gender roles — something she says her own peers in the ’60s and ’70s did with sexual orientation.

“A lot of people went back to straight lives. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t open doors for a lot of people to come out and stay out,” says Rapping, author of “Media-tion: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars.”

Metrosexual the new mod?
She believes this more recent experimentation also will influence acceptance in a society where gender identities are already blurring — where the term “metrosexual” has become a source of pride for straight guys with a sense of style and where tough, independent female characters regularly appear in movies and on TV.

Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University who studies pop culture, has already noted the shift. “A full generation after the major reorientation of American gender roles, we are now seeing the fruits of these changes,” Thompson says.

Through it all, Polanco proceeds carefully.

Since moving to Menasha, Wis., just south of Green Bay, he has left his apartment dressed as a woman late at night while walking his terrier, Clide, but would never be so daring at the fast-food restaurant wear he works. “No way,” he says. “Not here.”

He’s more likely to let his hair down, literally, in Chicago, where he attends a monthly dance called SYNERGY, a gathering for high school and young college students who are free to express their gender however they like.

At one dance this summer, Polanco came as his male self, putting on a show on the dance floor with his friends, amid clouds from a fog machine, pulsing music and hundreds of sweaty bodies.

Outside the building, Laura Dziewior, a 17-year-old senior at a Catholic high school in Chicago, took a smoke break and pondered the question of gender.

“It’s pretty simple,” she said, shrugging. “You are what you feel.”

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