I struggle to find the words to tell you about my gender. So I suppose let’s start with this instead: I’m not a mechanic, but in dissecting my gender over the last few years, I’ve certainly begun to feel like one.
I was born female and socialized as a girl; as I grew older and actually had the capacity to understand what girlhood and womanhood mean, I found it suited me. I like (and still enjoy) stereotypically feminine acts, such as wearing make-up and dresses. I felt (and still feel) proudest of my body when flaunting my large chest and curves. When I learned about female empowerment and intersectional feminism, I reveled (and still revel) in that, too. I thought liking those things made me a woman. But I also didn’t have the theoretical framework to explore my gender more.
Then I went to college.
In the writings of Jewish gender theorist Judith Butler, I was introduced to the idea that above all, gender is performance. In our day-to-day lives, we are presenting ourselves and our identities, including our gender identity, for the consumption of others. Within the gender binary, if you look like what society deems a woman or man, and act with what our society deems man-like or woman-like behavior, that makes you one or the other — a man or a woman. But, it’s also important to note that there can be more gender categories than just “man” and “woman.” To put it simply, gender is flexible.
These theories, complex as they may be, opened my eyes to feelings that I had long pushed away. Yes, I sometimes feel like a woman — to clarify, I’ve never felt any dysphoria towards being a woman — but also, sometimes, I don’t. That’s not to say I feel like a man, because that’s not true either. Rather, I feel that within myself, I hold a fluid in between-ness that is a mixture of both masculinity and femininity, but could also quite possibly be neither.
In the three years since I graduated, I’ve begun to delicately deconstruct the concept of my own gender, taking it apart piece by piece, like an old car, and seeing what works and what needs to be replaced. And now, as these parts lay at my feet, I have no idea how to put them back together; I’m stumped on how to reconstruct my gender identity. I don’t know what to call myself, other than gender-questioning — maybe one day labels like “non-binary,” “gender fluid” or “agender” will feel more homey to me, but as of yet they feel imperfect to describe who I am and what I feel.
But in my many, many hours of pondering and internal struggle, I’ve found one unlikely salve: Simon & Garfunkel.
I don’t remember the first time I listened to the Jewish folk duo, but in my early teenagehood, my dad must have played me his copy of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on vinyl. I do remember the feeling of listening to it for the first time: the anticipatory needle crackling and settling into the grooves of the record, the warm and purposeful piano chords of E-flat major leading into Garfunkel’s cherubic voice singing Simon’s masterful lyrics “When you’re weary…”
Even now, when I listen to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the music swells inside my chest cavity and my mind feels calm, just as it did that first time — and in a way that my body has never replicated with any other musical artist. From then on, I was in love, finding a musical home in that album — as well as “Parsely, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” “Sounds of Silence” and “Bookends” — and turning to Simon & Garfunkel when I need moments of peace and clarity.
On one particularly confusing gender day this past year, I called up the “This Is Simon & Garfunkel” Spotify playlist on my phone and hopped in the shower, a makeshift, secular mikveh to cleanse my spirit of the questions I had about myself that I couldn’t answer. As “My Little Town” echoed across the tile walls, I came to the realization that the comfort I was feeling was not only because I love Simon & Garfunkel, but also because their music speaks directly to the kind of masculinity I feel in myself and have been hesitant to express.
Let me explain.
In my own interpretation, a fair majority of Simon & Garfunkel songs speak to autobiographical experiences as the duo came of age as young men. In “The Only Living Boy in New York,” the narrator grapples with feelings of abandonment in a friendship — a thinly-veiled message from Paul Simon to Art Garfunkel. In “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” the narrator, speaking to Simon’s exhaustion with touring, celebrates a homecoming. In “The Boxer,” the speaker, once again an analogue of the man who wrote the lyrics, laments his poverty-stricken existence in New York City.
Though at the surface, none of these themes speak to specifically male experiences, their lyrics reveal a particular motif of Paul Simon’s: he punctuates the narrator’s semi-autobiographical identity with the word “boy.”
“And here I am / the only living boy in New York,”
“I am just a poor boy / though my story’s seldom told” and “When I left my home and my family / I was no more than a boy”
“Deputy Sheriff said to me / Tell me what you come here for, boy”
As often as their music emphasizes maleness and masculine identity, the kind of manhood Simon & Garfunkel sing about isn’t the toxic and hyper-aggressive one our society so often peddles. It’s actually quite the opposite. Instead, I find Simon & Garfunkel’s work is a reflection of gentle manhood: a masculinity that is tender and sensuous and allows for emotional reflection.
Just listen to “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” a ballad in which the speaker dreams of finding his lover and then awakens to find her right next to him in bed. Lyrics like “What a dream I had / Pressed in organdy / Clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy / Softer than the rain” and “I kissed your honey hair with my grateful tears,” sung with the ethereal power of Art Garfunkel’s tenor, are paired with light acoustic guitar.
Or maybe spend some time with “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall.” In this song, Simon and Garfunkel’s voices come together, a joyful blend of baritone and tenor, to sing about poetic introspection. After each stanza, together they return to the refrain: “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend / My life will never end / And flowers never bend with the rainfall.”
And there are many, many more songs like these in Simon & Garfunkel’s discography, but I think you get the picture.
In these words and melodies, which simultaneously express Simon & Garfunkel’s experiences as men and their deep well of emotional thoughts and feelings, my body and mind make more sense. I feared for so long that in accepting the part of myself that doesn’t align with the gender category of woman, I would have to let go of some of the attributes I most celebrate in myself — feeling my emotions deeply, vocalizing them and basking in the beauty of the world — because the world sees them as classically feminine. With the representation of gentle masculinity that my favorite folk duo provides, I now know that’s not true. Though our society idealizes Joe Rogan-esque manhood, I don’t have to be anything like that, even in the moments when my gender fluidity makes me want to be more masculine.
In my relief, I also feel a sense of balance. Beyond loving Simon & Garfunkel for their musical mastery, I’ve also always felt a sense of connection to the pair because of their Jewishness. Though their music doesn’t explicitly touch on Judaism or Jewish culture, I cannot help but feel pride in the fact that two Jewish guys from Queens have created (in my opinion) some of the most beautiful, lasting and resonant music in the world. Not only have they inspired me to look towards other Jewish musicians for examples of sensitive manhood (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Daveed Diggs and Ezra Koenig, to name a few), but as someone who feels very secure in their Jewishness, I’m reassured that my peace of mind about my gender comes, in part, from artists that share a community I love and trust.
In the end, I’m still not sure how I identify or what my gender is or what all of it even means. I don’t know if I’ll ever know those things. But I know that when I listen to Simon & Garfunkel, I don’t feel like I have to let go of the parts of myself that our culture identifies as more feminine while also allowing myself to lean into when I feel that I am more boy-like.
So no, I’m not a mechanic; nor am I a gender expert.
But now I know, in the moments when I want to be, I can be the only living boy in New York.