What My Cat Taught Me About Gender

The story’s become a bit of a legend (at least amongst our family and friends); my partner Craig’s mom, aunt, and uncle were on their way over for dinner last month when Lolita, my 16 year-old female cat, emerged from her kitty litter box with a penis.

I didn’t know it was a penis at the time. As the emergency vet later explained, Lolita was so constipated she’d pushed her penis out while trying to go to the bathroom. She was manually disimpacted and sent home; but the impact of that disimpaction night still lingers.

Two nights ago, my friend Mark asked how I was dealing with Lolita as a male. My answer was honest: “It’s like I don’t even know who she — or he — is anymore.”

Compared to the struggles shared by Bruce Jenner on last night’s Diane Sawyer interview, this is pretty minor stuff. But what I realized after watching that interview, is how my Lolita situation perfectly mirrors the very thing Jenner is asking from the public: “I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am.”

My perception of Lolita began at the Atlanta Humane Society in 2001 when I adopted him (and I’ll use “him” from here on out). The name on the card said “Princess” (his original name) and under gender, the “F” was circled. From that point forward, any vet that saw Lolita took it as a given that Lolita was female. It was never questioned.

Over the next 14 years, I began projecting on to Lolita all sorts of female traits. I didn’t see it as projection at the time, I figured that these traits were intrinsic to my female cat. From the way he sauntered around our apartment like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, to his high-pitched voice that sounded like a balloon that you pinch while letting out air, we took it as a given that Lolita was the most feminine of female cats.

Others that met Lolita, would use words like “diva” and “bitch” to describe his personality (“bitch” seems harsh, but he could get a bit hissy with strangers; especially female strangers, if that means anything). When we’d all be in bed at night, I’d watch Lolita licking his paws and cleaning himself and think: “What an elegant lady.” The gestures reminded me of a Judi Dench or a Helen Mirren. Lolita would be a “Dame” some day, I was sure of it.

Now it’s so obvious to me that all of this was created in my mind; much like America created a “Bruce Jenner” in its mind that had nothing to do with the real Bruce Jenner. When I told Mark that I didn’t know who Lolita was anymore, I was passing the buck — as if this situation with Lolita was something that had happened to me — as opposed to a situation that I had created because of my own ignorance about gender.

Being taught how gender is socially constructed in school, and then experiencing that for yourself in real life, are two very different things. My first taste of that happened when I moved to New York, in 2004, and I was single and gay and living in Chelsea. One day I went to a coffee shop on 8th Ave. where a cute male barista brought me my cappuccino and said, “I think I was in your French Literary Theory class at Emory.”

I stared back at this person and knew one thing for sure: this very attractive male was most definitely not in my French Literary Theory class at Emory. That class had 12 people in it, and he, without a doubt, was not one of them.

As I worked on my computer, I kept staring at the barista thinking: “What a weird thing to say? And how specific? Why in the world would he — ?” And then it hit me. This male barista didn’t identify as male (or as a barista) when he was in my French Literary Theory class; he identified as female and I knew him then by his female name.

My 24 year-old mind was blown by this experience. Not only was this formerly female classmate of mine now a male, but — by all appearances — he was a gay male working at a gay coffee shop. (I would later see him out with other gay male friends at a gay bar.) Why would a woman want to become a man if they already liked sleeping with men? The answer, I eventually learned, had everything to do with the difference between gender and sexuality. Sexuality, as Diane Sawyer relayed last night, is who you want to go to bed with; gender is who you want to go to bed as. Both gender and sexuality are experienced from within — it’s not something you can (or should) identify from the outside.

Which brings us back to my cat.

Mr. Lolita, as far as we know, doesn’t have a gender identity. He just has a sex: male. And the qualities that we love about him are still the very same qualities that we loved about him before, gender having absolutely nothing to do with it. In the morning, he jumps on to the bed and mewls (OK, Craig doesn’t love that) but I laugh when he starts pawing at my face like, “Let’s go: that can of wet food isn’t going to open itself.” He can be rascally when we leave the dining room table; I’ll often catch him crawling around on there sniffing for crumbs. He’s sometimes possessed by a demon and runs around the apartment yowling for no reason. When I tie my shoes, he attacks the laces.

The “he” in that last paragraph is taking some getting used to, but otherwise not much has changed. Scratch that: I’ve changed. Whereas before I saw Lolita how I wanted to see “her,” now I see Lolita as he actually is. It’s what Bruce Jenner, and the rest of the transgendered community, are asking of America right now. The problem, as this experience with my cat taught me, doesn’t lie with them; the problem, it turns out, lies with us.