This interview was conducted as part of the interview series, LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
"Are you a boy or a girl?" It's the question Karen Tongson's been asked more than any other throughout her life.
When she was in grad school, following in the footsteps of countless butches before, she finally cut her hair short, leaving behind the performative version of femininity. "I finally just shed that last bit of gender trouble."
"Gender is something that is fun and fluid," she asserts. The performance of it all, the reluctance to conform to historical gender norms, is just one of the many qualities that drew Karen Tongson to Karen Carpenter, the now legendary singer who died at the age of 33.
Karen Tongson's new book, Why Karen Carpenter Matters, delves into the LGBTQ community's unlikely connection to the late singer. Speaking on the LGBTQ&A podcast this week, Tongson talks about Carpenter's legacy, Tongson's own "gender trouble," and why she describes her gender as a Totino's Party Pizza.
"It's slightly artificial, but really satisfying. And a little bit cheesy."
Jeffrey Masters: Why is Karen Carpenter still so beloved by LGBTQ people?
Karen Tongson: I think of her music as latter-day torch songs. They're expressions of longing and unrequited love in a way a lot of queer people can relate to because for the longest time, so many of us lived in a space where we never thought that anyone would ever love us. Or that we might be in this game alone.
That music provided a bit of a soundtrack to that, as well as with her own secrets, with her anorexia and the privacy of that pain, the kind of closetedness of that.
JM: You write about the code-switching that happened in terms of her gender, growing up but also with music producers. Were audiences as aware of that while she was alive?
KT: I actually don't think so. The Carpenters were a very tightly managed act. Karen was such a tomboy when she was growing up. She used to be a real rough-houser. She played drums before she was a singer. That was a huge part of her story, but what people ended up seeing eventually is the demure girl in a strangely frilly Victorian frock singing love songs.
JM: Growing up, you were a tomboy, too. I love that you write about your mother's efforts to “untrouble” your gender.
KT: So many lesbians of my generation talk about the pain that culottes caused or the skort, right? Your mom would try to shove you into skorts all the time so that you would vaguely look feminine even though you obviously wanted to reject dresses and skirts and that kind of thing.
It seems to be a kind of ubiquitous experience of baby butches for that to happen. I was always asked, "Are you a boy or a girl?" People could see…I don't know. There was something sporty about me.
JM: You say that's the question you've been asked the most in your life.
KT: The most in my life. I started wearing giant earrings. The '80s and '90s were an era where you could have very performative versions of femininity. So I had huge hair, long nails, cheesecloth tops. I mean, I tried it.
It took me a very long time to finally let it go. I was already in graduate school when I can cut my hair short. I actually look much more dashing the way I look now.
JM: I love hearing butches talk about the moment they finally cut their hair short.
KT: I think it was when I finally just shed that last bit of gender trouble. Even now, traveling is the place where I think I encounter the most gender trouble, still. There are just certain places I visit, I'm just like Okay, I'm just going to pass as a dude the whole time.
I have an emergency femme top that I take with me for times I go to women's spas or things like that so that I don't get chased or stopped. You just sort of pick up on what the vibe is and if you can feel safe.
JM: Everything we're talking about is about gender expression and not gender, right? Or have you doubted your gender as a woman?
KT: I've definitely skewed very masc in various ways. I understand people who want to leave the binary behind and I'm fully supportive of really just recognizing gender as a construct.
I always describe my gender as a Totino's Party Pizza. It's slightly artificial, but really satisfying. And a little bit cheesy. I find that gender is something that is fun and fluid and expressive.
JM: You’re also a Gender Studies professor. As the public’s understanding of gender has evolved so quickly over the last few years, how has the field of gender studies changed?
KT: Oh, I've been teaching for 14 years now at USC. The classroom dynamics have shifted so remarkably. And actually, you know, one of the things that's most important, I think for people in my position who are veterans at this gig is to listen to younger generations of people.
At some point, I realized, there are a lot of things and ways that people learn about gender and sexuality that wasn't part of my experience, but is such a central part of the experience for younger people.
It helps to ask a young person what these terms are instead of thinking that I always remain a stable authority on these matters. I have to seek out writing not only by younger scholars, but the ways that people in the community are expressing who they are.
I think that we should reorient ourselves and it shouldn't be about, “What are we allowed to say?”, but “How can I know more?” How can I know enough to interact with people in a way that's respectful? How can I find out about their histories and what's important to them or their contributions to culture in a way that allows me to address people with respect. And I think that hopefully, that's what happens in the classroom now when I teach these courses.
JM: You also write and teach about pop culture. We're now seeing pop culture be taken very seriously, in a way that feels new.
KT: One reason that's really unfortunate is it's because we have a reality TV show star who was elected president of the United States. And I think that people who didn't realize the kind of larger impact or power that pop culture—reality television, in particular—had, are finally confronted with the truth that this thing is more powerful than you think it is.
Karen Tongson is the author of Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, and co-hosts the podcast, Waiting to X-hale.