“Hey… are you a boy or a… oh, never mind,
can I have a push on the swing?”
– Andrea Gibson, “Swingset”
Andrea Gibson, an American poet and activist, focuses her poetry on various political and social inequalities, specifically within the LGBTQ community. She uses poetry to convey the harsh truths of LGBTQ reality, and holds nothing back while she does so. Gibson, having short hair and “boyish” style, writes frequently about gender norms and the struggle she has personally faced while growing up as an androgynous woman.
She was born in Maine in 1975, and currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. As the first winner of the Women’s World Poetry Slam, she has performed in many notable venues and has her work featured on prominent mediums. Gibson’s work has been highlighted on BBC, Air-America, C-SPAN, and Free Speech TV. In 2010, Gibson’s poetry was “read by a state representative in lieu of morning prayer at the Utah State Legislature.”
Gibson utilizes the form of free verse in her poetry. Because of this, her work intends for the audience to listen, as opposed to see. Gibson sells albums of her work on CDs. She has recorded five full-length albums of her poems, as well as published two books, which she sells on her website. Her albums include Bullets and Windchimes (2003), When the Bough Breaks (2006), Yellowbird (2009), and Flower Boy (2011). She also sells paperback editions of her work, such as Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns (2008) and The Madness Vase (2011).
She has received praise from various artists. Buddy Wakefield, an award-winning poet, has expressed admiration for Gibson’s ferocity. Wakefield said, “Andrea Gibson does not just show up to pluck your heart strings. She sticks around to tune them. If being flowed is new to you, you might want to grab a cushion. Whatever the opposite of fooling someone is, Andrea does that. Beware of the highway in her grace and the crowbar in her verse.” As Wakefield explains, Gibson manages to awaken raw emotion as she guides the audience through her own experiences, tragedies, and triumphs.
In Gibson’s poem, “Swingset,” she discusses the ways in which the students she teaches in her preschool/kindergarten class learn about and handle gender. The lyrics to the poem can be found here.
“Swingset” is found in Gibson’s book Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns. The title of the book is important to highlight the irony and even discomfort of her collection of poems. “Swingset” reveals the “tidal wave of kindergarten curiosity” Gibson faces each day as they question her gender, simply because she does not look like a traditional “girl.” With each question of “are you a boy or a girl,” Gibson gracefully accepts the inquiry, answering each child, and then continues to play on the playground, which is what is most important to the children. She teaches the children that, regardless of their question, it doesn’t quite matter what gender she is. The children, every day, are satisfied by her answer, afterwards always asking for a push on the swing.
“Dylan, you’ve been in this class for three years
and you still don’t know if I’m a boy or a girl?”
“Well then, at this point, I really don’t think it matters, do you?”
“Um…no. Can I have a push on the swing?”
The question Gibson faces each day is symbolized by the swing set, itself. While she answers the question, figuratively and literally pushing it away, it continues to come back, an action as oppressive as the social construction of gender. However, to a young child’s mind, “they don’t care” about her gender. Gibson shows here that gender is learned, molded, and constructed.
Fast forward to Gibson’s “father sitting across the table at Christmas dinner” physically unable to eat because of how distraught he is over his daughter’s short haircut. “You used to be such a pretty girl!” he claims. As children grow older, they learn the gender norms that society forces upon them, facing the possibility of becoming like Gibson’s father.
Fast forward again to the “mother at the market, sticking up her nose while pushing aside her child’s wide eyes, whispering, ‘Don’t stare, it’s rude.’” This is when Gibson shows her true understanding of the social construction of gender. She essentially scolds the mother for taking away a valuable lesson her child could have learned, simply by seeing how she’s dressed, what her hair looks like, and overall what Gibson is. Her rage is shown when she barks at the mother (in her head), saying:
the only rude thing I see
is your paranoid, parental hand
pushing aside the best education on self
that little girl’s ever gonna get.”
Gibson effectively shows the reader how gender is socially constructed. Children learn gender, and the older generation is at fault for teaching the confinements of it, according to Gibson’s rant about the mother at the market. Gibson knows that children are the ones who our society depends upon to break these constructions. Her lesson here to the reader is to focus on the youth, because they are the ones who will grow up and determine how society ultimately treats gender.
“I start my day with twenty-eight minds
that know a hell of a lot more than you do,
and if I show up in a pink frilly dress
those kids won’t love me any more or less.”