This One’s for the Girls
By Zev Alexander
You find the spot and I'll find the money
You be the pretty and I'll be the funny
You plant the flowers, I'll plant the kisses
Baby, let's get right down to business
I'll hang the pictures, you hang the stars
You pick the paint, I'll pick a guitar
Sing you a song out there with the crickets and the frogs
You name the babies and I'll name the dogs.
-Blake Shelton, 2017
The only people who ever hear me using gendered language are dairy goats. Usually they’re called “the Ladies,” though in subcategories they are usually “the Girls.” The dry Girls, the late Girls, the lactating Girls. Individually, they often have a “Miss” before the name. And like most dairy animals, they tend to be “Mama,” pronounced like a murmur, pronounced as if I hadn't been born and raised on the suburban east coast. As far as I can discern, these epithets are industry standard.
It still surprises me when “Ladies” and “Mama”s slip out so naturally. Though a few seasons of farming have trained my tongue, outside of work I still default to gender-neutrality. Before I became a farmer, I studied the vocabulary of queer theory, where gendered language of any kind is condemned. So I never address a mixed-gender group as “guys.” I make sure to describe adult acquaintances as “women” and not “girls.” I avoid “sir,” “ma’am,” and “ladies and gentlemen.” I was trained well. These regulations were fundamental to my social life as well as my academic major in college; the assessments were spontaneous and failure meant social ostracization. But as a transgender student, the rules were both an armor and a ticket to community. They made me feel safe, welcome, and included. The words opened space for me to exist in the world. I discovered a native tongue and learned it with joy and ease.
I’m not a college student anymore and I’ve grown out of some of that armor. I define myself by my job first and foremost: Assistant Herd Manager on a farm-to-table farmstead cheesery. The rest is background noise. I neither hide nor advertise my identity, and the Gender and Sexuality Studies degree from my coastal urban university hasn’t done much to help me learn the tasks necessary for my work. I trim hooves, feed babies, give medicine, milk, scrub, shovel, haul, and clean. I pass the time as I work expounding theses on gendered relations in county pop hits to the Ladies. “Miss Iris,” I say, “Can you believe that Blake Shelton is so attached to his own masculinity that he is willing to fully cede any input on the paint color of his new home? Can you believe it?” Then I go back to singing along. My hands move slower when I get worked up about heteronormativity, even though the Girls barely swish a tail at my passion.
Boy, you're gonna come back home
You're gonna settle down
But you won't feel the way I'm feelin' now
Until you have a boy
He's gonna know it all
He'll think he's ten feet tall
Run like he's bulletproof
And total a car or two
-Lee Brice, 2017
I gently squeeze a 9-pound buckling between my knees, bouncing my toes slightly. He was born big, but everything went smoothly. Despite the thorough towel-off we gave him and a good licking by the many mothers in the barn, he is still damp. He cries slightly in his confusion, and then gives a brief pained yell as I pierce a tag through the soft skin of his tail. I give him a few more bounces as I wipe down my tool, then I gather him in my arms and rise to carry him to the nursery, singing along to the ballad on the radio. “Aren’t you lucky,” I say softly as I lower him into a plastic tote bedded with shredded newspaper, “that nobody will ever expect you to be a reckless driver because of your genitalia.” I click on a heat lamp and head off to get a bottle of his mother’s thick yellow colostrum.
These goats know nothing of gender. Sex, of course, is an everyday part of the life that I share with them. They came into heat in the late fall and we talk about who was bred to whom. Their tail tags are gray for males, purple for females. A bucket of elbow-long gloves, clean towels, and watery lube sits in the doe barn throughout the spring ready for any momma who might need our help with birth. Twice a day we run hands over the Girls’ udders, massaging peppermint lotion across them to reduce congestion in the glands, cleaning the teats and worrying over their health. And there’s a unique closeness that develops between humans and animals when we come to rely on each other for sustenance, something unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I think on this as I pour a few pints of milk off the morning’s collection to take home with me. I think of the grain I scooped for them to eat while I fussed over their teats and of the hay I pile up for them twice a day. I think of the manure they will leave on the pasture, the organisms that convert the manure to rich soil, and the grass that will flourish there. I sip from the still-warm milk before tucking it into the fridge and try to taste all the ingredients: grass, hay, soil, grain. I imagine I can taste the a brief hug, scritch or snuffle that some of the Girls wait for before they head out of the milk parlor and back to their pasture. I know them by their particularities, by their udders almost as well as their faces, and by their voices. They know us as well. I wonder if any of them have favorite milkers the way we have favorite goats. I wonder if I could taste the differences in attitude if the milk wasn’t all mixed together.
Amongst humans, intimacies so often rely on the cultural codes that dictate how men, women, girls, and boys are supposed to act. This mothers’ milk, the result of so much sex, birth, and life, tastes like a tenderness beyond those rules. Despite the reactions of visitors when we tell them we have 85 does and just five bucks, the industry standard gendered language, the leaning-on-fence conversations about swelling of the vulva and dilation of the cervix, and the ubiquitous country radio station, there is no gender here. Gender, by the definition I learned in school, carries both cultural meaning and personal identity. It carries certain norms, expectations, and consequences, none of which factor into the social hierarchy of goats. In my university bubble of words and ideas, we talked about gender fluidity, gender neutrality, gender abolition, gender trouble, gender outlaws. It seems in retrospect that despite our best efforts to eradicate the rules of gender, gender was all we were.
On the farm, I’m beginning to feel like something else entirely.
They ain’t seen the blood, sweat and tears it took to live their dreams
When everything’s on the line
Ain’t just another field, just another farm
No, it’s the ground we grew up on
They think it’s a middle of nowhere place where we take it slow
But they don’t know
-Jason Aldean, 2016
Despite this visceral intimacy, I still grapple with the contradictions between my on-farm language and my off-farm politics. The culture that creates, defines, and enforces the rules of gender is everywhere. It’s the grass we graze on. The expectations enforced upon us from birth are expressed in every genre of music, in the stories we take in from early childhood, in the subtle ways people are treated differently in classrooms and workplaces. Most trans people do not have the luxury I have to forget about their own gender during the workday. Few of my transgender peers are allowed the day-to-day safety and well-being that I enjoy. And many farmers would have at the very least an eyebrow to raise at my country radio critical theory.
I have so little in common with the majority of American farmers. Before I settle into the morning milking, I pause for a deep breath and a good look at the sunrise. The feeling of being the first human awake on a farm is one of interconnected solitude. I take in the sea of cornfields, the endlessness of sky, the sparrow song and the wake-up rustlings of the goats. I am alone in the company of so much life. I am also alone in the company of our nation of farmers. I click on the radio. Like the sunrise, its music makes me feel connected and isolated simultaneously. I feel the energy of the others clicking on their lights and radios in one moment. I feel my chest swell with a breathtaking love for this patch of land and the universe of relationships upon it. I know this is the pride all farmers feel for their work. We have the same boots, coveralls, and thermoses. But the lyrics also remind me that I am not one of them. My politics and body do not match theirs. I am not from here. I cast my mind across the prairie for others like me, someone else with a body like mine, on a farm like this. What I find is an ecosystem of people who speak one of the languages of my life but not another. With whom I share an emotion unlike any I experienced as a student. We are dog-tired but heart-full. Across the gap of politics and the divide between farm-to-table goat cheese and “big ag” corn and soybeans, we define ourselves by our hard work and by our belief that we are taking care of people. And my goats need that corn.
Scientists have noted that a food chain is not a straight line where one organism consumes the next. Rather, it is a web, a set of interconnected relationships that, when well-balanced, keeps a community healthy. We are an ecosystem. We are a constellation of points on a map, passing manure for fertilizer and grain for feed. Humans are part of that community. The farm, no matter how mechanized, does not put us outside of the logic of nature. Our food comes from this ecological network, not from a store or a farm. These webs are interdependent; they affect food, water, and life forms in a rippling pattern.
One of the relationships in this pattern is between me and my Girls and the soil and grass and songs I share with them. Another is between the languages that I speak. Culture as well as food flows from the country to the city, from the academy to the farm. I have to believe that though most in my industry and on my own farm would disagree with my claim that the Girls are not girls, their relationship with each other feels similar in their hearts. I believe that as humans, we have something to learn from the way goats move through the world. I believe that by feeding animals who feed us, we become more like the forests and soils that can live and die in perfect balance. I believe that translating between the two languages I speak is my way of caring for this world and all the Ladies in it.
I believe most people are good
And most mamas oughta qualify for sainthood
I believe most Friday nights look better under neon or stadium lights
I believe you love who you love
Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of
I believe this world ain't half as bad as it looks
I believe most people are good
-Luke Bryan, 2018
About the Author
Zev Alexander is a queer activist, educator, and farmer currently based in Urbana, Illinois. He received a BA in Social and Cultural Analysis from New York University and a certificate in sustainable agriculture at the University of Vermont. His essays have appeared in About Place Journal, the Social Justice Review, and the Beautiful Cadaver Project's Dreamers Anthology.