My Gender Is Masha Gessen


Arts & Culture

Masha Gessen at their apartment in Moscow in the early nineties © Igor Stomakhin

Masha Gessen is a bilingual writer, activist, and keen observer of—actually, that isn’t what this is about. Masha Gessen is hot. “I know,” you’re saying, “I have eyes.” No, but bear with me. Other people in this world are hot. Alexander Skarsgård is a tall drink of water, but I’m not moved to write home about it. Masha Gessen’s sex appeal is meaningful to me, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about (when I’m not thinking about dying from COVID-19).

My relationship to my own gender is fluid and has been since before there was the language to name it. A recent shift in theater culture has yielded a new beginning ritual for rehearsals: the moment we go in a circle and say our pronouns. I’m always rendered silent by what feels to me the sheer impossibility of the task. “She/ her” is not entirely right. “He/ him” is not either. And “they/ them” hasn’t yet felt like my answer, although I respect those who claim it (among them, Masha Gessen). Presented with options, unsure what feels less wrong, I say nothing. Some days, it feels like I don’t have a gender at all; other days, that the English language is inherently so binary in its approach that I’m using the wrong tool to solve the question. When I look at Masha Gessen, living a life of black turtlenecks, wide-ranging intellect, and gender-fluid beauty, their presence feels like sheer aesthetic triumph.

A friend of mine has departed from pronoun-related language to describe their own gender. “My gender is orange,” they said once. “My gender is chrome.” When I tried making my own list I was surprised by how quickly I knew the answers. My gender is denim, my gender is The Doubtful Guest, my gender is sunflower yellow. My gender is that photo of Masha Gessen lying on a couch, smoking languidly, giving you a look of intense expectation: Now what?

This image of Masha Gessen exists in stark contrast to the hopeless banality of the gender binary, because Masha Gessen has both repurposed and transcended that binary. Now they’re just getting on with being fabulous. In my imagined life of aspirational glamour, Masha is forever standing in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, giving you a look that says “… I wrote a book about totalitarianism?” whenever you want to ask silly questions about how they identify. Masha Gessen rocks a blazer like nobody else and has three kids and a partner whose facial symmetry is astonishing; they don’t have time to explain they/them pronouns.

I’m always filled with relief when I see queer people in their forties, fifties, and beyond, people who have survived the chaotic murk of their twenties and thirties and are forging lives on their own terms. I’m filled with relief when I see anybody doing this, honestly, because I have so little optimism about my future, in particular, or our collective shared future, in general. To see these images is to be invited to a larger imagining than the one our culture most often provides. TV and film are still rife with stories in which queer people suffer rejection, violence, self-hatred, and the hatred of others. I am so hungry to witness queer health and success. And you know what? Cheeky queer glamour as well.

These days, we’re constantly being reminded that photographs aren’t the whole story. Whatever fabulous quarantine life you’re seeing on Instagram doesn’t mean that everyone except for you has achieved happiness. (This is particularly helpful when I see a quarantine feed that, for example, appears to take place on a Greek island where calm and beauty reign.) Yes, pictures are nothing but symbols, but this potent symbolism is what I can’t stop thinking about. How can you imagine a future for yourself until you see another person having it, someone who shares some deeply felt aspect of yourself? As Masha Gessen writes in their essay “To Be, or Not to Be”: “Choices we make about inhabiting new landscapes (or changed bodies) demand an imagination.”

I’ve begun to realize that choosing a future is about choosing more and more daring acts of imagination. It is pure faith, maybe, that the right words will come last; that what arrives first will be fantasies and dreams, inchoate but powerful. But what is faith, if not instinct plus hope? My gender is the Six of Swords. My gender is fill-in-the-blank. My gender is Masha Gessen.


Jen Silverman is a New York–based writer and playwright. She is the author of the story collection The Island Dwellers (2018). Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review, and The Baffler, among others. Her plays include Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, The Moors, The Roommate, and Witch. Her debut novel, We Play Ourselves, will be published by Random House in February.