Walk like a man

When I was in high school, I was sometimes mistaken for a boy.

As a gender scholar and feminist, I often think back to these moments. Currently, I see myself as a person actively involved in deconstructing the gender binary, which for one thing means I now feel I need to clarify that I found being mistaken for a boy difficult because I identified myself (and my family and friends identified me) as a girl.

Anyway, back in high school, it didn’t happen a lot, but it happened more than once. On the one hand, as a rebellious teen I pushed these limits intentionally. At the cheap haircuts place, I used to open the book and point proudly to a picture of a little boy as the haircut I wanted and dare someone to ask why a 15 year old girl would want that. I renamed myself Biff at camp one year. A 100 lb girl, I wore XL concert t-shirts; for Halloween I spiked my hair, wore a thrift store suit, and said I was a punk. On the other hand, the few times someone said “what can I do for you sir?” I turned beet red and lost the power of speech. The only thing I could do was try not to cry, and I was always strangely unable to correct the speaker. One time it happened at school in the office, and though I was angry and hated the teacher (for this as well as other minor offenses), I still found myself unable to correct him. Later I would rant and rave about how stupid someone would have to be to mistake someone my size and shape for a boy (I was not curvy but slim and short enough to be unlikely to be male). In the moment though I only ever felt shame.

It is true that I asked for boys’ haircuts and refused to wear much, if any, form-fitting clothing. I didn’t wear make-up, and my mother was always bugging me about looking prettier. But I did wear skirts and dresses, just not the pretty kind (it was the 90s; think grunge dresses). I had crushes on boys and although I liked to push the limits, I never thought of myself as anything but a girl. Being misgendered cut into that identity so sharply and so publicly that the shame left me speechless.

In college, I read an article about the way Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn raised their children to negotiate gender. Their son had long hair, and was often mistaken for a girl. They described how, when corrected, the speaker would always sputter in embarrassment while the child would simply shrug off the mistake, unable to see any harm in being called a girl.

I think I have been aspiring to be as cool as that child ever since, but even now discussing my gender or gender identity with others brings a hot rush of blood to my face. I no longer shave my legs or armpits, I don’t own any makeup, and a few years ago I cut off my long hair because I disliked how gender normative it felt. And yet in some ways I think I still cling to the identity of woman.

(To be continued…)

Landmines

I just finished reading what my brilliant friend Bodhi wrote for this blog, and I have a jumble of feelings. Outrage, sadness, anger, fear for her and her family, fear for all my friends, and guilt. I wonder why I didn’t know she was such a fantastic writer. Why didn’t I know she was having such a hard time? Is it because this “hard time” is normal for women of color so it’s not like a situation that bears commenting and is just one that even though I try to understand I still don’t really get as a white woman?

How can I contribute to this conversation when my friend is so eloquent in describing her own experience? Paradoxically reading Bodhi’s posts filled me with words, inspiring me to write this response, but now that I’m actually writing I want to sit back and listen. I want to figure out how to encourage the women around me to tell their stories. I want to figure this out so that I don’t have to wait for the chance discovery of this rich, complicated anger after another friend’s exciting idea (to start this blog).

But my friend’s post also made me feel afraid. She asked us before about “quality control,” although I emphatically replied that I didn’t want to screen what anybody said. But now I am filled with questions about whether or not she really wants to post the deeply true things she’s written to the big bad internet where it exhausts me just thinking about how to disguise our identities. Then another doubt surfaces, one I’ve experienced commonly since becoming an academic: am I contributing to her silencing by asking her if she is afraid? I can never tell the difference between helping friends navigate the landmines of appropriate behavior in the academy and further silencing friends by scaring them away from landmines that may or may not be there. But I guess that’s the fucked up thing about landmines—you never know whether or not they are there until it’s too late. And even as a sociologist all I can tell you about socially constructed landmines is that I know they’re out there somewhere, just as I know I expand their reach by trying too hard to avoid them. I know that the more times they’re exploded the fewer there are, but you can never tell for sure if you’re going to set one off.

I’ve experienced this fear of social landmines more times than I care to remember since entering the academy, and almost never before that. Perhaps before that I just stepped on them and set them off without caring much because I was young. Perhaps it’s because my class background didn’t imbue me with enough cultural capital to understand the rules of politeness in this place. Perhaps I find myself on the silenced end more often as a woman here than I did in previous woman-centered workplaces. Perhaps I have finally started listening to those who are being silenced, like my friend.

How can I protect my friend without silencing her? I guess the answer is that I can’t and I probably shouldn’t want to. After all, I’m not out to be a white savior. Ok, more honestly—I’m trying my best not to be a white savior. I will assume my senior colleague knows what she is doing, and perhaps even follow her lead.

With love, solidarity, and rage,

Unamerican

May 15, 2014