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…)