flirting

On occasion, men hit on me. On very rare occasion, women hit on me. Usually I am slow to figure it out because I’m one of those people that has been in a serious monogamous relationship almost every day since I was 17. I started dating my husband at 20. I do not have a lot of dating experience, and I have never tried to meet anyone to date outside of my existing social circle, unless high school counts. So not only am I slow to notice when someone is hitting on me, but I’m really unfamiliar with the norms of flirting seriously with a stranger.

On two recent occasions, as I was standing alone in public, existing peacefully with myself, men have hit on me. The second one was tonight, when I was sitting on a bench at the gym. I work out at a gym attached to a health clinic, which is the kind of place where everyone wears sweatpants and is pretty non-competitive. After my workout, I was sitting on a bench drinking some water when the guy who was vacuuming the gym asked me how my workout was. I thought, hopefully, that this was just a friendly employee, and answered cheerfully “good!” Then he continued and added, “I saw you over there. On the—was it the treadmill?” “elliptical…” I answered, getting a sinking feeling. Then somehow the exchange ended, either because I looked down at my phone (very possible) or the guy just knew he should keep working and moved to vacuum somewhere else. As soon as he walked off I went in to the locker room so I didn’t risk seeing him again. The whole thing made me feel kind of creeped out and uncomfortable. I wondered what he meant. Had he been checking me out? Was he going to keep trying to hit on me or would he get the message when I hadn’t asked him anything in return? Did he hit on me because I made too much eye contact when I saw him a few minutes previously?

I was left wondering, too, if I was being oversensitive. I mean, after all, people have to meet each other somehow. Maybe this was a harmless flirtation, and all I had to do was politely indicate that I wasn’t interested. Why does this kind of attention almost always make me feel targeted?

One possible interpretation is that it has to do with my genderqueerness. Maybe my reaction to men who see me as a woman hitting on me is about feeling like I’m being misread. Maybe I feel like I’ll be found out as these men realize I’m not really the woman they are looking for.

But as I thought more about why I find it so impossible to just say “sorry, not interested” I realized that there have been times that I have tried to say that. And many of those times the man in question has immediately turned aggressive and mean. My first reaction to street harassment when I first ran in to it was in fact to politely rebuff. For my trouble, I got responses like “you’ve been sorry your whole life you white bitch!” So my reaction to stay silent and hide is probably the only rational one. If I continue the conversation, I’m leading the man on and I’ll just have to rebuff even more unwanted attention later on. If I try to end things quickly and clearly, like I’d like to, there’s a non-trivial chance the man will turn hateful.

I wrote this post in September, and it took me until February to walk back in to the gym again.

out of the box

A while back I wrote a post or two about embracing life as a “ze” or “they” or, you know, “person” instead of a “she.” One of my major fears about doing this has to do with relinquishing the privilege of legibility out and about in public, part of the package of privilege that comes with being cisgender.

This weekend I had a most amazing experience. I was at a big summer event, wearing shorts and a tank top, and I felt the most comfortable I may have ever felt with my appearance. There I was with short hair, leg hair visible in boyish shorts, armpit hair not only visible but much longer than I actually like to keep it, and more comfortable than usual. It was if all of a sudden I just stepped over a line and I was no longer trying to be a woman.

The step itself was minute. It was tiny. I’ve been to the same event with the same hairy legs and armpits lots of times. It’s part of the summer, and along with that comes my discomfort with my body and my choices not to conform. People sometimes stare and when they don’t I spend most of my time worrying that they will. I’m always afraid some strange man is going to start yelling derogatory things at me about my “gross” legs. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I’ll respond and almost daring people to actually say something. Every time someone whispers around me I think it must be about me. And the truth is, up until now, I’ve also felt that my legs are kind of gross. But I don’t shave, cause I also think that shaving makes my legs look pre-pubescent, which is grosser. It’s been over a decade since the last time I shaved and still I don’t actually like the look of my hairy legs in a nice dress.

But this time, something was different. We walked up to stand in line at the entrance, and as I looked around at all the things women around me were wearing, I felt calm, detached, and most of all, apart. I didn’t feel like I was in a struggle with those women over how women should dress or look, trying to make room for myself. I just thought “wow, women do really weird things. I’m glad I don’t have to wear paint all over my face in the sweaty hot or wear shorts that are going to ride up on me every time I sit down.” Later in the day I caught a pre-teen girl staring at my legs (this is the group I actually do catch staring with some frequency). For the first time ever, I enacted my plan for dealing with staring. I stuck my tongue out at her. And I didn’t feel angry or embarrassed by her stare. Instead, I thought “Good. Maybe she’ll know there are way more possibilities than she sees on a daily basis as she grows up.”

The thing is, the only step I’ve really taken is opening myself up to the possibility of being seen by strangers and friends as genderqueer and writing about that here. I haven’t asked anyone not to call me she, or changed my name, or even really changed my appearance. But I think I have decided that I would be prouder of myself if people cease to identify me easily and consistently as a woman. And maybe that’s where the line is. Maybe with that decision in and of itself, I stepped over the line and out of the box marked woman.

Normal

I spend a lot of my life in drag. I am starting to wonder if we all do, or if at least many of us do. I don’t necessarily mean that I spend a lot of my life passing as a man or performing on stage lampooning gender stereotypes, of course. I just think I spend a lot of time looking at my closet and wondering who it is I want to be today. I think through what meetings, tasks, or activities are planned for the day and then I think through which version of me, which persona, will be most comfortable and most powerful (sometimes those are the same and sometimes they are opposed) moving through today.

Kate Bornstein says that drag is: conscious, self-referential, performance, sexy and/or political and/or self-protective, not all about gender, for an audience, and for a reason (from My New Gender Workbook). She adds that

“We do drag to climb up from under the crushing oppression of race, age, class, religion, sexuality, looks, disability, mental health, family and reproductive status, language, habitat, citizenship, political ideology, and humanity. We do drag to be the best within any of these spaces of regulation—or as close as we can get to being the best. Or we do drag so that those who arethe best in those spaces will like us. Or we do drag so we don’t stand out as the freak we think we are” (2013, p 200).

This is similar to a more generic phenomenon that sociologists might call performativity (and in fact Bornstein is drawing on Judith Butler here too), but it differs in that it is more conscious and thus, I think, more controllable than our typical ideas about performativity.

Reading this section of the book, I felt like this was a revelation that described an experience I’ve been having most of my life when it comes to getting dressed for almost anything. (Unfortunately the students in my class did not have the same reaction to the reading and I stopped just short of blurting out this embarrassing confession to a room full of young people just beginning to understand that “some people” may not have a clearly binary gender identity.)

The best example of what this process is like for me is “cool guy professor,” my most conscious drag persona. A “cool guy professor” wears jeans, usually expensive, well-fitting ones. He often wears t-shirts, but usually under a blazer. The ensemble is topped off by some expensive, stylish loafers. The best part is that cool guy professor wears brown corduroy jackets. This is an androgynous or even butch style, but I wouldn’t say it is too butch since when I do it the jeans, blazers, and oxford shirts were all actually made for women (a change from my earlier tastes). I was careful to select only traditional oxford shirts with a traditional collar, but the shirts were fitted. In other words, the clothing doesn’t necessarily accentuate my feminine figure but it certainly doesn’t hide it.

“Cool guy professor” is a direct attempt to increase my feeling of authority in the classroom, developed when I was a graduate student teaching for the first time. But since reading Bornstein I’ve realized “cool guy professor” is only the most conscious drag persona in my closet. He’s not alone by a long shot. I’ve been working with “indie rock girl,” “record store slouch,” “girly girl,” and a bunch of nameless others for years now. Only I never thought about it as “drag” before.

The big question mark here for me is whether this process is evidence of something conservative psychologist types would call a “confused gender identity.” Liberals might more affirmingly call this a transgender identity, but either term seems to hearken to a relatively essentialist idea that some people (cis people) are comfortable with the sex they were labeled at birth, and others (trans people) are not. But couldn’t this process also just be the logical result of a non-essentialist take on gender and a sharpened observation of performativity in the mind of someone who is hyper-aware of her own thoughts anyway? Speaking in terms of theory, there is no such thing as a sex/gender binary outside of social construction (the best thing to read if you don’t believe me is Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work). If we buy that, I think we must also buy Bornstein’s idea that we are all transgendered fitting ourselves into a binary universe (or rejecting it). Is this harder for some of us and easier for others?

Is my experience marginal, the minority experience, or is it eminently, deeply normal?

yes/no/maybe so

Last year when Potato had the idea for this blog it immediately took off and my friends and I began expressing some feelings we hadn’t quite been able to discuss directly with each other before. As she says, this is equal parts scary and exciting. My friends are taking risks here; emotionally and professionally and maybe even intellectually. I owe it to my friends of color (maybe) to bare myself and my own painful experiences and take the same risks that racist (or gendered racist) reality requires of them on a daily basis, albeit in different arenas. I never know when I’ve said too much or too little but here goes my best attempt to be brave:

This year I started wondering if I wanted to live my life as a truly genderqueer/trans* person.

This is not a Caitlyn Jenner kind of revelation although maybe in some ways it is.

Because first of all, what does it mean to be “truly” trans*?

Let me back up a mile or two. Transgender is part of a constellation of terms having to do with gender and sexuality that are, at this point, growing exponentially every year. It represents an evolution in terminology from the earlier cross-dresser, transsexual, and (often but not always pejorative) tranny. The simplest definition of transgender is someone who identifies with a gender or sex other than the sex identified for them at birth. Most commonly transgender is used as a modifier, as in “trans man” (a person now living as a man who was labeled a girl when he was born) or “trans woman.”

In contrast, cisgender is meant to identify the privilege associated with identifying with the biological sex on your original birth certificate. In other words, “cis” is the privilege of not worrying about what pronouns someone will choose for you when they meet you, whether you will be kicked out of the public bathroom you want to use, receiving appropriate medical care without argument about your sex, or otherwise suffering from the general problem of not fitting in with a binary system of gender. Astute readers will at this point recall my post from two weeks ago about being identified as a boy.

Last summer I attended a conference where Wendy Chapkis asked “cisgender/transgender: am I that name?” Chapkis is a self-identified woman, but she is hirsute. She spoke from her experience as a woman who is, in her words, “consistently misgendered in public” because of her mustache. As a person who did not make an effort to change her body to better conform with a binary notion of gender, she said that she had for a time identified herself as transgendered. Before transgender had come to so consistently refer to, as one audience member put it, ‘a path to a gender’ rather than a gender in and of itself. In other words, today transgender tends to mean that one is either a transman or a transwoman but it is not an identity in itself. But Chapkis, born a woman and woman-identified, is clearly not a transwoman (read more on her life here). The problem, Chapkis identified, is that as a woman with a visible mustache, Chapkis is a gender non-conformist and “cisgender” does not seem appropriate either.

Chapkis’ talk hit a nerve and seems to point to some thorny tensions in contemporary feminist ideas about gender. At one point, trans* meant transgressing gender, transcending gender, or perhaps even transversing gender. The gender outlaws, as Kate Bornstein says (more on her in a later post). Now trans is one half of a suspiciously straight binary: a person is either trans or cis, with little room for those in between.

Let me be clear: no one here is arguing that the powerful out and proud folks in the burgeoning transgender movement are traitors to the feminist cause or do not know what they are talking about in terms of their own identity. I am in no way qualified to speculate or opine on why many, many people find it meaningful to transition fully from one sex to another and I do not wish to invalidate that very real experience, nor is the (possible) lack of room for those in-between the fault of those on the marked half of the binary. The binary is important because it allows us to describe an unmarked privilege. Like Chapkis, I am simply thinking through where I belong and failing to find a side that really fits. Unlike Chapkis, I am almost never misgendered and therefore I experience a heap of cis privilege (never kicked out of the bathroom, never the cause of medical confusion, only rarely some stares). Unlike other ciswomen, however, it seems I experience an explicit consciousness about trying to make ciswoman fit as an identity. (At least I think that sets me apart from ciswomen- TBEL- to be explored later.)

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…)