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.

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On the need to write and to be brave (back to saying what I think)

Some days I feel like I am literally choking on a waterfall of words dammed up between my brain and finding a time and place to release them. Some days there just seems to be so much to say and my body and the hours of the day seem to be so limited at expressing everything there is to be said. This is when I know I need to write. Not that I should sit down and write, but that I actually need to. Usually this feeling overtakes me after reading something particularly good, but sometimes it just sneaks up because I haven’t written in a long while or I haven’t had very strong outlet for releasing everything I’m thinking about in speech.

I have the sense that my brain is tremendously active and tremendously verbal. I don’t mean to say that I think I’m smarter or better than anyone else; actually I think as a culture we over-value verbal facility as an expression of something we call “smarts” that I’m not even sure exists outside of racist classist sexist elitism. In point of fact the tremendous activity of my brain is often painful and troublesome. The inability to find time to actually process everything I’m thinking about can be crippling, along with the accompanying thirst for knowing and understanding more. All this thinking and need to verbalize is basically a neurosis in and of itself, and it certainly contributes to other neuroses (I am exhibit A for what it means to “overthink” anything concerning my body, for example).

Actually I suspect deep down most people could cultivate this same ability/affliction, and sometimes I wonder if they don’t because they are smarter than me and want to avoid the constant rollercoaster that thinking critically constantly can bring. My dear coauthors and I are not, as it were, poster children for the joys of the examined life.

Today I came across the blog of a brilliant sociologist Zandria F. Robinson, and I fell swiftly in love. For me, being in love means the urgent need to a) tell everyone you know and b) talk a lot about why l love what I love. Robinson is not only a gifted, incisive, and funny writer, but I have the sense that she never holds her tongue. Reading her blog I don’t know that I was shocked by any opinion or even way of putting something, but I found her blog shocking because she says what she thinks, without first making it palatable to the uninitiated, and not only uses her real name but often names names. I suspect that from this very radical act she derives not only freedom, but the kind of security that can only come from operating openly in the sunlight.

By contrast, I spend a lot of my time couching what I say in terms that will be palatable to those hearing them and essentially afraid of the force my own words can have. Maybe this is why sometimes they torture me.

Reading Robinson’s work I not only feel like a stodgy, unfunny, timid cultural commenter, but like a cowering mouse, afraid to use my real name or name my university and afraid of discovery in a world where discovery is inevitable.

rage not gratitude

Recently I have been thinking a bit about the role of anger in political struggle and specifically about social justice framing that seems to eliminate the constructive role of anger. Ironically my reflections have been prompted by wondering why certain things seem to fill me with rage.

For example, those “gratitude” posts a lot of my friend network is doing on Facebook. They make me roll my eyes and make it harder for me to like the friends who do them, even though I know and love those people, and I understand that in most cases my friends are just trying to search for the beauty in this beautiful, terrible world we live in. They are just trying to find their own reasons for getting out of bed every day.

Nonetheless, they have a stifling aspect as well. When people make a conscious project out of only posting – to others as well as for themselves – only the things that happen in their days for which they are grateful, it seems a bit self-righteous. It is certainly sending the message to “be grateful for what you have,” which is followed by a silent “instead of complaining about what you don’t.” I guess in some social circles complaining about what you don’t have might take the place of wanting a new toy or a bigger fancier house, but generally I use Facebook to complain about things like the fact that Black people in the United States don’t have the right not to be executed on the sidewalk by state- and public-sanctioned violence. Or the admittedly less tragic fact that capitalism makes me a sadder and more anxious person by requiring me to have a job for which I either feel a survivor’s guilt for my adjuncting friends, or in which I feel underappreciated because the state government which employs me is actively involved in ridiculing the value of what I do and teach, or where I must walk the line between “doing what I love” and allowing myself to be taken advantage of by an institution that certainly does not love me back.

I recently attended an event which honored the lives of Black men and women who have been murdered by the police across the United States. While the program was inspiring, no sooner had the possibility of anger been touched on than the (African American) organizers began to sidestep the blunt truth in an effort to make sure the police officers in attendance felt included and heard in the conversation. In fact, the officers in attendance were more profusely thanked than just about anyone else. Simply for being cops at a community event. I was personally enraged by the bending over backwards on display to make sure the cops at the event did not feel somehow personally implicated in these stories. Shouldn’t we be working to make sure that cops DO feel personally implicated so they can begin to reflect on the role they are playing in such an obviously racist institution? Don’t we need cops who can at least face the facts of what their colleagues across the country are guilty of if we have any hope of a less racist future for policing? Certainly love has a place in my ethos of struggle, but I’m not so sure about gratitude.

I am agnostic about the strategy of building bridges with oppressors in an effort to bring about change. I cannot say with assurance that there’s never a role or necessity of doing so, or that nothing good ever comes of it. What I can say with confidence is that this is most certainly not the ONLY way of bringing about change and that often this is a way to de-escalate successful radical tactics.

If we’re going to survive within a poisonously racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, ableist, and classist dominant culture, don’t we need to cultivate some rage to keep ourselves sane? Melissa Harris Perry draws extensively on the metaphor of the crooked room where women of color spend all of their time adjusting their behavior to the crooked room in which they stand. While there may be a place in such a struggle of radical love for oppressors, mustn’t we permit ourselves and other to first feel the rage that surely must attend the daily insults to our sanity in order to recognize ourselves as the fully human people that the dominant culture cannot see? How can we recover our own dignity without feeling anger at the systems and people who steal it from us on a daily basis?

As I write this I notice I’m feeling somewhat defensive about my embrace of rage. I wonder if my own vacillation between embracing my rage and trying to quell it can even be untangled from all of the bullshit sexist messages I’ve received over the course of my life about being such a polarizing, shrill, person. Actually I spend a lot of energy trying to shield others from the full-on, gale-force level, shrieking harpy brunt of my real rage at the hideous and preventable injustice I see at work every. fucking. day. in our world.

Why should I protect others from outrage at injustice I haven’t caused? Fuck that; rage it is.

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.

Of flags, privilege, and family

A few days ago my brother changed his Facebook profile picture to the confederate flag. I am not sure what to do in the wake of this small, harmless, heinous, ugly action. I am torn between my identities as an antiracist activist, an antiracist educator, a sociologist, and a sister. Not to mention a friend. Am I a bad person if I continue to allow a person in my life who openly proclaims racist attitudes?

As you might imagine I am not exceptionally close to my brother. We are almost a decade apart in age and have never lived in the same house. We are different in lots of ways. Example: he never went to college, I am a college professor. We have other things in common, like we both talk unstoppably and are pretty loud about it. And we both hate cops, although my brother has spent some time in jail while I’ve never been. I love him because he is my brother but if blood ties were socially meaningless we would never even speak to each other.

So I could detach from my brother; it would not even be that hard. I could stop sending him cards or asking my dad about him and I could be curt and polite when I see him on visits to other family. We had that kind of relationship for several years and no one would really say anything if our relationship became that way again. I wonder if maybe that is my moral obligation. Maybe I am cheating, relying on my white privilege, when I leave my antiracist politics at the door in order to have a relationship with my brother. Relegating these deeply held beliefs to a set of political opinions like who I vote for that I can just set aside for a while in order to have a conversation about gardening with someone who will only disagree with me about anything else. I do not know if it would be so easy to relegate my antiracist beliefs if they were actually about me instead of just my friends, or if they were about my partner or my children. Why do I even want to have a conversation with someone who flies a confederate flag even though he knows it symbolizes the belief that some human beings are not, in fact, really human beings?

But I guess there’s the rub: family is not socially meaningless. It is, as Bodhi just reminded me, the place where I’m from. Family and home form a core part of me, I guess, even if it’s a part I’m ashamed of and sometimes repulsed by. I wonder if that’s why I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family.

I am proud of the success I have engaging university students to think about white supremacy in 2015 and in their own lives, but I worry how I can convince anyone in the broader world of anything if I can’t even convince my own family, the people who supposedly love me best. My family are some of the few people I interact with who have truly divergent views from my own, not counting students who are directly subject to my authority. They are one of my few chances to preach outside the choir. When I can’t do it, when I know it’s useless, I feel like a complete and utter failure.

Worse, I know that any descendants of slaves who might look at my Facebook page and see that flag will know that I am not the kind of white person that can be counted on. I often feel proud of my relentless efforts to remain close to my family and that they are part of my integrity as a person. But I guess right now I stand (ambivalently) for family, but also for racism, and what kind of integrity is that?

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.)