Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Giving

The night before my love flew back to New York City she and I had an embarrassing discussion about manners. More specifically, it began when I checked my Essential Manners for Men book to see its rules on tipping. I read aloud a section on holding doors open for women and then asked (proudly) "do you notice that I do that too?" I was referring specifically to a notation the author had made about helping the person in front of you open a door by discreetly taking over the act of opening from behind, near the hinges. The author was discussing men opening doors for women, and I was discussing opening doors for people, including my partner. But still, a man opening doors. I then tried to defend myself by comparing my opening doors to my giving up my seat on buses to the elderly or parents with children. My partner, quite rightly, exclaimed "oh, so I'm biologically deficient? I am unable to carry heavy burdens?" I became upset, and flustered. I thought that I would never say (as has been said to me often) "ladies first" when entering a building or a train, but then isn't my principal of guiding my partner through doorways an unspoken rendition of "ladies first"? I became sulky, and then cried as I tried to tell my partner that I didn't ever want to suggest that she was less-than or unequal to me, that because she is female she lacks something to make her fully human. In every way, I see her as my equal. In some areas and situations I see her as better-able than i am, but I would never consider myself more-human, or more important than she is.

So let me try again.
I think the reason I hold doors open, give up my seat, assist with lifting...is not because I think the older people, women, parents, and children I assist are unable to open doors or what have you, but because I try to make it the practice of placing other people before me. In men, this is considered chivalrous. In the woman's culture I was brought up within, giving to others was considered a part of being a woman. So when a woman comes home from work and cooks dinner, helps with homework, etc that's not being chivalrous or kind, that is being a woman. My opening a door is given more public and private controversy than the constant giving of women at the expense of their careers, personal health, and goals. Yet my opening of a door is the visual signifier of this patriarchal and sexist culture that creates a gender divide where women consistently give too much. So my participation in these macho exercises is, in my mind, supposed to undermine the foundations in a way by not being specifically pointed towards women, but rather at all people in general. I have never given up my bus seat for another man at my age, but I have given it u for young men with children or older men, or men with visible disabilities that might make standing for long time periods uncomfortable. Still, I get what my partner was saying and I realize that if I couldn't defend my actions at the time they were confronted then perhaps I needed to re-think my actions. If I claim that it's not sexism that motivates me then i better make pretty damn sure that it's not subconscious in my mind. Of course, there are also other ways to undermine male privilege and reversing the door-holding-open clause is by far the least radical of all of them.

I have been worried for a long time that becoming male would make me less sensitive to sexism and misogynistic behavior. I think what this revealed is that there were already elements of that present in my behavior. It still bothers me, and there are elements I don't feel I talked about enough yet, but as trying as that confrontation was, I am actually very glad it happened.

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