Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Genderbending with Strangers

I always thought that the most important part of my transition, now that I live full-time as male, would be keeping my male identity fully recognized at all times. Gradually, though, I’ve found that enforcing a male pronoun comes second to being treated with respect. That might sound maudlin, but I had equated respect with recognition of my male identity. Over time however I’ve learned to appreciate the way that people pay special attention to my partner and I when they read us as a female couple.* In the back of my head I equate this behavior with an attempt to show off how non-sexist or gay-friendly a person or establishment is, but I wouldn’t want to get snarky about the treatment. After all, if folks are going out of their way to be polite to female couples, that illustrates a knowledge that acceptance of female couples is rare – and the individual wants to be seen as accepting. The person my partner and I order burritos from goes out of his way to remember our names and order, and the lady I collect my laundry from clearly thinks my partner and I are the only lesbian couple in our neighborhood. If I wanted to create a close, long-lasting bond with either of these folks I would correct their perception, or perhaps they would correct mine. Being that we exist in a service-provider relationship, I really don’t care what they think and am simply pleased that despite the fact that both have seen us holding hands and kissing, and both refer to me as being female, they treat us incredibly well.

Now, to be clear, I never agree that I’m female. If someone calls me “ma’am” in person I give the individual an amused but baffled look, and my partner will use male pronouns despite the female pronouns of the server. However, neither of us takes the time to explain the situation, as we really don’t need to advocate for male pronouns when being male shouldn’t figure into how I am treated. The decision to stay in a genderqueer area when it comes to people who I don’t run into on a daily basis, correcting their perceptions only when it becomes an issue (i.e. bathroom use) was challenged recently when I went on one of my first trips to the beach as male. On my first trip in July my greatest fear was being read as female – and I went to great lengths to ensure that I was looking as masculine as possible despite the need to be covering my chest. I asked several friends – transgender and cisgender – about their feelings towards men who wore shirts on the beach, and all told me it was a fairly routine occurrence.

Except, of course, on gay beaches. I realized quickly that keeping a binder and a tank top on only made me look like a butch woman, as all the men on the beach had their shirts off. Moreover, almost all the women were topless due to an amazing 1992 New York City law that lets women go topless wherever men can go topless. As I walked along the beach on my first visit I scanned for other folks wearing shirts, coming upon masculine women again and again. Now, some of those women could have been transmen like myself, or even transwomen early on in their transitions. Regardless of how my partner or my friends saw me on this gay beach, I would be read as female by every stranger.

As we waited by the bus stop on the way to the beach recently two young women of color whom we had observed kissing and cuddling on the train earlier came up to my partner and I to ask for directions to the beach. Of all the people standing at the stop they approached us – and I think it’s both because my partner and the young women clearly shared a similar racial background, but also because they also saw us as a female couple. I’m male identified - there’s no question in my mind that if I genderbend I bend away from my primary identity as male. I realize as well that I choose to leave female spaces because of the way I felt, and that I have immense responsibilities in continuing feminist practices. I’m glad, though, that I was read as female by those young women because it did remind me of the possibilities of queer identity that used to excite me in college. Regardless of how these young ladies read me, or what they thought my relationship to my partner was, I’m glad that in certain circles my appearance can bend itself to fit many circumstances

After thinking about this for about a week I decided that if everyone on the beach was going to see me as female anyway, then why was I causing myself to be unhappy by covering up my body? I went through a long and hard fight to accept that I’m male. I also went through a long and hard fight to accept that I’m a man who doesn’t need extensive surgery or 100% assimilation in order to be male. If the people I come to the beach with – my partner, my friends, and myself – accept that I’m male then no anatomy is going to change that. If a stranger thinks I’m female, well so what. Strangers think many things about me and I can’t control or respond to every inaccuracy.

So these days I lay on the beach wearing my blue men’s board shorts but without a shirt. The many masculine women at the beach give me mini head-nods as they pass, and I always nod back. For strangers I’m temporarily back at that awkward space that’s neither male nor female, and I enjoy it. After all, I lived in that space for many years as a masculine woman, and am now living in it in a different way as an effeminate man.

* In contrast, when I am treated as female on my own, it only serves to remind me of why I am a feminist, and why there is still so much work to be done to address sexism.

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