I’ve had this particular idea bouncing around in my head, and then piny’s beautiful post last week inspired me to sit on it a little and at least try to say things in a coherent way. So, here goes nothing.
I was walking to the train before work one morning when I happened across a man standing in a doorway. I’ll be honest here–had I been walking at night, I probably would’ve avoided walking past him. I like to think of myself as brave and non-judgmental when it comes to men, but there’s a building on my street that may or may not be a halfway house, and I walk on the other side of the street when I’m coming home at night. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
Anyway, we made brief eye contact, the way people passing on the street do, and as I got right up to him, he kept looking and said “Good morning, young lady.” I said “Thank you,” and went about my way.
Now, it’s interesting enough to me that he said anything at all–I had my headphones in, which tends to be a conversation deterrent. And people don’t tend to randomly say good morning to each other in this city, at least not when they don’t know each other and aren’t exchanging some good or service. (Side note: the man who hands out the Metro now at my station, and apparently in the afternoons at the next, consistently makes my day. So friendly! So happy!)
The point of retelling this encounter, however, isn’t that a stranger said good morning to me. It’s that he correctly assessed my gender, and it made me happy.
I’ve had this experience a fair amount, and afterward I always feel a little odd. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I have a significant amount of gender anxiety. That is, it stresses me out when I meet new people and don’t know if they’re reading me correctly, and I’m nervous when I think I might have to defend my presentation. So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I feel a little (or a lot) relieved when someone recognizes my gender without any prompting.
What’s interesting is that while I generally experience the most gender anxiety in all-female settings (bathrooms, mostly), I experience the most gender relief–if I can coin a new phrase–when correct recognition comes from a man.
Or maybe it’s not interesting at all. Maybe that only makes sense. Women, after all, seem to have the most at stake when it comes to accurately identifying women; men are more likely to be rapists, and women more likely to be rape victims. Men seem to have more reason to use gender-specific language with women, in order to differentiate from themselves. Just anecdotally, I’ve had far more waiters use greetings like “Hello, ladies” or “What will you ladies have tonight,” where waitresses seem to not use gender-specific wordings with tables of women. A random woman on the street probably wouldn’t greet me as “young lady” unless she was significantly older, whereas the man who addressed me that way was probably only in his thirties or forties.
I suppose my point is that if I experience the most gender anxiety when I fear being misread by women (and I do), why should I experience the most gender relief when being appropriately read by a man, in a situation that didn’t create anxiety in the first place? Although I’ve been occasionally called sir by men (usually at the airport, which never bothers me; I correct them politely, then they look at my license and apologize profusely), women by far outnumber them in the ranks of the gender police I’ve met. A man has never accused me of going into the wrong bathroom, although now that I think of it, only men have directly asked me if I was a man/boy or woman/girl. (Another story for another time.) But women regard me with gender suspicion all the time, and yet I’m never relieved when they don’t.
So what’s up with that?