Looking smart

June 12, 2007

(I enjoy “smart” as an adjective to describe an outfit. Also “handsome” for women.)

I’ve been thinking lately about the weirdly important role clothing plays in queer settings. Or any settings, for that matter. The more comfortable I get wearing men’s clothes (and let’s be honest here–how much of my wardrobe at this point isn’t from the men’s department, if not straight out of my father’s closet?) the more comfortable–excited, even–I am about dressing up for more professional or otherwise dressy occasions. I’m not yet at the point where I would wear a tie to a job interview, but I’m definitely past the point where I’d wear a skirt to one. (For what it’s worth, that ship sailed around ninth grade.) And I’m discovering that though it may get security called on me in a public restroom, my chosen fancy attire won’t actually cause too much confusion anywhere else. Just by way of an example, I recently wore a three piece suit (well, minus jacket, because it was warm- but tie and vest) out to dinner, and our waitress had no trouble identifying the Sig Fig and I as ladies.

But my newfound comfort with the dressiest of male clothing is causing a bit of consternation for the Sig Fig. See, she doesn’t feel comfortable wearing a tie. Her idea of a nice outfit doesn’t involve khakis and a button-up. So she’s increasingly worried that whatever she wears, she’s gonna look the femme on this butch’s arm.

Now, I’ll admit that it’s pretty hard for anyone (short of a man, I guess) to not look femmier than me when we’re out together. I’m not trying to swoop in as SuperButch here–it’s just the state of affairs. But does that automatically mean that other people read us as Butch and Femme?

While it’s true that in queer settings things like ties are becoming more fluid in terms of what they express for the wearer, by and large they still carry masculine connotations, and it often takes a lot of feminine accessories to cancel those out. Skirts and dresses are similarly well-established as feminine articles. So if you’re person who tends to think of people as butch and/or femme (I’ll admit to being one of those, though my personal preference for the butcher end of the spectrum means that I’m more likely to be gauging butchness), you’re likely to see a woman in a tie and a woman in a skirt as butch and femme, respectively.

But is it the same in non-queer spaces? If I’m out with the Sig Fig, are people thinking, “Whoa, there’s a butch and a femme?” Or are they distracted by my gender-variant dress enough just to think “Whoa, there’s a chick in a suit?” Do they look at us and simply think “Whoa, there’s a couplea dykes?”


Undercover

April 15, 2007

In the post-piny quoting me (swoon!) days, I’ve been thinking about a different kind of gender relief, and I wondered if it might be the sort of thing anyone else had experienced.

There’s a man who asks for change pretty regularly outside the CVS I used to frequent, and he quickly became my favorite panhandler in the square. (I feel like I might be a little insensitive referring to him that way, but I don’t know what better word to use. There are quite a lot of people, mostly men, in the area who I’ve seen in more or less the same place for going on five years now, always asking for money. I don’t want to call them homeless because I have no idea if that’s true, but I feel like even ‘panhandler’ sounds like I’m making a value judgment. I’m not–I just can’t think of a better word.) I try to make a point of giving him change when I see him, particularly when the weather’s getting colder.

Now, he’s a really polite, friendly guy, always upbeat and pleasant. But that alone isn’t why I enjoy seeing him. It’s because more than a few times he’s used a unique approach with me. He certainly recognizes me at this point, and at first when he sees me–particularly if I’m with someone else–he addresses me as “champ” or “big guy.” When I get closer, however–either to give him some change, or apologize for not having any–he quietly says something along the lines of “Thank you, beautiful.”

This isn’t simply a case of someone on the street who’s asking for money initially thinking I’m a man, then correcting when he sees his error. That happens all the time, and it has a very different flavor–there’s usually something apologetic in the tone, or a hesitation and then a rush to talk to someone else. No, this man definitely recognizes me, and he definitely reads me as female throughout the encounter. The conclusion I’ve come to is that he’s trying not to blow my cover.

I’m not really sure how exactly to explain what I mean by that, but that’s the best description I can give of these encounters. I guess it’s entirely possible that he’s this way–complimentary, polite–with everyone who gives him money. Still, I think it’s significant that he’s always very discreet about the way he compliments me. We’ve actually had a few conversations–once he gave me advice on dying my hair–and in more than one of those it was clear he’s family. That, combined with the persona he allows me to have when I’m with other people–the champ, the big guy–leads me to believe that he recognizes something in me. It’s like he’s saying hey, I see who you are, and that’s beautiful.

I wish I were explaining this better. It’s just a very different kind of gender relief than the kind I experience when a professor refers to me by female pronouns before being introduced, or a grocer addresses me as “miss.” Here, a man recognizes two truths–the butch persona and the female identity–and acknowledges them both.


A dog in the fight

March 31, 2007

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labels, and the ways we reject and embrace them. It’s always been my opinion that labels should only be self-applied but that they can foster community where groups of individuals self-apply the same label. Still, unless everybody signs a charter or something, that label doesn’t have to mean exactly the same thing to everyone in the community.

Since that first paragraph was a little awkward and confusing in its vagueness, I’ll get more specific: lesbian and woman. These are two labels–identities, even–that I embrace. I was recently in a discussion where a woman explained that she identifies as queer rather than lesbian because she feels the Boston lesbian community is extremely hostile to trans*men and the women who date them. While I would never deny that experience, it hasn’t been mine. Even if it were, however, I think I would still identify as a lesbian. (For the record, I also identify as queer.)

If, as this friend of mine contends, the identity “lesbian,” at least in Boston, equates for some with “woman who sleeps with women and explicitly does not sleep with trans men, and is hostile toward their presence in the community,” I don’t think that means the rest of us should abandon the identity and adopt another. In other words, I’m not going to let some intolerant women spoil lesbianism for me. Rather, I think it’s my responsibility to identify as a lesbian who does not share that kind of attitude, so that the label isn’t wholly associated with intolerance.

It’s the same way I feel about being a woman. There are a lot of things about me that I–and others, probably–consider more stereotypically masculine than feminine. I’m misread as male a significant part of the time, both for reasons under my control (the way I dress, my hairstyle) and reasons totally beyond it (my height and body structure, the pitch of my voice). I reject certain stereotypical trappings of femininity (I look damn awkward in a dress, and I’ve never tried heels) while embracing others (I ache to be a mother some day). At the end of the day, even in my favorite pair of boxer briefs, I’m still going to identify as a woman, and demand that others recognize me as such. Not because I have a uterus, not because I can fill out a C cup, but because that’s who I am. And if other people–men, women, or otherwise–have a picture in their head of “woman” that doesn’t look like me, it’s my responsibility to call them on it.

I do realize that “lesbian” and “woman” may be two very different identity categories, but I don’t really want to get into biological determinism or whether sexuality or gender can be chosen. I just think it’s time we stop letting other people define our identities for us.


The politics of attire

January 31, 2007

A professor once told me that in an interview setting, a woman will always be taken more seriously in a skirt than in pants. Luckily I’m on track for a profession with a lotta lesbians in it, or I’d be screwed.

Of course, a man could pretty much never go to an interview wearing a skirt and be taken seriously.  We’re still at the point where, in popular perception, man + dress = cross-dressing, where woman + pants = any number of things, but rarely cross-dressing. I’ve noticed that woman + tie, however, = extreme discomfort.

Now, I haven’t done a whole lot of reading on the necktie and its various significances, but I don’t buy into the tie as phallic symbol,* as the patriarchy, or as the shackles of the working drone.** I am, however, extremely jealous of men when it comes to the suit and tie. A dude can walk into most situations in a snappy suit and be read as respectable, stylish, and professional. When I walk into just about any situation but a gay club wearing a tie–never mind a full suit–I’m instantly read as a man (untrue), butch (true, but usually irrelevant to the situation), queer (see butch), a trouble maker (untrue), or worse.

Of course, the only real problem with me wearing a tie (unless someone decides to beat the shit out of me, which has thankfully yet to happen) is that I care about these potential perceptions. Arguably, greater visibility of women in ties–women who identify and are identified as women–would lead to greater acceptance of women wearing ties. So really, it’s chickenshits like me who are ruining it for the rest of us.

*Except that it allows the Belle & Sebastian lyric “a giant arrow pointing to my fly.”

**I’ve never actually encountered this argument in so many words, but it seems to me that I’ve seen the tie used as an example of male conformity to a certain ideal.


A question of authenticity.

January 20, 2007

After my month-long hiatus, I return homesick, sleep deprived, and with slightly longer hair. And, more pertinently, ready to write the post that’s been marinating for a while: some introspection on perceptions of gender identity.

Now, I should be honest and say that I’ve struggled some myself with my own gut reactions to some of the trans* and genderqueer kids around me. While I like to think of myself as open minded and accepting, in some cases it’s been a little hard for me to wrap my brain around transitions, and I have to admit to being a bit judgemental, if only in my own head. But at least I recognize those instances, and try to better understand my own values and feelings before I question anyone else’s.

That said, I’m uncomfortable with the notion–which I’ve discussed on many occasions, mostly with other lesbians–that the category of butch is disappearing with the rise of the FTM population. Notice that I used notion rather than fact. One of the problems with this idea is that it jeopardizes both butch and trans as identities; it’s now easy to dismiss a member of either population as “really” being the other. It reminds me of the all too popular denigration of bisexual men, because obviously they’re really gay.

To be clear, I’m not uncomfortable with the (apparent) rise of the FTM population, or of trans*folk in general. I’m thrilled whenever trans* communities and individuals gain visibility, legal status, or the ability to come out to themselves and to the world. I’m personally grateful to all those who have enlightened me and bettered me with their friendship, and I think gains for trans*folk should always be fought for and celebrated by the rest of queer communities, because we cannot claim to advocate for BGLTQ rights unless we fight for all those letters. What disturbs me is the perception of that rise, which more and more seems to include very defensive posturing and even hostility. It’s sadly reminiscent of that scene in Chasing Amy, with a maudlin toast to “another one biting the dust” when a lesbian begins dating a man.

In trying to hash this issue out with a friend, I heard something unsettling: “I think the greater acceptance of trans*people is a good thing. I just don’t believe there are that many authentic trans*people.”

I was a little stunned. Can you imagine putting other identities in the place of trans*people?

Of course, we do judge the authenticity of identities like these–often identity groups to which we ourselves don’t even belong–every day. We distinguish between “normal” Muslims and violent ones, women who kiss each other at parties and dykes, “real” bisexuals and gay men in denial. But every time we make judgements like these, we imply that we are better judges of authentic identity than those who live these identities.

What’s interesting is that often it is those who most loudly champion queer solidarity who just as loudly proclaim that trans* populations damage that solidarity, and proceed to pick and choose the “authentic” trans*folk. While it’s apparently now a faux pas to ascribe any particular set of characteristics to lesbians, it’s perfectly fashionable to ascribe a set–a much more rigid set–to FTMs: butch women who are either uncomfortable with being, or unwilling to be, women, who choose male privilege over fluid definitions of what it means to be female.

I call bullshit, and I count myself among the guilty.

So I started wondering: why is it now so easy for me to wrap my mind around someone coming out as queer, but sometimes so hard for me to wrap my mind around someone coming out as trans*? Because truthfully, learning that my friends are queer has become a non-issue for me. I tend not to think of my friends in sexual terms anyway, so it’s rarely much of a shift in perception for me.

When it comes down to it, I realized, we’re bombarded by far more gender cues than sexuality cues in daily life. Think about it. There are a lot of reasons not to think about people in terms of their sexuality. Maybe they’re relatives of yours, and the ick factor cancels out any sexual thoughts. Maybe they’re your co-workers or superiors, and you never see them in a social setting. Maybe they’ve always come off as sort of asexual to you. Maybe, like me, you don’t even think about the sexuality of a whole category of people (for me it’s straight men). Or maybe you just don’t know them all that well.

Gender cues, on the other hand, are pervasive. You see people going into gendered bathrooms. A waiter addresses a table as “ladies.” The bank teller calls you sir. Clothing stores are departmentalized by gender. Women’s professional sports leagues are designated with a W. Pronouns, titles, and words like niece, uncle, sister, and father abound. It can be a lot easier to accept and understand that your cousin Sheila has a girlfriend if you’ve never really thought of her as a heterosexual than it may be to accept and understand your cousin Samuel when you’ve been saying she and her all these years.

In any event, I wish a lot of things. I wish I could roll with transitions as easily as comings out. I wish so many lesbians didn’t begrudge FTMs. I wish everyone felt comfortable to embrace their own identities without fear of reproach. But most of all, I wish we only felt qualified to judge our own choices and lives without the urge to question the authenticity of those differing from our own. Maybe that should be my resolution.

To stand in solidarity, to strive for inclusivity, and to openly support the men and women brave enough to speak their true names. If only we could all have so much courage.


Butch.

November 5, 2006

So I’ve been wondering lately why I don’t have any kind of butch community. Or, at least, why I don’t feel as if I’m a part of one–for all I know they’re all over the place. And I realized that while I was in college, pretty much everyone around me (including, at one point, a woman I dated) actively resisted labels like butch and femme. I’ve been trying to figure out why that could be. At first I thought it was just another academic pretension like so many others, claiming some kind of sophistication beyond the crude language of the past. I thought it could be a generational thing, the need to define oneself in terms other than the ones used by our predecessors. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the women around me who resisted my butch self-identification resisted it because they feared being identified in relation to it.

I suppose it makes sense, in a way. If you reject the idea that lesbian relationships have to be defined by a butch and a femme (or a butch and a bitch), you probably don’t want to date someone who identifies as butch if you don’t identify as femme. (Or a bitch.)

…Unless, you know, you don’t feel your identity is threatened by someone else’s.

I identify as butch, but I don’t let it define me or my relationships. And identifying as butch or femme doesn’t have to mean aping heterosexual relationships or traditional gender roles.

And, for the record, my girlfriend isn’t femme.


Huge shocker

May 31, 2006

Took another lame dyke quiz, which apparently I’m too dumb to make into html.

And are we surprised? I’m butch. Get right outta town!

I suddenly came to the realization that I will no longer have a big queer community at my fingertips, and I’m a little worried. Specifically, I’m worried that I won’t hang out with gay boys. I mean, clearly I’m a lesbinet, or magnia, or whichever term we came up with early in the life of this blog–in short, I ain’t worried ’bout the ladies. But my boys! Will they still want to be my friend, or were they secretly only talking to me in an organizational capacity?