I was out of town last week, and now have returned from the other coast, the coast where the sun sets correctly into the water rather than over land, where I was in the Pacific Northwest primarily visiting my very large extended family for five days. I have all sorts of ideas about family and heritage and where I come from, about having kids and having a traditional structure, about how much my sisters and I are the freaks of the family.
Also strange to be referred to as niece, daughter, sister, granddaughter. Those words have never felt so ill-fitting. At some point I went to the bathroom and the door was labeled LADIES and I nearly stopped right there and turned around.
I am not a “lady,” not really. It’s not that I’m necessarily offended by it – I feel lucky to be part of groups of ladies at times, I love that I’m in women’s circles and women’s groups and women’s friendships, but even that word – woman – I’ve never quite felt right about it. I never refer to myself as such.
It’s not that I’m offended by it, it just doesn’t fit. Like too-big clothes or trying to put a hippie in black goth lipstick.
I have a friend who tells childhood stories that always start, “When I was a little girl …” and it struck me when I noticed it that I never refer to myself that way. I’ll say “kid,” as in “when I was a kid.” These days, I say “guy” – “I’m that kind of guy” – when referring to myself. Sometimes I use dyke or queer or butch I suppose, but I don’t ever use woman, lady, girl, or even sister, daughter, niece.
Still, it’s not that I’m transitioning – I’m not – and it’s not that I don’t identify with the lesbian/feminist communities – I do. Maybe I’m too much the poet, too much the semantics theorist, but some of these words just don’t fit.
I suppose this is just one of those frustrating gender binary things, and yet another of the reasons why butch is a trans identity of sorts. And yet another reason why I am still, continuously, inspired to keep doing this work, to understanding gender and creating new language to adequately describe myself and others, to contributing to the community and lifting each other up.
So there was a wedding in the Pacific Northwest, which is what prompted the large paternal family reunion. There are few events that are more gendered than a wedding. I thought it was going to be a small family wedding, as a few of the others had been, but the 20-something family members were actually in the minority and the community of friends and colleagues were abundant. At the church, I got sneered at by the small-town strangers. I was a bit flamboyantly dressed – pink button down, black argyle vest, no tie (I didn’t think it was going to be so formal!). But certainly I was not the only one dressed up, it was a freakin’ wedding!
Just served to remind me that I’m an outsider. I forget that, in New York City, where I don’t generally get noticed walking down the street unless I have a particularly good hair day. I fit in, I don’t stand out really.
The throwing the bouquet / throwing the garter felt like very strong gender-defining moments in the evening. No way in hell I was going to go out there and catch the bouquet – and actually I’m not sure I have ever been to a wedding where one was thrown, now that I think about it. But I did get out there when it was time to throw the garter. I couldn’t stay, though – I was too much on display in a room-full of too many people who had been giving me too many bad looks throughout the day.
I was little more than The Dyke From New York City all weekend.
I’m lucky, I suppose, is what I should take away from that experience – if I lived there, I would not dress as I do, would not have the fun I do with my hair and pink button-downs and vests and ties and belt buckles and cufflinks and jackets. I’m glad I have that opportunity, that I live in a place that not only accepts it, but encourages and, at times, demands it.
I didn’t expect it to be the reason, but really, I came to New York City so I could learn how to dress. Nothing has taught me fashion or style like this place.
Sometimes it is so uncomfortable to not conform to gender roles.
PS: I’m tremendously behind on email and correspondance, forgive me as I catch up.
17 thoughts on “upon returning, a small complaint”
1- I absolutely know what you mean by the ill-fitting words. There's almost always cognitive dissonance for me as I head into the women's bathroom and read the label posted there, recognition of which seems mandatory for entry. I was recently informed that up until I was about eight (I'm turning 22 next week), I started all my stories with, "When I was a boy…" and then continued with something that had happened the previous week or so. Why I didn't know this sooner, I'm not sure.
2- I went to a wedding this summer as the "plus one" of a bridesmaid. I wasn't even that fagalicious… just a purple buttondown with white pinstripes and a solid black vest. No tie. Confused looks all night from the small, rural community that turned up at the VFW for the reception. What a night. *Empathy in our mutual, occasional discomfort in/hyper-awareness of our nonconformity.*
ps I love the tag "when Sinclair looks like a fag." I've been described by my closest friends as a fag far more frequently than as a dyke.
Awww, you were so close and I didn't even know about it! Ah well, at least you're back where you're comfortable.
oh boy do i hear you on the wedding thing. it's such high gender theater in a way, such a ritual of heterosexuality. and the Cross Dressing Dyke just ruins it all. glad you're back.
The huge melting pots of NYC and a few other cities truly seem like other worlds compared to the remainder of the entire country. It is like NYC/SanFran and a few others are these entities/countries of their own, with the variety and different-mindedness you'll find there.
It is sad, really, that once you step outside the comfort of your city you are viewed so critically by small minded people.
A few years ago I used to work in a store that was in a city near enough to Pittsburgh to be considered urban and "different" as far as the inhabitants are concerned. But when the store employed 2 dykes, so hot and so cute you had to look four times and wonder their gender…..they were stared at. Not always in a good way. But I guess you can't always tell when the stare is curiosity and intrigue versus curiosity and judgment. My stares were the former but I wonder if they took it wrong, now that I "know more". I wish I had had the guts back then to flirt and compliment them.
I've been thinking a lot lately, having started my my semester a few weeks ago, about the extent to which gender is social — that is, the extent to which gender is a social activity. One's awareness of one's gender is very, very affected by other people's perceptions. I've had similar experiences to you in that, being kind of genderqueer (I'm not butch but I'm the kind of dyke you can spot, and sometimes I've felt like I'm not a "real girl," whatever that means), I feel totally at ease with myself and my gender presentation when I'm in my usual circle: with my girlfriend, my best friends, immediate family, etc. But as soon as I get into a bigger social pool, I get a whole other weird level of awareness of myself as deviant, and start feeling sort of dysphoria as people make various assumptions about me — equal levels of dissonance as people assume that I'm a gender-conforming heterosexual and as they assume that I'm butch (they may not be thinking the word, but that's what they're assuming).
It's kind of horrible? But also fascinating. The last time I was with my paternal extended family, my grandfather — a conservative Catholic Republican — shook my hand instead of hugging me. (The custom is that, when greeting one another, women hug each other, men and women hug, and men shake hands with each other). I think I cried afterward. The really strange thing about, though, is that he has no conscious awareness of my queerness, I'm pretty sure — he just somehow read me as masculine and acted accordingly.
Welcome back home
I feel freakish at certain (many) gender gatherings also, even though I'm femme leaning and the relatives hail from the Happy Valley in Western Massachusetts. (Though they are a bastion of old New England Republicanism.) Just being gay when everyone else is so strait (square, even) makes me feel so *other.* They may not be staring, but they are whispering.
I can't imagine what it is like to be butch out of the liberal metropolitan meccas. So much worse than for me.
And, let's be candid. Garter throws and bouquet tosses are revolting. They're disgusting, anti-feminist tributes to all that is traditionally troubling about the institution of marrage. And they're simply tacky.
That said, I'm thrilled that you got out on that floor and went for the lacey lingerie with the rest of the dudes. I certain that you were the most dapper of the dans.
(And there was some little queer kid in the crowd that will remember that for years, and is braver, now.)
Writing from the Left Coast I have to say, "Wait a second! Weren't you in Seattle?" Seattle is chock-full of queers. As is my home town, Portland. Maybe the stares weren't because you were so gay but because you weren't wearing flannel… :-)
[I was in Seattle for about a day visiting friends – I lived there for about six years – but went over to the Olympic Penninsula where my parents grew up for the family wedding stuff. Definitely a very different feel over there. Seattle is SO gay, I am struck by that every time I go back to visit. Amazing how visibly queer everyone is. – ss]
"pink button down, black argyle vest"
I kind wanna see a picture of this so I can see how it would work.
I know what you mean about the words not fitting who you are. I'm not butch, I'm not femme (bi? queer?). The majority of "girly" things feel awkward or silly to me–but I never get the urge to dress like a boy, either. I've done strange things at family functions like ask a boy if I can get him a drink and confused my mother dreadfully when I told her I thought of myself as "neutral". I wonder if there's a word for this?
It definitely depends on where you are on the Left Coast, as Elizabeth points out. Almost anywhere on the I5 corridor (except maybe for Lewis County), you can be comfortably out and queer and you probably won't be the most outlandish individual around.
My GF and I were out on Long Beach Peninsula, where we behaved as we do anywhere else – visibly queer. We didn't get nearly the attention I thought we would and no one hustled their children across the street when we approached.
But, yeah, when you get away from the more urban areas, being queer is definitely more of an attention getter and when you're with family, it's harder to have the 'fuck off' attitude as a protective shield.
[I definitely didn't mean to imply that it was an east coast / west coast issue — it was a small town / big city issue, and New York happens to be the big city I was coming back to. I lived in Seattle for quite a while and it is definitely, in many ways, way more visibly queer than New York. Mostly, the trip was fine – I wasn't threatened and I didn't pay much attention to the locals who were staring, but every once in a while something caught me off guard, or I would go hang at my uncle's house and realize how on edge I'd been to be out on the town all day. It takes a lot of effort to do this gender work! I'm grateful it's such a non-issue where I live and work. – ss]
The Olympic Peninsula!? Sinclair, if only we had known! We live on the Peninsula (in Port Angeles) and would have been so happy to share some gender-queer space with you for a moment. It gets lonely out here sometimes. Also,we just threw a kick-ass wedding in Sequim with hot dykes of all stripes in attendance. Too bad you weren't here a few weeks ago. Give us a shout next time.
I'm not butch, but even being androgynous I totally get you about 'lady' and 'girl'. They just don't fit.
It's great you've found some language that works for you. 'Guy' is a good one — it sounds sort of solid and tough and strong. And it's always nice to reclaim one more hetero term for the team.
I'm still searching for words — for nouns, in particular — that can accurately represent who I am, or at least not contradict it.
"I’ve been thinking a lot lately (…) about the extent to which gender is social"
So true. My country is very gender-traditional; so while I do love the women/lesbian community, I'm going to have to transition in order to be treated as the male person I am.
Maybe, in another society, I would be happy with my female body and name; as it is, even though I'm sooo obviously queer/male, I'm treated the same way as feminine women.
Maybe, in another language (like English), I would be happy with neutral words like kid and child and parent; Spanish has only male and female words.
I love reading these blogs about non-normative genders; I wish my real world were like that. I'm trying to get over the wishful thinking, though, because I have to find out how to navigate the gender system around me.
I don't think we realize it sometimes, but we live in a wonderful little bubble in NYC, in our sex/kink/genderqueer groups, and for the most part, the city as a whole doesn't give us another look. But going back to the family…I was just with my family today, and I had that moment, sitting with my cousins, where I was reminded that I am not the norm, and that I'm the 'weird' one. It was kind of uncomfortable.