Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Cost Of Doing Business In This Body

{NOTE: I wrote this last Saturday.}

This morning something happened to me for only the third time in my life, all three instances of which have happened since moving to Bloomington: I was overtly misidentified as male.

The first time I was facing away from the waiter who inquired "and sir, what you like to order?"  The second time I was facing the employee who called me "sir," but wearing a winter hat.  Today I was not wearing a hat or sunglasses and facing the woman who inquired about my preferred pronoun usage - "he? she?" - and then before I answered, settled on "he."

I have several feelings about this new trend, but interestingly, none of them are anger or the like.  First and foremost is confusion, because despite my hair, I am so securely female.  In fact, think about it this way: I am so securely female that I cut my hair into a "man's" cut, knowing that if and when I want, no one could misidentify me as male.  So yes, today while wearing t-shirt and yoga pants at a coffee shop, I wasn't explicitly performing my gender (or sex for that matter, which although they match for me, are different things: biology versus internal self-concept) and propped the door open for potential misidentification.  But still confusion, like "how can you not see externally what I feel without question internally?"

Because this trend is new, my other emotion is surprise to the point that {brain sputters to a stop}.  I'm actually glad this happens because it means my reactions are completely without judgment.  It's all I can do to say...anything, let alone something with unintentional tone.  Usually I laugh and do what I can to minimize their embarrassment.  Today I politely corrected by just saying "she" with no inflection and went back to explaining electrophoresis to her son.  Which makes me wonder if she chose "he" because she already knew that I studied physics in college and now I was explaining the process to identify muscle fiber types.

Was she labeling my mind instead of my body?  Does there exist a discrepancy between my mind and my body?

The timing of these interactions is particularly ironic because this semester I am taking multicultural counseling.  Last week I myself presented on sexism and gender roles, and this week someone else presented on heterosexism (and so on and so on; we cover a different "-ism" each week).  We talk about:
  • socially created gender roles, and how that causes and is supported by external/institutional/macro-level categorization and enforcement of certain behaviors
    • i.e. a mom telling a daughter "honey, girls only play with dolls"
    • or a husband assuming it's the wife's job to make dinner
    • or companies interviewing only women for secretarial positions
    •  or the Catholic church refusing to marry any couple that isn't cisgender and heterosexual)
  • internal self-concept and identities for sex and gender, and the related internal perferences of gender role and expression (definitions: sex is biological; gender is internal self-concept of female or male, doesn't always match biological sex assigned at birth; gender role is (externally) specific sets of expectations of "how a boy/girl acts" and (internally) how I as a female think females act, internal and external can match, but don't have to; gender expression is behavior through which we communicate gender, essentially an external performance of internal self-concept of gender combined either external or internal gender role expectations, some people express external gender role expectations, which don't match their internal gender self-concept to protect themselves)
  • how sexual orientation is not reliant upon nor correlative to either sex or gender identity
  • the idea of "performing a gender": fulfilling either an internally identified gender or an externally prescribed expectation of one.
    • Specific example: my hair performs male (despite that not being my intention for it) because society has determined this haircut to be one that males have (or that only males should have).
    • More specific examples: If I really cared to fulfill society's expectations of expressing my *gender* I would have long hair, despite not internally identifying with long hair as a requirement for females.  If I really cared to fulfill society's expectations of my *gender role* I would be married with kids, no matter my internal definition of a women's role.
  • how gender is created anew in every single social interaction, through performing a gender.  A person who internally identifies as female will dress in socially-determined female clothes so every other individual with whom they interact will identify them as female.  That starts with parents performing their baby's gender for them, and then subconsciously teaching them to perform their gender as that child learns to dress itself.
  • how internal identity and external categorization don't always match and how that impacts or dictates a person's "performance" (because of item #1: social enforcement against not performing what society ascribes as your someone willing to be subject that enforcement?  am I (Kelzie) willing to be subject to people inquiring about my gender, which is a social enforcement, as the cost of having this haircut?)
  • what happens if the identities and/or the performances don't match
    • Exhibit A: the rampant murder of trans* individuals
    • Exhibit B: gender dysphoria ({sarcasm}Thank you ever so much, DSM-V for pathologizing it so that we can simultaneously deny people's symptoms are serious enough to warrant surgery and say people's symptoms are serious enough to medicate the shit out of it. {/sarcasm})
    • Exhibit C: this morning
I literally just gave a 90 min presentation on this, and then wrote a 10 page cultural autobiography, and then I got a live demonstration.  Yeah, ironic and relevant.

Still, I'm not mad - because she asked.  The overarching theme of multicultural competency is after we learn about all the "-ism"'s, how do we change our practice to respect and treat clients impacted by those "-ism"'s -- through the lens of our own cultural identity and awareness of our personal biases.   Yeah, it's not a small topic, but the take-away point is you have to ask, because assuming is bad, really bad.  

Why is assuming bad?  Because assuming based on the existing socially created binary system (black/white, male/female, straight/gay, Christian/non-Christian, upper class/lower class, abled/disabled) gets us the "-ism"'s.

So I'm not mad - because she asked instead of assuming.  It tells me that I should probably show off my cleavage more if I don't want to be misidentified as male on a lazy weekend morning, but: she asked.  (Note: One friend hyperbolically suggested that I "wear blinking construction lights on them so people take notice.")

In the larger context of why this started now?  One friend from class suggested it might because Bloomington is "far more south than it thinks it is," meaning this woman was actually purposefully enforcing "that's not how women are supposed to look."  I think it's because Bloomington is quite liberal and people here are forward thinking enough not to just assume.  People in Texas probably did assume, quietly.  Case point that I had totally forgotten until just now: The Texan thought I was a lesbian for the first three years we knew each other....because "your haircut is a lesbian one."

I'll probably field more of these types of comments and questions, and while doing so might be the enforcement for having short hair, I never want my response to be insulting.  People who ask don't deserve to be insulted - unless they are doing it to be insulting.  Then they're going to feel the enforcement of "people shouldn't be so close-minded and derogatory about gender expression".

And let's not downplay the benefits: think of all the extra bathrooms - without lines! - that I now have access to.

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