Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to Get Accosted by Strangers: Gender Bending in NYC

The students in my "Psychology of Gender Difference" class and I have been talking a lot about what I call the strong current of gender expectations. Sure, it is possible that girls can become national champion wrestlers (shout-out to the Chu sisters from my high school), but if societally girls are told over and over again "that's not ladylike," "wrestling is for boys" and "stop that" the vast vast majority of girls will not wrestle, even if they had great natural aptitude for it.

And as Americans, we are also hyper-individualistic. So when we make a choice like "I'm going to stop wrestling," we like to tell ourselves it has nothing to do with society's expectations for how women can and can't act, that we make our own choices, that we are not kowtowing to societal pressures. As someone who studies and thinks (almost) non-stop about gender, I too sometimes think that "Ha! You can't touch me society! I see what you're doing to coerce my gender performance and I reject it!"

Day 2
But I must say, doing my week of gender experimentation (each of the five days of class I am presenting a distinctly different gender performance [see earlier post]), I feel the current all the more strongly as I try to resist it. On Day 2 and Day 4 I wore outfits that could be read as androgynous or masculine, and in those two short days, I experienced: men on the subway staring at my face and flattened chest (I assume trying to determine my gender); the doorman joking when I asked for my package "Well, this is package is for Judy...", and I was accosted on the street by a stranger.

The stranger yelled at me with disgust and anger: "Are you a guy or gay or what?" and then flipped me off as they walked away.

I was shocked and a bit upset, but I also thought "this is EXACTLY what we have been talking about in class!" I was making someone feel uncomfortable or disgusted or incensed that I was not clearly identifiable as a certain stereotypical gender. Because I was going against the current, I needed to be called out and punished. And unfortunately, there was a material consequence to being accosted: it made me feel a little scared, like I ought to be vigilant if I am going to dress androgynously in the future. And that means that if I feel equally comfortable wearing feminine and androgynous clothing, I may err towards the feminine, knowing that there are costs associated with androgyny.
Day 4

I don't dare purport to know what it feels like for my loved ones and friends and others who identify as androgynous or gender non-conforming or genderqueer or trans, but this week is giving me a tiny peek into what it feels like to go against the grain. With my pink toenails, hairy legs, deep voice, love for dresses, and 5'10'' height, I do not fall into the hyper-feminine category. However, I have enough stereotypically feminine indicators that I had never before been hassled for my gender performance.

Yet for many people I know, that is their daily reality. Trying to be true to themselves and what they want to wear and how they want to express their unique gender identity yet constantly confronting microaggressions, stares, anxiety when they need to use a public restroom, as well as verbal and sometimes physical harassment. This experience gives me all the more motivation to be a strong ally, and work to break down these entrenched gender norms...starting one high school student at a time in my class.


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  2. Thanks for writing about this. Welcome to my world! Not too long ago I was yelled at - like, ANGRILY yelled at - by a worker at the post office for being androgynous, and that I should grow out my hair so that he wouldn't be confused. Like the fact that he was uncomfortable that he didn't know whether to call me "sir" or "ma'am" (why does he have to use either?!) made him actually angry, and that should be my problem to fix, not his. I tried to complain to USPS about the way I was treated, but it turns out you can't make an anonymous complaint to USPS, and since this guy could easily find out where I live (duh) I didn't feel comfortable identifying myself. So, no complaint made, no chance for change. Sigh.

    1. ugh that is so messed up JT! despite that ridiculous awfulness, thank you for always being wonderful andro you.