Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Day 2: Lipstick, Loafers and Labels

Busy Student Boi Judy
This morning I felt very boi-ish, so I put on loafers, pinstripe pants, a boxy button-down and splashed fuchsia lipstick across my lips. I wanted people to not be sure if I was a guy wearing lipstick or a woman wearing men's-cut shirt and pants The messenger bag slung across my chest completed the Busy Student Boi Judy look.

On the morning subway ride, a women in her 50s looked me up and down and grimaced, not meeting my eyes. A foreign family (Italian? German?) were clustered near me and the dad stared at me while talking in a language I didn't understand. His wife and son in turn surreptitiously leaned or arched their necks so they could see me. I looked back at them and smiled, they looked away. But then, when I sat down for the second half of the subway ride, covering most of my outfit, hardly anyone looked my way at all. I wonder if when I was sitting down, my lipstick was the most visible aspect and therefore I was easier to classify as a cisgender woman and therefore not interesting or novel. Standing up, my physical presentation was much more ambiguous so perhaps it drew people's eyes towards me more. Who knows--it's odd to be your own subject, researcher, theorist!

Taking the subway back home in the early afternoon was mostly neutral. My only questionable encounter was when a family stepped on the train, with the father (in his 50s) stepping on last. I was closer to the opposite set of subway doors and the train was not crowded. Although I was not blocking his path to move towards the seats in the middle, he walked towards me instead of walking diagonally towards the seats, which would have been the faster route. He stared directly into my eyes and came right to the edge of stranger personal space. We held each others' eyes for longer than is normal, and I looked away and he walked by without incident. I regretted looking away, wondering what would have happened if I had not. I can't figure out if his behavior was aggressive or curious or head-in-the-clouds. I didn't feel scared, just surprised--was I witnessing how some men visually interact with each other? A kind of eye-contact chicken game? Or was he just wanting to know the exact shade of my lipstick so he could buy it for himself later?

The students were their wonderful selves in class again today. But we did get into that murky territory that a lot of feminist movements need to watch out for and I sometimes struggle to explain. The students could agree that labels can very damaging, that assumptions of binary sex, gender, sexual orientation and so on are harmful because they do not allow for the natural fluidity of this very diverse human species. We are pushed to poles, even when our realities are much more complex--we are vast compilations of stereotypically "masculine" and stereotypically "feminine" traits, but if we are born with a vagina, we are given a whole lot of positive reinforcement whenever we display those stereotypically "feminine" traits. On the whole, our society is amused and often permissive when young girls are tomboys, but is wary of women who are.

So they're all down with that. But then someone in the class says essentially, Well yeah, and there shouldn't be any labels at all! We shouldn't be adding new words like genderqueer and trans and new singular pronouns like they/them/theirs we should be taking away all labels.

And then someone else responds, agreeing that it's too complicated and hard to have all these labels. There are lots of nods around the classroom.

I'm thinking through how I want to complicate this analysis of theirs (and of many feminists) and then to my joy, a student does it for me! She says basically, you are all focusing on your own discomfort and potential confusion around terms, rather than thinking about the experience of trans or genderqueer people who get mis-gendered every day, who people look askance at (or worse) every day for not fitting into the poles of gender (M box, F box).

Philosophically, I'm on board with labels being limiting. BUT it is unfair to put the burden of jettisoning labels only on people who are not gender-normative. If you say we as a society should reject gender labels, then that includes you! You can't say, "hey, trans woman over there, stop being so stereotypically feminine and don't use gender categories" if you yourself still get the privilege of using binary gender categories. This is a frequent refrain about sexuality as well in liberal circles--"Why should anyone have to come out? Why should anyone have to have a label about their sexuality?" To that I say, okay then, straight people first! You get rid of the heteronorming and then none of LGB people will have to identify in opposition to a norm. But it has to go in that order.

I remember in college this constant debate with myself--my go-to philosophical loop: How can identity matter and not matter at the same time? Sometimes it matters and we need to talk about the important differences and categories, and sometimes it doesn't matter and we need to reduce the impulse to find difference across groups. It's a "both-and" kind of situation, and can be very confusing. After college, I finally got it--the missing ingredient to determine when identity and labels matter is how power is functioning in the situation. Sure, if transgender and LGB people had equal power and access to resources as cisgender and hetero people, we could shed the labels. But when there is a significant power differential between groups, we need the labels and the categories to see how that oppression is functioning, to see and hear the people who aren't in power.

And amazingly, at least one of my high school students seems to get that. Dang. Together we'll keep working on the rest.

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You can find the Day 1 post here

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