Monday, May 27, 2013

Men Don't Get Manicures

When we were young, many of us were told by parents or other adults to learn to ignore hurtful words from others - that physical blows could cause us pain, but we could learn to withstand teasing and verbal harassment.  Sometimes that's true, but as bullying becomes a topic of national conversation and we begin to understand the impact of both bullying and social pressure on queer and gender non-conforming children, as well as kids from other historically marginalized groups, we're also coming to the realization that the old adage ending with "words can never hurt me" may be a falsehood.  Words can hurt.  They create and reify boundaries.  They give power to people who fill verbal space and produce knowledge and they create silences where marginalized people ought to have voice.

My partner and I are avid watchers of the show, Top Chef.  During the most recent season, the show aired a brief scene between a few of the final contestants making fun of one of their fellow (male) chefs for getting a manicure.  One of the other (male) chefs said, "Where I come from, men don't get manicures," after which everyone else laughed.  This comment was made jokingly, but it is a common and not ineffective means of policing gender.  I have not been able to get it out of my head.  The comment implies, of course, that a man who gets a manicure is not masculine enough - is perhaps not a "real" man.  He might be gay (with the implication being that gay men are not "real" men), or he might be trans (the implication here being that men who depart from normative masculinity might actually be women - offensive both to trans folks and to cis women, since the deeper implication is that to be a woman is to be less than a man).    

I've written before about my feelings on the kind of gender policing that comes in the form of cheap jokes about queer and transgender folks.  (Check out here and here).  I hate when comedians do it, I hate when sitcoms do it, and I hate when regular people do it.  Jokes at the expense of transgender and queer folks (or any other marginalized group) are almost never actually funny, especially when they're told by someone not identified with that group.  They win cheap laughs by going for shock value or playing on people's inner nervousness about gender.  But these jokes also carry power.  They are a form of upholding the status quo - for instance, male privilege and female subordination - by implying that the idea that a male-bodied person might want to engage in "feminine" behavior is laughable.  And yet people say these things all the time - jokes about men getting manicures, or women with too much hair in the "wrong" place, or women who look like men, or men who want to wear makeup.  Sitcoms are probably the worst offenders, but I hear these kind of jokes from ordinary people on a daily basis.  Rarely are they challenged.  People do not see these kinds of comments as problematic or transphobic - or more likely, few people see transphobia as problematic.  Rather, they see it as a source of humor.  It's not.  It is hurtful and offensive and threatens to silence any gender non-conforming people within earshot.  It also reinforces the message to children who are immersed in this strict binary that straying outside the bounds of their designated gender or sex won't be tolerated.

It also means that stuff like this becomes fodder for news outlets:

Men dressed up as women, or vice versa, is meant to come across as funny.  I'm not saying that people can't play with gender - I obviously think they should, but this strikes me as dehumanizing.  When we make mockery of trans and gender non-conforming people, we send the message to people that would do queer folks physical harm not only that the basis for their anger is legitimate but also that we likely won't intervene.  Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think most people actually feel this way.  I don't believe that most of those folks who believe homosexuality is a sin or who fail to understand the fluidity of gender actually intend bodily harm to queer people.  But some do, and our failure to consider the effect our words have on not just queer or marginalized folks, but on those who would do them harm, can have deep, and sometimes fatal, consequences.  There are ways to transform the way we talk to, and about, each other.  I challenge us all, the next time someone jokes that "men don't get manicures" or anything in that vein, to ask, "Why not?"

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Gender Round-up

Some interesting gender-related stories from around the web in the past few weeks...

More indications that socialization might shape biology (see my previous thoughts on this in Gender and Sex 101, The Toy Binary, and Children and Gender):
NPR: "Young Girls May Get More 'Teaching Time' From Parents Than Boys Do"

Social pressures and challenges facing transgender youth athletes:
New York Times: "Changing Sex, and Changing Teams"

And this delightful gem rapidly becoming beloved by theory nerds across the web:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Help Make All DC Single Stall Restrooms Gender Neutral!

Calling all Washington, DC residents and visitors:  The DC Office of Human Rights requires that single-occupancy restrooms in the District be gender neutral.   Some DC bars, restaurants, and shops are already in compliance, but many are not aware of this requirement.  YOU can help make sure that everyone follows the rule!  If you live in or are visiting DC, check the bathrooms of the places you frequent.  If you encounter single-occupancy bathrooms that are marked "Men" or "Women," send an e-mail to, or call 202.681.DCTC (202.681.3282) with the name and address of the establishment and the date you were there.  

For more details, visit the DC Trans Coalition website:    


Saturday, May 11, 2013

"One Guy, Two Women"

Some people are possessed of a bizarre compulsion to engage strangers in awkward chit chat on the elevator. One of my early posts on this blog details a number of cases of what I call "mistaken identity."  In that post I alluded to an instance on an elevator when a woman I'd never met asked me if I was Justin Bieber.  This kind of thing happens a lot, particularly on elevators - not my being mistaken for Justin Bieber, which for the love of god I hope does not happen again, but strangers trying to make conversation that for whatever reason, seems to frequently relate to gender or age in some way.  I understand that because of my gender presentation, it's normal for me to get "sirred" or for folks to assume I'm a dude.  People also tend to assume I'm young.  What I don't understand is why people can't just make normal chit chat, like commenting on the weather or talking about how painfully slowly the elevator is moving.  Just this morning, my partner, a friend of ours, and I were in a hotel elevator when an elderly heterosexual couple got on.  Out of the blue, the husband glances briefly at us and says, "One guy, two women.  That's the benefit of being young.  When you get older, you'll settle for one."  His wife nodded and said, "You'll only be able to handle one."  I said nothing, since my voice would likely give me away as female, and I wanted, for some inexplicable reason, to spare this poor old man embarrassment.  My partner tried to fill the silence by saying something neutral, without encouraging him to say anything more.  You'd think the whole exchange would have ended at that point, but no - the old man keeps talking (and of course we're all still trapped together on the elevator.  See above re: painfully slow elevator rides).  The man takes stock of the group again and adds, "Good-looking women, too."

We got off at the ground floor, and were still awkwardly stuck with this couple as we all made our way through the lobby, out to the parking lot, and finally, to the safety of our car.  We tried to deconstruct the conversation.  Our friend had not realized the man was referring to me when he said "One guy, two women," and had been extremely confused as a result.  We considered how this man arrived at the decision that his comments were appropriate ones to make to strangers.  Male bonding attempt?  Obviously he had assumed that I was not only male, but also much younger than I actually am - was he joking with me the way one jokes with a teenage nephew or grandson?  Still, we returned each time to the same question I always have in these kinds of situations - no matter what his assumptions about who or what I am, why say anything at all?  What compels people to joke like this with strangers?  Even if I was a teenage (or twenty-something, for that matter) guy, that whole conversation would have still been awkward and uncomfortable.  It's not nice.  It's not particularly funny.  It makes me wonder about people who can't seem to filter their thoughts well in public.  Like the folks who ask interracial families if their kids are adopted in the grocery check-out line (or worse - where they "got" the kids and how much it cost), or the folks who ask strange women if they're pregnant, or the lady who wanted to know if I was Justin Bieber.  It seems that sometimes otherwise mature, grown people just say the first thing that pops into their heads without regard for either logic or boundaries.  How someone else's family was formed is none of your business.  Whether or not a stranger is pregnant is also not your business.  And on what planet would Justin Bieber possibly be riding a random elevator by himself at a conference center outside Orlando, FL while wearing someone else's nametag?  Use.  Some.  Sense.  Common sense.

So, for the record: if you're a random stranger, as follows are the topics I am open to discussing with you:

  1. The weather.
  2. The location of the nearest gas station/restaurant/coffee shop/highway entrance/random landmark
  3. Elevator speed.

I am open to a limited number of topics beyond the above-mentioned so long as they do not relate to any of the following:

  1. My/your/the general public's dating or mating habits.
  2. Justin Bieber.
  3. My age (or your uninformed estimation of such).

Now that we've got that cleared up, I look forward to spending our next elevator ride together deep in blissful conversation about those rain clouds rolling in.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Gender Codeswitching

NPR has this great new blog called Codeswitch ( that explores peoples' different uses of language and other forms of communication based on cultural context.  Last week, the blog's writers posted a fascinating piece on the use of a gender neutral pronoun, "yo" among youth in Baltimore (read the whole story here).

But the Codeswitch blog as a whole is not limited to language.  It expands on the linguistic notion of "code-switching" to reflect the way people navigate identity and culture in a diverse and complicated world.  In the blog writers' own words, "We're looking at code-switching a little more broadly.  Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time.  We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of own identities - sometimes within a single interaction."  This interpretation of codeswitching got me thinking about other means of expression and communication beyond language - particularly the ways in which genderqueer and transgender folks might codeswitch in different situations either to fit in, or be read correctly, or out of self preservation.

I know that I sometimes alter my gender presentation or my gender expression to fit certain situations - particularly ones in which I feel at risk of being harassed or bothered.  I do this frequently in public restrooms.  When I enter a women's room in a strange place - especially when I don't have a female friend or ally to accompany me - I pitch my voice higher, narrow my stance, zip up my jacket so folks can't see that I'm wearing a men's button-down shirt.  I pull my hair carefully to one side - out of my eyes, and try to smooth it down to make it look like I comb it (which I do not).  After I wash my hands, I hold them carefully and delicately away from my body, and over the sink until I locate the hand dryer or paper towel dispenser, which I use, also carefully and delicately, even though my instinct is to wipe my hands on my jeans and saunter out the door.  I smile and greet people as I enter and exit, so as to convey that neither I, nor they, are in the "wrong" place.  I essentially try to act out my interpretation of femininity as best I can.  Sadly, on my part, this may come across as more of a poor imitation of an effeminate gay man than an approximation of a short-haired modern lady.  Either way, I hate it, but acting this way makes me feel safer and more in control of my environment when I'm in a public restroom, which is a place that causes me significant and regular social anxiety.

"We're looking at code-switching a little more broadly. Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction." - From NPR Codeswitch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity

I'm not the only genderqueer person I know who codeswitches in this way.  My partner and I recently went to see musician Tylan Greenstein (from the group Girlyman) perform a solo show.  I don't know exactly how she identifies herself, but Tylan has an undoubtedly masculine gender presentation.  During her between-song banter she described her own women's bathroom woes, particularly at rest stops while she's on tour.  As she tells the story, she pulls a neon pink plastic barrette out of her pocket and clips it in her hair.  She looks ridiculous, but she says, "When I put this on, I suddenly have no troubles at all."  She's half joking, half serious.  And I completely believe that if she's actually tried this, it works.

On the flip side of the women's bathroom is the scenario in the men's clothing section of the department store, which I also frequent.  Several friends and I who identify as queer or somewhere on the transmasculine spectrum, have learned the ins and outs of shopping for clothes alongside cis men.  We've joked that men don't take a lot of time perusing the options in the sock and underwear aisle.  They know their size, they don't care much about the color.  You go in, grab a package of undershirts and boxer briefs and get out.  Lingering there is not considered socially appropriate.  If you're trying on jeans in the dressing room on the men's side of the store, you don't make eye contact.  You don't talk.  In these situations, I have no idea if I'm being read as a teenage boy or a 30-year-old lesbian, but either way, I do almost the opposite of everything I do in the women's bathroom.  I widen my stance, don't smile, don't talk, and try to mess up my hair as much as possible.  I'm more personally comfortable with this presentation of gender, but the situation always feels charged anyway because I am still aware of my crossing into space that is not supposed to belong to people like me. 

Gender is like language in many ways.  It is one of the primary ways that we communicate to others, both verbally and not, how we wish to be perceived and where we think we belong.  Gender codeswitching takes place in many more places than in public gender-segregated space.  We codeswitch with our families, with our friends, at work, on the phone with electric company, at school, and with romantic partners.  Gender queer and trans folks, in particular, must often be fluent in the total language of both mainstream femininity and masculinity in order to function and sometimes to evade harm.  The need to codeswitch can cause queer and trans folks a certain level of anxiety and possibly paranoia that cis folks don't experience, but I also hope that the more we explore the boundaries of gender and blur the edges, the sooner we'll arrive at a point where gender codeswitching can be purely for fun, rather than for survival.    

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Surviving the Wedding Industrial Complex

I'm getting married in one month.  My partner and I are pretty excited about it, though for a long time, we thought we would never get married or have a wedding because we feared the wedding industrial complex.  But in the end, we liked the idea of celebrating our relationship with our family and close friends.  We went to our siblings' and cousins' and friends' weddings and they were all like mini family reunions, or friend-unions, with food and drinks and happy dancing, so we finally said screw it, we want a party, too, and got down to planning.  In doing so, we have learned the following about weddings:

1. Balloons.  You must have balloons accompanying the sign announcing your wedding at the hotel where your guests are staying.  Signs without balloons are insufficient.  Guests are incapable of navigating a modest sized hotel lobby without the guidance of balloons.  If you do not have balloons, your guests will become confused and may leave the hotel believing themselves to be lost.  Hotel staff agree that this is non-negotiable.  You will be permitted to choose the color of your balloons.  

2. Name.  You should know what name you plan to use in advance.  It is not advised to have multiple names.  If your family and friends know you by two different names, you must reconcile this prior to your partner calling to book various wedding vendors.  If you become upset at any confusion caused by lack of clarity around which name to use for which purpose, you should become irate and immediately blame your partner for not reading your mind and knowing your every thought at all moments.

3. Flowers.  The belief that a wedding cannot occur without flowers is prevalent.  Some vendors seem to be under the impression that when you say "we do not want flowers," you mean "we are too cheap to buy flowers and we would be willing to consider flowers if they are not very expensive."  These people are not exhibiting good listening skills.  If you explain to a vendor that you don't want flowers and they respond by nodding and jotting down "$500 budget for flowers," you should not hire this person.

 4. Heteronormativity.  If you have a female voice, everyone you talk to over the phone will ask who is the groom.  Even when you are both standing there in person, people will ask about the groom.  This is called heteronormativity.  It is a common problem in the wedding industrial complex.   You will also encounter this problem pretty much everywhere else ever.

5. Vegetarian Food.  Many people will try to impress upon you the virtues of either the portabella mushroom or something called "deconstructed lasagna."  If you are not a fan of portabella mushrooms or if you do not understand what was wrong with intact lasagna, you will prove challenging to some vendors.  Luckily for you, the local foods movement means you will be able to find a trendy, earth-crunchy caterer who is aware that the only substitutes for meat in a meal are not piles of cheese or giant fungi.  Even in the midwest this miracle is possible.