Monday, August 26, 2013

Work Drag

Sometime ago I heard an acquaintance use the phrase "work drag" to describe another friend's professional attire (which was much more feminine than her regular not-at-work clothes).   Other friends in earshot, mostly lesbians and older than me, seemed deeply familiar with the term - and at the fact that the friend in "drag" wanted to go change immediately before joining us.  I got the meaning but was also fascinated by the concept - I'd never heard the work clothes conundrum described in this way.    

At the time, I was privately struggling with work and interview wardrobe issues of my own.  I recently wrote a post on gender codeswitching - the ways in which queer folks often must adapt their behavior to the circumstances they're in, either to protect their physical safety, or for professional or other reasons.  Clothing is a substantial piece of this, since clothes play a hugely symbolic role in our social interactions.  Regardless of sexuality or gender identity, everyone uses clothes to send signals to others - about what sports teams we favor, what kind of work we do, how much money we have, whether we're outdoorsy or bookish, or both.  We use clothes to convey personality - an outgoing person who likes to experiment and bend the rules might wear loud, mismatched colors together.  Someone who prefers to blend into the scenery might choose more muted colors.  In addition to conveying information with our own clothing, we also try to gather information by observing what others are wearing.  Uniforms often indicate an official role in public safety or health.  People often interpret dirty or torn clothes as a sign of poverty or homelessness but the same could also mean the person has a job as a painter, carpenter, or gardener - occupations in which fancy clothes would be inappropriate.

For queer folks, clothes can simultaneously be a haven of self-expression and our worst enemy.  In relation to work, I've found this to be true especially in situations where I have to dress up - interviews, fancy dinners, meetings with Important People.  I'm fortunate to have a job at the moment where relatively casual attire is the norm - jeans or slacks and a button-down shirt fits the bill for pretty much any day.

Dressing up is another story.  I don't mind it - and have actually come to enjoy it - when I'm dressing up for an affair with good friends.  They get me and aren't usually surprised when I show up in a tie or the like.  At a fancy work event, or worse, at an interview, what to wear requires a delicate calculus.  A couple of years ago, when I was applying for full-time permanent positions in earnest, I spent a lot of time agonizing over how out I wanted to be when going in for an interview.  I'm always out in the sense that I don't hesitate to refer to my partner and I don't purposefully hide things, but clothing also conveys a certain message.  If I go to an interview in a men's suit and tie, that's a very different way of being "out," especially in terms of gender identity than going to an interview wearing a more gender-ambiguous outfit.

I don't think this is an issue with simple answers - it's part of the world queer and gender-non-conforming folks must navigate.  For those of us who feel we're at a crossroads or identities, there are few places where the gender binary becomes more obvious than when it's time to dress up in nice clothes.  My partner is an attorney and has found that some judges are very particular about this.  Some essentially require female attorneys to wear skirt suits in their courtrooms (rather than pantsuits).  I've never worn a women's pantsuit and imagine I'd be fairly uncomfortable in one.  But a skirt suit?  No way.  I don't know what I'd do in a profession like that.  Where do those of us in the middle fit?  If a skirt is "dressy" for women and suits are "dressy" for men, what about the rest of us?  Who gets to be told they look nice?  So much of that is gendered.  When we're surrounded by other queer folks, it's easier.  In the wider world, not so much.


Monday, August 19, 2013

"I'm Not Racist, But": Colorblindness, Privilege, and Humor (or lack thereof)

"I'm not racist, but..."
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone start a story with that caveat and then go on to say something completely offensive and inappropriate, I'd be rich.  What gets under my skin most about this turn of phrase is that, at least in my experience, it is largely used by white folks while in the company of other white folks to give some example of their discomfort with people of color (or immigrants, or neighborhoods where the white population is very small or "in transition," or people for whom English is not a first language, and so on...) while still following the social rules of the colorblind era.  Even while following the "rules" of colorblindness, these kinds of stories convey a sense of uneasiness with colorblindness.  I can't help but feel when this happens that white folks are trying to create a space for themselves to say things that they know are a little (or a lot) inappropriate - things they wouldn't say if people of color were within earshot.  It makes me feel like white folks in exclusively white company believe themselves to be in a momentary White People Club and are testing whether those around them are also members.  It's white folks' code for "I want to say this really problematic thing that is questionably funny and almost certainly not OK, but you're white, too, so you won't mind that I say this."  But I do mind.

I am white.  As a result, despite the fact that I try on a regular basis to make clear that I am in fact not "colorblind," but actively anti-racist, white folks still try to tell me their "I'm not racist" stories so that I can be in the White People Club and, I can only imagine, assuage their fears that what they're saying might actually be racist.  But you know what I mean, I can almost hear them say.  I can't do it.  I don't want to be in the club.  It's easy for folks to say they're not racists when they define racism as outward expressions of prejudice, a la the KKK or Bill O'Reilly, but in truth we're all racists in that we were raised in a systematically racist society (see the following re: race and mass incarcerationsegregation in the cafeteriawhite privilegerace in the mediaAmerican perspectives on the "third world," and for good measure, I think it never hurts to re-read the Autobiography of Malcolm X.).

We may strive as individuals to combat inter-personal prejudice and we may find overtly hostile expressions of racism like violence, name-calling or legal segregation repugnant, but we are steeped in a culture of bias and marginalization.  Escaping that isn't impossible, but it will take more than hoping that having a black president has erased systemic discrimination, or folks like Paula Deen tearfully begging us all to understand that despite what she said in the past, she's not racist.  We struggle with this.  I think the recent internet "meme-fication" of African-Americans being interviewed on local news stations is a prime example (Think Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown, or Charles Ramsey).  These things have a tendency to go viral in a way that suggests we've lost track of the line between humor and mockery.  A while back, Slate posted an article called "The Troubling Viral Trend of the 'Hilarious' Black Neighbor" exploring this notion, and it's been a topic of discussion on NPR, as well.  What's most troubling about some of these "memes" is that the gravity of the stories is forgotten.  Dodson and Ramsey were both doing good deeds under frightening circumstances - Dodson by helping his sister fend off a rapist who had broken into their home and Ramsey by helping three trapped women and a child escape imprisonment in his neighbor's house.  Brown, of course, was the victim of a house fire.  As children we're taught that a joke is funny when folks laugh with you and cruel when folks laugh at you.  I get the distinct feeling that neither Dodson, Ramsey, nor Brown are laughing.

This post doesn't have a neat and tidy feel-good ending.  There's no easy way to wrap this up with some kind of simple, here's-how-we-fix-this message.  The obvious things to do are, for white folks, to abandon the "I'm not racist" caveat.  White folks or other folks in positions of privilege can also challenge these stories when people tell them.  There are lots of ways to express discomfort - I try to accomplish this by either refraining from laughing at jokes that aren't funny even if others are laughing, or explaining why these kinds of stories and jokes make me upset, or simply getting up and walking away to indicate I'm not interested.  But I've also engaged in things I'm not proud of.  After the Antoine Dodson auto-tuned video came out, I certainly watched it more than a few times.  I laughed.  I showed it to others.  I've learned a lot since then.  I've done some self-reflection about why I thought that video was so funny.  I've stopped watching.  I've stopped singing the song.  I think we could probably benefit from more interrogation of things like this both inter-personally and on a national level.  We divide things into rigid categories - racist, or not racist.  As individuals, most people do their darndest to separate themselves from any notions of outward racism.  Because it's much harder to identify, we rarely consider our contributions, whether explicit or implicit, to systemic racism.  We're easily offended when anyone suggests we do participate in such a system.  This isn't helpful and we can do better.  So let's stop saying we're not racist.  Let's stop taking it personally when someone points out that the past and present marginalization of people of color in the U.S. and elsewhere globally has something to do with us.  Let's forget colorblindness and set ourselves on a path towards actual equality.  They say admitting you have a problem is half the battle.  I have a problem.  I benefit from a racist system.  If you're listening, I'd love to tell you a story about that.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Invisible Queers: Age and ambiguity in the gender binary

I've mentioned before that I'm often mistaken for younger than I am.  Just a few years ago, being mistaken for a teenage boy was a common - sometimes near daily - experience for me.  More recently, that's lessened a bit, which has been a relief.  Still, it happens often enough to be frustrating, and the ways in which it happens lead to further frustration, since people's assumptions often come across as awkward at best and rude or insensitive at worst.

Just the other night, I was out with my partner and a friend of ours and our friend ordered a bottle of wine for the table.  The waiter said nothing to any of us about our ages when we ordered the wine, but when she was bringing us glasses, she hesitated to give me one.  As she was putting the glasses down, she looked at me and said, "Um, do you get one, too?"  Exasperated and totally out of patience for this kind of bullshit, I provided a rather curt response (which I later felt bad about - the result of my Midwestern upbringing and my sympathy for the fact that food service is hard, hard work...).  The waiter fumbled for words and ended up telling me I look young in an attempt to turn her faux pas into a compliment.  After my table-mates and I got over the awkwardness of the moment, my partner pointed out that her approach to the situation was not only awkward and offensive to me, but also had the backhanded effect of implying that my partner and our friend looked old (or at least too old to be carded).  All bad.  The unfortunate waiter could have easily solved any doubts she had from the get-go by asking everyone at the table to show ID when we had first ordered the wine.  Perhaps it's not common practice for her to do so, but given our waiter's confusion about me, doing so in that case seems like an obvious solution.

In other posts I've expressed frustration about this same sort of "mistaken identity" that I'm often the victim of.  I've been mistaken for my younger brother by friends of my parents, mistaken as the son of more than one co-worker by others, and mistaken for a "kid" in all manner of places.  I've come to realize that aside from the fact that there are usually simple solutions folks could employ to determine my status as an adult before inserting both feet directly into their mouths, the real reason I get angry when this happens is that people might more readily see an adult when they look at me were they expecting to see queer bodies in their midst.  When people look at me and see a boy or a "kid" it's not just because I look young or chose to wear a baseball cap or a t-shirt that day (plenty of other adults look youngish and wear hats and short sleeves everyday), but because they aren't looking for genderqueer folk.  It's almost hard to get mad at the individual people who do this because their brains are on autopilot.  They are looking for adult masculine (enough) men and adult feminine (enough) women.  Anyone who does not fit obviously into either category must be a child or youth.  Even people who know and love LGBT people don't always seem to have interrogated their assumptions on this.  People just aren't looking for gender non-conformity.  So where does that leave us gender ambiguous folk - especially those of us who have yet to earn the wrinkles and gray hair that come with age?  For the time being, it seems to leave us relegated to the margins of adulthood.  I used to largely ignore people who mistook me for a teenager or kid, but I've resolved to stop doing that in an effort to signal that not only do I exist, but that they should be on the look out for me and others like me.