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.    

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