ON MY MIND: Something happened to me yesterday that I’d like to share with you. I will do my best to present this sensibly, even though I’m mildly rattled and still trying to figure this out.
As a woman who visits the barber shop every 5 days, chooses to wear mens clothing, and prefers to look androgynous, I am often mistaken for male. Totally fair. My gender presentation, peripherally, tells you to address me as a man. I get called “Sir” daily, which I honestly find endearing, mostly because people tend to apologize profusely or become embarrassed after realizing I’m a “Madam” Finding humor in these situations, I tweet#gotcalledsiragain when I’m mistaken for a gentleman. On my first trip to Paris, this hashtag was remixed to #GotCalledMonsieurAgain, as it is an international phenomenon that deserves to be celebrated.
In reality, I guess I cross dress. I almost never shop in the womens section. Unless I’m buying a new sports bra, because I like to look as flat as possible. Again, androgyny: I like it on me & it’s how I feel best. But for people like myself, who look somewhere in between, spaces that are Gendered can be a bit uncomfortable. Aka public restrooms; where I always get a double take, or at the bodega counter when I’m requesting a pack of tampons [the green pack, the Supers please], where I get stared at from both sides of the register. Indeed bodega man, these tampons aren’t for my girlfriend, they are actually for MY vagina.. although she can use em too.
Yesterday was just like any other average day. I took a break from my studio to hit the gym. A place where I love to go alone, to zone out, and to be in my own head. I’ve been going to this place for maybe 3 years now. I know the whole staff, from the receptionists to the janitors–this is my gym. As usual, I take off my baseball cap before entering the womens locker room. I do this as a safety measure, because I never want to startle someone who may be in the middle of changing, that some teenage boy just let himself in. Not that exposing my head is much help, considering I always have a skin fade and a damn shape-up. Still, it’s my attempt to be less masculine to (hopefully) minimize the double takes, or worse, gasps of terror.
I enter the locker room and head straight for locker 84. It typically has more hangers so it’s the one I like to use. Upon entering the room, I walk right past (and in plain view) of the woman who is fixing her pony in front of the mirror. She is a woman in her late 40s / early 50s, eastern European, long black hair.
Locker 84 is taken, so I settle for another one, hang up my Northface, and begin unpacking my gym bag. Moments later, just before I begin to undress, this woman speaks to me. She says to me, “Excuse me, are you a girl?” At that moment, a trillion neurons in my brain WENT HAM. In a millisecond I was processing (A) being caught off guard, (B) #gotcalledsiragain, (C) wait this is usually funny but why am I offended?, (D) brain is sending angry signals to heart, (E) #RUDE, (F) What do I say to this bitch?
I look at her dead in the face and say with a pretty voice, “Yes. I’m a girl.” And then I grin, to let her know our conversation is over. But for her it isn’t over, she adds, “Oh because I couldn’t tell.” At this point I catch the eyes of the only other person in the room, who is at her locker trying to act cool but is caught in the thickness of this incredibly awkward exchange. With facial expressions, we signal to each other that this is absolutely crazy. I say back to the woman, “I saw you when I walked in. If I were a man, I would know I just entered the wrong room. Do you get that?” My first impulse was to explain to this woman, like an adult talking to a child, why her question was ridiculous. We had a few more verbal exchanges: her continuing to let me know that she just couldn’t tell, and me further explaining that not only am I Not a boy, I am Not an idiot, nor am I blind. The conversation is terminated, she walks away, and I start getting changed. Serendipitously, a friend of mine comes around the corner from out of the bathroom. “DID YOU JUST FUCKING HEAR THAT!?” I ask her, dying to unload some heat. She didn’t hear the exchange, but with a little help from the witness, we recite it all back to her. The three of us discuss the woman’s audaciousness with awe, then immediately begin laughing it off, turning my frown upside down. I went about my work out and forgot about the whole thing.
It wasn’t until I rehashed this story at dinner, did I realize how awful that woman was to me. This woman wasn’t concerned about my sex, or ready to direct me to the appropriate locker room had I been a confused young man. This woman was homophobic. She was telling me I was a freak.
My shaved head, sagged jeans, and displayed queer lifestyle (I’m so alternative!) made this woman uncomfortable. And as a friend put it, she wanted to give me shit about it. Publicly. Because calling attention to our differences, rather MY differences, made her feel safe. The thought process behind gay bashing is something like this: I am uncomfortable by this person who is different. I can fix this by making them feel scared the way I feel scared. If I can get them to fear me, I gain power. If I create public boundaries, I gain security. It’s simple.
I’m not so much upset by this lady, in fact I truly feel sorry for her more than anything. Because even at her 5th decade on planet Earth, she is struggling to live comfortably in her own skin, the way I love living in mine. (TOUCH THIS SKIN DARLING, IT’S REALLY CUTE.) What bothers me is that I didn’t comprehend the severity of the situation until way after the fact. Does this make me kind of an idiot? Does this make me a bad gay? Ew maybe I’m a bit of both? What’s worse is that I didn’t have the tools to defend myself, intelligently or effectively, in the moment. How do you confront intolerance, more specifically homophobia, when it’s trying to corner you? How can we prepare our LGBTQ brothers and sisters with the right dialogue and safe exit strategies in these situations of attack? Is there an answer to this? I assume there are many.
I want to share this experience because I am baffled at my own ignorance to a problem that is very real, and exists for a community I thought I had down pat. (No pun intended with Pat, but hey, let’s keep it.) I realize it’s near impossible to rewire bigotry in one swift conversation, so what is the best way to maneuver through & out of it? Is it about smiling and turning away? Should we prepare ourselves with an answer that carries power? How do we keep ourselves from harm?
I was made to realize (for my own good) that homophobia, gay bashing, & bullying remains, even in adulthood, even in metropolitan cities like NYC, & even in a fancy gym in yuppy Williamsburg. These stories have to be voiced so we can work toward squashing this prejudice, because it’s this very type of intolerance that rape, beat, and murder transgendered teens in small towns, or in someone’s Harlem backyard, or in a West Village alley, or at the piers, or where ever the hell any of us grew up. And this is the type of mindless hazing that keep our beautiful children in the closet–terrified of US, and too terrified to love Themselves. This machine of hate is active, its a crossfire affecting (and engaged by) the entire spectrum. How can we put it out?