September 24, 2011

In which, like most physical entities, I must occupy space

I've been thinking a lot about gendered spaces lately.

This semester, I'm taking a class on women in comics. When the teacher commented on the first day that the class appeared to be all-women, I piped right up and said, "Actually, I don't identify as a woman!" It all went over well, I was pleased, and I mentally categorized the class as a neutral space.

But then, earlier this week, discussing multilayered identity, one of my classmates made the point that specific identities are often called to the forefront of self-perception based on context. "If a guy came into this room, for example," she said, "he'd probably feel a lot more aware of his gender!"

I was surprised how physical my reaction was, and how fast it happened. The classroom became a female space, and in an instant, my entire body tensed, and it felt like my fever had shot up several degrees. (I still had pneumonia at this time.) One of the other students looked directly at me, clearly expecting me to say something, but seeing the recognition in her eyes just made my throat close up. I literally couldn't breathe; it felt like my body was trying to will itself into no longer existing.

When I say I'm uncomfortable in female spaces, this is pretty much what I mean.

She didn't mean anything by it, of course, and if I'd spoken up I'm sure everyone would have agreed that the classroom wasn't really a women-only space. But it's part of a larger loss, for me; women's spaces used to be safe spaces, the places where I felt most capable of speaking up. Now, it's like going 'home' to my parents' new house in Arkansas instead of my childhood home in Kansas; I remember a sense of belonging and familiarity, but I don't feel it any more.

This is the part where I start to wallow in self-pity, because I don't feel any more comfortable in male spaces. I learned the rules of femininity very explicitly; my best friend in high school said she wouldn't want to be my friend if people kept making fun of me, so she taught me how to dress and act like a girl. It involved a duffel bag of example outfits, and more than one practice session. Nobody ever taught me the rules of being a man, so I'm always worried that there's some secret code I'm missing.

I'm not actually all that interested in following the rules of traditional manliness, since I'd much rather come up with my own queer, feminist interpretation of masculinity. I would be OK with being a too-feminine guy in a male space. But instead, I tend to feel like I am seen as an insufficiently-masculine woman, and it's even worse than being in a female space.

Put another way: when I think about entering a women's space, my womanhood doesn't 'measure up', and that's uncomfortable because it's always uncomfortable to be an outsider. But when I think about entering a men's space, I'm worried that my manhood is insufficient, and that's uncomfortable because holy fuck how can I even express how awful and scary that is?

As with all my anxieties, most of this is in my own head; I don't think I've ever had someone explicitly say to me that I don't belong in a certain space. But I've also never been successfully read as male, ever. So I prefer to dodge the question by occupying co-ed spaces as much as I possibly can.

In this way, my classmate was absolutely correct. My awareness of my gender is directly related to my context. In class, at work, or with close friends, I don't worry about fitting into a specific category, and sometimes I even enjoy being a little 'in between.' (A much cheerier blog post is pending on just this topic!) But as soon as I'm reminded that gender is apparently supposed to be a binary, I panic.

And that's where baby blog posts come from.

P.S. - Starting to wish for a neutral space of your own to explore your gender expression? Consider visiting Spectrum, a discussion group for "all individuals who do not conform to gender norms or embrace the sex they were assigned at birth, including those who identify as transgender, genderqueer, transsexual, intersex, gender questioning, or are reading this blurb and getting excited that there might be a place for you on campus." We are open to anyone who would like some support as they deal with questions of gender, with no policing, but please be aware that this group is not intended for allies. Membership is not publicised. Meeting times are on the LGBT center events page; email for more information. We are especially hoping to connect with those who fall onto the feminine side of the spectrum!

And if you're an ally who just wants to know more about trans issues, as always, feel free to ask me a question here or email me any time at!


  1. Ahhh, yes, I've always wondered about this question-gender spaces! I'm such a huge advocate for women's spaces, so I think the topic is a really interesting one.

    Do you think we have enough gender neutral spaces on campus? Ironically the first two that come to my mind are the LGBT Center and the Coffeehouse, probably because both have gender neutral bathrooms. I guess then you could also include Francescas on 9th. And all three seem to have a crowd that is really LGBTQ-friendly. Just curious what you think on that!

  2. I actually find the LGBT center is one of the places that makes me really "feel" my gender, because I'm so aware of being trans, and so worried about being read as a lesbian. Similarly, any time we're talking about gender in class I get really uncomfortable. In a weird way I feel like these spaces are 'gendered spaces' despite being neither male spaces nor female spaces, just because they seem founded upon the assumption of a gender binary. So I actually find all the eateries on campus to be very strongly gendered, because I know every time I buy food I'm going to have to deal with somebody calling me "ma'am."

    So honestly, I feel like only private spaces are able to feel gender-neutral to me, such as my fraternity section or my friends' rooms.

    Francesca's might be the only big exception, because I half-lived there over the summer and the baristas never call me ma'am. They're amazing, really LGBT-friendly and fun. And those bathrooms are a lifesaver. I might feel the same way about the Duke Coffeehouse if I spent more time there.

    But, there's a difference between the general feeling that everybody's paying attention to my gender, and the really specific feeling that only one gender is allowed and I'm the wrong one. I don't think too much of campus falls into the latter categories, aside from the goddamn bathrooms, which have started making my daily life a little miserable. Haha, I don't think that answers your question at all, but that's my gut response.