September 24, 2011
In which, like most physical entities, I must occupy space
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com!