Sunday, June 11, 2006

Crossing the Gender Norms

Me in the bathroom

By Amy Groshek
Anchorage Press
Vol. 15, Ed. 23 June 8 - June 14 2006

I descended the escalator from the Egan Center lobby. Muscled men in
vests labeled SECURITY stood at 100-foot intervals in the hall. The
night was exhilarating: the fighters in their heavy gloves and my
slight, well-dressed date had filled me with a pleasurable
insouciance. But I had waited far too long to visit the bathroom, so
I hurried inside, chose the closest stall and shut the door.

Seconds later, before I'd gotten my pants down, a woman began to
shout on the far side of the restroom. The large facility had two
doors, and she'd entered by the far one. Now she proceeded from
stall to stall, banging on the metal doors, yelling, "This is
Security! Everyone out! There's a man in the bathroom!"

My first reaction was curiosity. Then came the realization that I
was the man.

One of the male security workers posted in the hall must have seen
me enter, confused my gender and sent his female colleague in to
rout me out. She proceeded through the stalls. The volume rose as
startled women slammed stall doors open and, in a flurry of hand
washing, turned on the sinks at the counter.

I had dressed to charm that night and brought my longhaired date to
Thursday Night at The Fights. Shivering in her skirt and tank top,
she'd pressed her back against my chest to slide her shoulders into
the front of my leather jacket - a black Vanson Comet that I'd
special-ordered in a men's size 38. Under the jacket I wore a faded
black T-shirt. My boots were harness boots, with silver hoops just
visible below the hems of my jeans.

Like most butch women, I have a woman's face. My gestures are
athletic, my breasts rarely discernible, and I have no hips, but
even under a crewcut there is something fine and vulnerable in my
face. My cheekbones are pronounced; my lips are full and red. In
high school I forced myself through two proms, and in my mother's
pictures, without my mannerisms to betray me, my long hair thrown
into a deft, cyclonic temper by the local stylist, I am slim,
clear-complexioned, long-legged - a female beauty.

The shouting security worker proceeded through the stalls, and the
hand-washing exodus continued. I stood in alarm, my pants and boxers
at my knees. Since she had started at the far end, I had time to
plan - but I still had to urinate, badly. No, I decided, better to
sit back down and use the toilet, since I had no idea what would
happen when I was found. By then I was clenched up like a fresh-dug
clam; it took extraordinary willpower to empty my bladder. Finally,
I hoisted my underwear and jeans. I was buckling my belt when the
rap came at my stall.

"Sir, Sir! Come out!"

She had seen my boots. I squared my shoulders, straightened my back
and swung the door open.

"Oh," she exhaled, with an air of disappointment, "you're not a
man." Her permed hair fell strangely on the black SECURITY vest. She
was a foot shorter than me.

A lopsided file of women stood behind her, drying their hands or
simply enjoying the scene. The guard stepped aside as I went to the
sink and washed my hands. Then she went to both exits: "It's
alright," she said, to others outside the doors, "there's no man."

Some of the women in the bathroom cast me sympathetic looks in the
mirror; some shook their heads. When I stepped into the hall, five
or six of the black-vested guards were bunched at the restroom door,
along with a small crowd of spectators. Barks of heady laughter rose
at my back.

That was not the only time that my gender has been confused. I am
accustomed to and rarely offended by the regular mix-ups of grocery
clerks so inanely required, by store policy, to call me "sir" or
"ma'am." And being mistaken for a man, even a scrawny one, can come
in handy - in a car repair shop, for instance, or in a summer job as
a landscaper. But the restroom confusions are different.

In the building where I work, the only restroom on the floor is also
used by the attendees of the training sessions, annual meetings and
conferences that the campus hosts. It's a small school; the staff
and faculty know me and know how I dress. But whenever visitors use
the building, at least one woman, when she sees me inside the
restroom, stumbles at the door and backs up to check the gender
sign. Usually I'm washing my hands, and I catch her blunder in the
mirror. I do my best to be polite. If I meet her at the exit (most
embarrassing for her, because I see her alarm head-on), I hold the

My appearance frightens some women at the airport in Anchorage, too.
In March, exiting the B-gate restroom, I met a chubby teenage girl
at the door. She gasped and shuffled sideways, smacking her shoulder
into a payphone. It is especially disheartening to be feared by the

These females are only making sure they are not walking into the
men's room, of course. But the result is that the women's room is no
longer mine as it is theirs. When I use a public restroom nowadays,
I watch my back. I think of the security guards hard on my heels,
with no female emissary to find, in the final seconds, the woman's
eyes in my frightened face. In department stores, hospitals, movie
theaters, I'll suffer my private discomfort rather than deal with
others in the restroom.

Both in Anchorage and in rural Wisconsin, where my family is from, I
have been heckled on the street by boys in rusted pickups hollering
"Faggot." Most often I'm confused for a gay man. Once, caught on my
walk home, I ran down an alley and crouched behind a Dumpster to
wait until my antagonists grew bored and gave up circling the block.
It was broad daylight, early evening, the city full of commuters. I
was in little danger, but I didn't want them to see where I lived.
Even if they had, abject gay-hating poses a different kind of
danger. To carry their violent sentiments further, those boys would
have to commit a hate crime, and hate crime infuriates most humane
Americans. The confusion of my gender in public restrooms is both
more difficult to explain and more painful. What these women submit
me to and occasionally endanger me with is their lack of

Am I asking for it, going around dressed like a man?

Long before I knew I was gay, long before I knew the word "lesbian"
or had any sexual vocabulary, I begged for boys' clothing. I had no
brothers, and my sister and I were encouraged to hunt and fish with
my father and to play any sport we chose.

In my early childhood my parents were dairy farmers. No one batted
an eye at my running the length of the property barefoot, in shorts,
my chest bare as any male childhood hero. I fashioned bows and
arrows from birch saplings, played with G.I. Joes and toy tractors,
and was rarely forced into traditional gender roles by my parents.
There were the Sunday dresses, the Easter outfits, the grandparents
and neighbors who cleaned and neatened me, combing my short hair
flat. But even at school, up until the time of boyfriends and
girlfriends, very few of my classmates cared how I dressed, how I
walked, or what I did at recess.

All of that changed in junior high and high school. Clothing
diverged into two distinct, gendered camps and so did my classmates.
With the exception of the basketball court, I was wrong in every
kind of crowd, wrong in my own body. My teammates rumored that I was
a lesbian. Five years later, halfway through college, exhausted by
so many attempts to erect a "normal" life around my unmistakable
instincts, I was ready to admit it.

Of course, not all gay women dress like men. Some, like my date that
night at the fights, are incredibly - deliciously - feminine: they
wear their hair long, they wear makeup, they wear skirts. Other
lesbians look neither particularly male nor particularly female,
though usually they use a few minute articles to cue those who might
be confused. Earrings, bracelets, and women's shoes all work well
for this. But that has never been my way. If I had any choice as to
whether I was gay or straight, I had as much choice in this, and I
could as well feminize my appearance now as I could change the color
of my eyes.

Last summer I visited my parents in central Wisconsin. One night we
attended an open-air theater outside of Madison. The performance,
fortuitously, was of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in which
shipwrecked Viola, masquerading as page Cesario, enters the service
of Duke Orsino. The Duke sends Viola-as-Cesario to woo, for him,
Lady Olivia. Never mind the play's conveniently heterosexual
conclusion: Olivia falls in love with Viola. At 16, on a school
visit to this same theater, I'd shamefully thrilled to this subplot
Shakespeare must have meant to elicit. Ten years later, I sat in the
audience, Viola incarnate, only not in love with the duke, and
madly, mutually in love with Olivia. Should we break the script and
tell our secrets, should she take me as I was, we could step
together straight out of Shakespeare into the woods behind the set,
into bramble and oak and the racket of frogs from the river.

At the intermission I walked to the restroom. There were easily 50
women moving through the large facility and 20 of us in line. I
steeled myself, jutted my chin, and cast my challenging glare across
the standing queue and the rotating set of women at the sinks, but
received not a glance. The women in the line, some gay, most
straight, simply did not care about me. Each had quickly and easily
identified me as gay, as an androgynous woman, if they bothered to
note me at all.

I saw how embittered, how defensive, I'd become. I remembered
leaving the restroom at the intermission of an Anchorage Opera
performance, walking past a long file of well-coifed women. Three of
them had glared and gasped. One had pulled her child towards her as
if to protect him.

What I chose, in college, was to be a visible, "out" homosexual.
Neither my friends nor my employers have ever given me trouble for
that choice. But what I gained in peace of mind, in not living a
double life, I pay back in this social estrangement and occasional

Alaska is a strange political amalgam. Last fall the Alaska Supreme
Court decided that employment benefits must be extended to same-sex
domestic partners (as well as plain old heterosexual domestic
partners). Given the bans on same-sex marriage voted into effect in
other red states in 2004, the ruling was not only surprising but
also uplifting for Alaska gays.

This year, a constitutional amendment designed to overturn the
Alaska Supreme Court's ruling made its way through the state
legislature. Due to the efforts of the Alaska ACLU, numerous Alaska
gays who came forth to testify, and a handful of stalwart
legislators, the amendment did not make it to a vote before the
legislative session ended. But religious groups from across the
state testified against same-sex partner benefits. And I couldn't
help but pay attention.

For better or worse, that night at the Egan Center changed my life.
That night is part of the reason I've decided to leave Alaska, and
it will play a large part in where I choose to live next. I scan
maps of the Midwest these days and ask myself not where I'd be
happiest or where I could live most cheaply in order to find more
time to write, but where I am least likely to be raped or beaten or
escorted from a public restroom.

What I find is that I'm limited to the purview of Craigslist, to
larger college towns and hipster urban centers. I can live where
I'll be safe, or on a country road with birdsong and little traffic,
but never both. I can have wild places or my own heart. Even the
muddy-heeled farmer's daughter in me, faced with such a choice,
looks to safety.

A month ago, when I began talking about the move, a queer friend of
mine gently suggested Thomas Wolfe's novel You Can't Go Home Again.

This winter, I read every review of Brokeback Mountain I could find.
I watched the movie in the theater twice, savoring its grand scenery
and pressurized dialogue. But I cared far more what the public
thought about the film. I wanted to use Brokeback Mountain as a
litmus test from which to project my own future happiness. But the
conflict of Jack and Ennis is not my conflict. It's Felicity
Huffman's Bree in the movie TransAmerica whose life resembles mine.

Like Bree, I've chosen to live with my truest self on the outside.
Like Bree, what I want is a life with the unselfconscious ease of
those who fit within the gender norms. Bree, in fact, passes where I
never could safely, because she aspires to a normal gender role.

As I age, my hair will gray, and my shoulders will round, but I will
always embody the undefined. I do not ask for society's validation
as either a male or a female. I make a far more difficult request. I
ask - in my appearance, in my mannerisms, in the way I live my life
- whether gender is the best criteria by which to evaluate a human.

There's a scene in TransAmerica in which Bree sits in a restaurant.
The child at the next table, maybe 10 years old, turns in her chair
to face Bree, to ask her, as children often ask me, "Are you a boy
or a girl?"

Put me, then, in Bree's chair. Not a slender, well-mannered
male-to-female transsexual, but a soft-faced, bookish butch in black
Danners and jeans. I sit with my arms folded, slouched into the
chair, legs apart. I'm distracted. I've been eyeing the waitress, a
worn but dignified small-town beauty who's refrained from "sir" or
"ma'am" by calling me "hon."

I turn to this child who evidences, in her innocence, all the
difficulties my mother foresaw when, just months after Matthew
Sheppard's death, I came out to her. "Amy," my mother said, "they
kill people for that!"

She has come to regret what she said - and I have come to see how
right she was. I can't go home, ever. But I can find love in the
safe places, and I can live with some dignity. I can turn to this
child who will not remember what I say, though she will remember for
years how I look, and ask her, because it is the question she should
ask, "Are you kind?"

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