Sunday, March 13, 2011


As a rather masculine woman, I'm used to being sometimes addressed as "sir" by strangers, so I was prepared to have my gender presentation questioned by some impertinent or merely curious child. Aside from the deeply troubling policing of masculinity that's behind the "gay"-as-an-expletive phenomenon, I've found that kids are a lot less offensive when pointing out differences and deviations from the norm than most adults... at least, if they like you.
Adults can be cruel. I've had people say either to my face or within earshot for my benefit that women should wear "pretty, feminine clothes;" women shouldn't wear short hair; that women shouldn't get their hair cut at men's barbershops; that I look like a dyke. When I worked in food service, one bovine, unkempt member of the fairer sex insisted on calling me "sir" even after I and my co-workers had corrected her, since apparently my short hair and lack of face paint was an affront to her sensibilities. (If looking fuckable and arousing the male gaze is the correct performance of femininity, though, she wasn't doing it any better than I was.)
But kids, on the other hand. There's a particular elementary school that I love working at because the atmosphere is really laid-back, the teachers/staff are friendly and helpful, and 80% of the kids are so incredibly, heartbreakingly sweet. The older kids write me notes with little poems and drawings, and the younger kids draw pictures for me and make me paper bracelets. When they see me in the hall, they yell my name and run up to get hugs. They vie for my attention, to sit next to me at lunch or story-time, to be my helper for the day. It's the luck of the draw, but some classes are filled with kids like that, and for those classes, I would gladly teach them without pay because seeing their tiny faces smile up at me is payment enough... Until I see my monthly paycheck. I make $70 a day.
Anyway. As I'm walking the hallway at this school, I sometimes hear one child ask another, "Is that a man or a woman?" And I want to turn to them and say, "Does it matter?" because my two women's studies classes and extensive skimming of Foucault and Butler make me think that it really only matters in 3 situations: sexual intimacy, healthcare, and choosing the appropriate pronouns. So, unless you want to have sexy-time with me, give me a physical, or refer to me in the 3rd person, whatever sex/gender I am is not necessarily your business. But I know that's pure idealism, and even I enjoy playing the male/female/other game when people-watching.
But on the other hand, I don't know what's so confusing about me. I don't wear men's clothes; I'm tall and slim, but I do have breasts and hips and my clothing does not camouflage them. My personal style for this job is like a more colorful version of Rachel Maddow: a boyish haircut, nerdy glasses, and a candy-colored button-down under a pantsuit or slacks and cardigan. Every other female teacher in this city wears dresses, skirts, or skin-tight dress pants along with a face full of make-up. The only teachers who dress like me are the 2 fresh-out-of-college young black men with a serious case of role-model syndrome. Instead of khakis and a sweater or polo shirt, they wear immaculate, dandy-prep ensembles so black students will see options other than thug fashion and the associated lifestyle; I covet their casket-sharp style, pastel palettes, well-tailored suits, and bow-ties.
I guess if everyone has to be thrown into one group or the other, I would probably look more at home on the men's side.
During story-time with a really adorable 2nd-grade class, one child asked me if the kind of ambiguously gendered kid in one of the pictures was a boy or a girl, and they had a little debate about it.
"But his hair is short like a boy!"
I interrupted to remind them that I have short hair, and I'm a girl.
"No, you're a woman," said the class smart-aleck.
"And we knew you were a girl anyway because your name is Miss Blank!" After this incontrovertible proof of my femaleness, they returned to arguing about the picture.
"Um, her hair is short, but she's wearing a girl shirt."
"But it's red. And it's plaid."
"No, it's pink, and look at her sleeves."
"His hair is kinda longer than a boy's..."
I let this go on for a while because it was funny to hear them so emotionally involved in gendering an image of an unnamed, minor character in the story, but finally I said, "Sometimes you can't tell by the hair or the clothes. Girls can have short hair, and boys can have long hair. And boys and girls can wear the same clothes. I don't know, and you don't know, so why don't we finish the story?"
They all shouted, "Yeah, let's finish the story!" and scooted up closer to my rocking chair.

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