26 August 2013

Boy or Lady?

I am a tall, (relatively) slender, dark-skinned woman. I wear my graying hair in a close-cropped natural. I rarely wear makeup. I wear earrings when I remember to put them in.

For my entire adult life I have regularly been mistaken for a man. Usually by white men. Never, until this week, by a "person of color." I was in the checkout line at the grocery store when an older black woman, leaning on her cart in a manner that suggested she uses a walker most of the time, peered quizzically at me and asked "So, are you a boy or a lady?"

Surprised to hear the question from a black woman, I replied, "Take a guess. Which do you think?" She looked at me with a hard but not angry gaze for a few seconds before walking away without comment. After a lifetime of such queries, I now greet them with a playful attitude, treating the encounter as I would an exercise in an improv workshop.So far, none of my inquisitors has joined me in the "play".

As a young woman, like a lot of people, instances of mistaken identity offended and embarrassed me. It indicated insensitivity on the part of the questioner and confirmed deep-seated inadequacies I felt about my physical appearance. It's nearly universal:  boys don't like to be mistaken for girls; "whites" don't like to be mistaken for "black"; and Koreans don't like to be mistaken for Chinese.

It is profoundly unsettling to be mistaken for someone or something other than what we believe ourselves to be. We're outraged. We almost can't wait to tell our best friend or spouse or somebody about what just happened to us.

Since the encounter in the grocery store, I've been thinking about the strenuous efforts and sizable expenditures of time and resources we employ to unequivocally signal gender and other identity markers. It's still fairly common, for example, to choose clothing and toys and other paraphernalia in pink for baby girls and blue for baby boys. Except for rock stars and other eccentrics, make-up is for females. Even designs of eyeglass frames are gender specific (as treated to great comic effect in an episode on the hit TV show Frasier).  

In a junior high school I was once chastised by the gym teacher for "running like a girl." Years later, a boyfriend criticized me for holding my cigarette like a man. Certain hand gestures are OK for women but "sissified" and taboo for "real men." Sitting, standing and walking are also delimited along gender lines and, in some cases, racial- or ethnic-based criteria as well. (I encourage you to search for "how black guys walk" --or some variation of that phrase -- on YouTube. I'm not the only one noticing and commenting on this topic.)

And it's not just gender identity we're worried about. There's sexual preference (remember the controversy years ago when men (besides pirates...trendsetters those pirates) first started wearing earrings? One earring for a straight guy was acceptable but two sent a completely different and mostly undesirable message) and marital status (gold band on the third finger of left hand is so universally understood -- at least in the U.S -- that for a time in my 30s my friends and I regularly used the convention to dispel unwanted attention from males on "girls' night out".) and maturity (oh the mortification to be the only girl at a slumber party who didn't yet wear a bra!) and...

"All the world's a stage..."  We don our costumes -- or disguises -- and step into the spotlight of the world's gaze. Every performance is vitally important to our sense of well-being. We have failed somehow if we mean to look like a Southern Belle but the audience mistakes us for a Clown.  We mean to be seen, we need to be seen as we imagine ourselves to be.

A complication arises at the place where what I want you to see meets what you need to see, where my need for you to see me as an intelligent, independent woman bumps into your need to see, for example, an underprivileged member of an oppressed group who needs to be rescued. How do we proceed if I really need you to see me as intelligent and independent and you really need to see me as in need of rescue? Our wires are crossed. It's a complicated case of mistaken identity. Now what?

Over the years, more than one well-meaning friend or relative has suggested that I might "do better in life" if I took fashion and cosmetic precautions to make sure people know I'm female. "It makes people nervous when they don't know what you are," I was told. While it may be true that some people are uncomfortable around people who don't wear the agreed upon gender signals, I believe there are far more interesting and socially generative features of identity to explore than gender. Compare the fields of possibility that open when you find out I'm a woman to the fields that open when you find out I'm a musician or a baker or a Holocaust survivor or a flight instructor.

Costumes are fun. Jewelry and make-up are fun. I dress like a girl sometimes. I especially enjoy dressing like a specific kind of girl:  a schoolmarm, for example, or a dancer or a fortune teller.

And I have dreamed all my life of  owning a custom-made, man-tailored, 3-piece suit -- coat, vest and pants -- midnight blue with fine pinstripes, and a silver-tipped walking stick.

But I wear costumes mostly for my own enjoyment. Secondarily for your enjoyment. Theater!

Costumes and make-up aren't meant to provide you any definitive information about who I am. To get the important identity information, you'll have to spend some time with me. Take a walk. Share a meal. Ask me questions. And I don't mean "Are you a boy or a lady?" because that's more a question about you and what you need to know to calm your nerves. I care about your nerves:  let's sit still and breathe together for an hour. That might calm you down.

Then we can really start getting acquainted.