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Bathroom Laws and Baby Faces

I started wearing my hair super-short when I was in elementary school. Hard to say exactly when, but certainly by third grade I had tried it out. That combined with the way I preferred to dress and a somewhat-late and sudden puberty meant that I spent years being routinely mistaken for a boy. Every time it happened I was delighted.

A lot of stories start that way, it seems. Stories of exploration and identity-forming and very often alienation or despair. Often, it seems to me, those stories end with a realization and a label mapping back to gender identity or sexuality. That wasn't ever my story, though. Whatever self-knowledge I had at eight was enough to give me certainty that I was (a) a girl who (b) liked boys. I liked boys so much I studied their clothes and hair and copied them for myself because I thought they looked so good. My parents never pressured me one way or another, nor did the peers whose opinions mattered to me. That lack of doubt, maybe, is what made it so delightful to be called "young man" by strangers. That was fun.* But the really fun part was correcting every one of those strangers with a big show of faux offense and the hasty recalculations and backpedaling that always resulted. Fucking with people was the delight, and playing with gender was just a really effective way to do that. And because it was strangers, in casual interactions like paying for a hot dog, and because I was a child, always so small, even the people I upset could just blow right past the moment. I could never let the illusion hold for very long because I was so eager to get to the fuck-with-them part. I don't remember anyone ever being angry or worrying that I'd started some real shit. Just fun. Except.

There was this one restaurant bathroom. It was at a neighborhood-y place I went to with my parents for matzoh ball soup and tongue sandwiches and impossibly-tall slices of cake from a case that rotated near the front door. The decor was dated, the prices modest and the clientele skewed very strongly Jewish and Elderly. And my childish genderbending made them angry. Women who could've been my grandmother would cross paths with me entering or leaving the bathroom at this restaurant and get seriously confrontational. What they said was generally something like "You don't belong in here" or "This is the ladies room" and they seemed offended. Like always, I'd inform them at top volume that "Actually, I'm a girl" and they mostly backed off like everybody. But I remember my parents having to weigh in on one occasion, with someone who wouldn't actually take me at my word. Old ladies at a matzoh ball soup restaurant are not especially intimidating, but I've never really forgotten their anger. Why did I make them mad? Did I scare them? What could they have been afraid of, exactly?

I've been thinking a lot about those encounters lately, as public bathrooms have become so...public and fraught, and wondering what sort of treatment I'd get if I were that same little kid today. I think it would not be as fun in 2016 as it was in 1986. I might also have not been so sure of myself about the Being A Girl and Liking Boys thing, though I'm pretty sure I would have ended up coming to the same conclusions eventually anyway. I think in some ways right now it is easier to be a little girl who looks like a little boy whose looking-like-a-little-boy means something more than fucking around. But it is maybe not as easy to be a little girl who looks like a little boy for relatively inconsequential reasons? That's a good tradeoff, I think, but I think there should be room for inconsequential fucking around with gender too, and it seems like there's less room for that.

Down with binaries is what I suppose I'm saying, down with consequences for fuckery, and why the hell do poeple care so much about who's in the the next stall?

* I'm not trying to get into it here, but I don't want to skip saying that for a very long time I was the sort of girl who was pretty disdainful towards a lot of other girls, and the things girls are commonly interested in, and thought I was somehow better than them because I had so many friends who were boys. I was such a little shit about this that I carefully noticed whether my dude friends habitually hung out with women in general, or whether I was unusual among their friends for being female, taking extra pride in friendships with the latter type. And of course I always considered myself the most righteous of feminists. I am somewhat less of a shit on this matter now. I do still have a harder time forming friendships with women than men, but rather than pride myself on it, I try to push back against it. Anyway, part of the fun of getting taken for a boy may have been some of this shittiness, and I want to acknowledge that.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 5th, 2016 12:04 pm (UTC)
So you've always fucked with people. Color me shocked! Shocked!

I'm a big fan of trying to understand projection - or how we'll often, subconsciously, project our own feelings and thoughts onto others without realizing it. If you're feeling trapped or afraid of something, it's very easy to see that something everywhere. Perhaps then it's logical that in a more gender-tracked establishment, you felt more pushback from the population at large which, like 1986, really couldn't care less about who's in the stall next to them. (and here my assumptions are showing...oh well)

I think with some people, bathrooms have a certain gender privacy element to them. I hear A complain constantly about how disgusting women's bathrooms are as they hover over the toilet and spray everywhere and then don't clean it up. In the men's bathroom, the worst you have is the occasional miss or the asshole, or toddler, who seems sprays on everything either on purpose or because they can't control it. That's the reality. But the fiction is that women are prim and proper and men are beasts, or so we like to stereotype our genders. And the reality is that there are slobs and generally respectful people everywhere.

O has basically had the same length hair for years but when he was younger, people would say, "What lovely girls you have." and sometimes we'd correct them if it was a longer conversation and others we'd just let it slip and move on. We asked O if he cared or not that he was mistaken for a girl and told him it was alright if he wanted to say, "I'm a boy." and sometimes he did and sometimes he didn't. I don't really have any strong feelings on the matter, but just trying to relay the story. I think in some ways, that gender is becoming such an issue with some people means it's become a general non-issue with everyone else.
May. 5th, 2016 01:21 pm (UTC)
Strangely - for the family he's in, my son is super-concerned with gender and being perceived as a boy. If someone thought he was a little girl, he would be super-indignant about it. He made me cut his hair the other day because someone said he looked like a girl.

I wonder if it has anything to do with having two moms - maybe he feels extra pressure to be manly.
May. 5th, 2016 09:09 pm (UTC)
I think in some ways, that gender is becoming such an issue with some people means it's become a general non-issue with everyone else.

I like the way you put this, and I think I agree. The average level of giving-a-damn is probably lower, but the people who do give a damn care waaaaay too much.
May. 5th, 2016 01:18 pm (UTC)
funny I just got off a heated facebook thread with a college friend, who although otherwise lefty and feminist, was posting that she was uncomfortable with penises in the ladies room or locker room with her, so transpeople shouldn't be in the ladies room. argh.

Anyway, I think it was different when we were kids. We were in the 70s and 80s and girls had shorter hair, and little girls wore pants without ruffles and it was much less girly. I was often mistaken for a little boy but for some reason it bothered the heck out of me (as a child), but when I was a teenager, I liked to screw with people for the same reason. My boyfriend and I would dress up as the opposite sexes (him as a girl, me as a boy) just for fun. But I never thought of myself as a boy. The idea of people actually changing genders had never occurred to me - and when I first encountered it, I remember thinking it was kinda weird (good thing I overcame that provincial attitude).

I was also a girl that only hung out with boys (mostly), but that totally changed - going to a women's college, I realized - without boys around to distract me or them - women/girls are a really interesting bunch. It's just that in my high school, most of them felt constrained to act a certain way, to meet certain gender expectations. Now it's funny - most of my friends are women. I think one thing is that - with everyone partnered off, I worry about the perception of my friendship with a guy, that someone will see it as strange, maybe their girlfriend would be jealous - again that's my history though because in high school, people saw me as a boyfriend stealer. Which I was, regretfully....I guess I really needed a lot of male attention to validate me back then. Which probably goes to why I wanted to have boys as friends even. Argh. Oh well - all teenagers do silly things and make mistakes!

I can't imagine that you were like that - it seems like you have always had a ton of ballsy confidence! I just wanted to share while you were sharing. :-)
May. 6th, 2016 07:13 pm (UTC)
random associations
This post has stuck in my head since I read it a couple of days ago. Although babybat me would have furiously rejected any such theorizing ("how could you possibly understand my suffering and darkness?!?"), I think perhaps my going full-on death rock Batcave goth just as I was really hitting the swing of adolescence at 16 was a way of removing myself from the whole social context of what boys are like and what girls are like, and therefore not having to conform to any of it. Which I would say now is partly a somewhat noble thing but also pretty completely an avoidance thing as well, because eventually you have to deal with it in one way or another. Enough about me signified girl that I wasn't often mistaken for a boy (except when I buzzed all my hair off and kept it that way for a while), but I also got that same horrified "how can/why do you do this to yourself" thing. Sometimes it was even out of a spirit of caring, which was why I was usually polite in my responses. I could never figure out why doing what I wanted with my own appearance seemed to push other people's buttons so badly. My appearance was supposed to put up walls, not encourage people to interact! Perhaps many people, and perhaps particularly older women who were more constrained by social roles through their lives, find any kind of gender subversion too threatening to *not* respond to.

In turn I also developed a lot of attitude about "normal people" that I've had to learn to un-do over the years. Nobody, as it turns out, is all that normal once you look a bit past the surface.
May. 6th, 2016 09:51 pm (UTC)
the last part, totally. obviously throughout our lives we all have stages or beliefs that make us cringe in retrospect, but the whole thinking i was some special snowflake for not getting along with/being super comfortable with other women, and assuming that that was on them as opposed to on me, is in the top 3 for sure.
May. 11th, 2016 02:53 pm (UTC)
Last night a mixed band I was in (accordion, melodica, mandolin, electric bass, trombone, me on tuba - getting ready for Porch-aoke in Somerville) was practicing outside, and a family came over, 2 parents and a kid, maybe around 3? The kid had long black hair, and everyone assumed was a girl but later someone mentioned was a boy. Looking back I think everyone talked more "sweetly" to the child than they would have otherwise... I remember being impressed by the kid's boldness (playing a maraca and tambourine etc) but maybe I would have felt that less sharply had I known it was a boy, which is kind of sad.


My parents were Salvation Army ministers, an organization that's behind the curve on many identity issues but has has a history of men and women leadership, and if a couple is married they both have to be ministers, no "preacher's wife" because running a church is considered a two person job. I'm sure many such couples follow traditional gender role-ing, but with my parents it was a pretty symmetrical split; one week she would preach and he would do the dishes, and the next week vice-versa. Between that and my mom's short hair, I think I got statistically less common messages on gender.

So I think historically I've been drawn to women who are less "femme", because I read classical femininity as something a bit weaker - and if it's something that can't "take care of itself", it means I might have to take responsibility for it (lest bad things happen, and I be punished in the future for insufficient martyrdom by a judgmental God, or something). Girls who read more like boys are attractive to me, maybe because it's easier for me to read them as peers, and they read as more likely to be able to take care of their own stuff. But the biological appeals are almost entirely hetero.

I know some parts of this aren't unproblematic, but it's been useful to figure out where some of it came from, and how it might influence my gut reactions now.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )