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what it means to be gendered me

what it means to be gendered me - 5 m an What It Means...

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Unformatted text preview: 5 m an What It Means to ' {understood the concept of “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987) long before I became a sociologist. I have been living with the consequences of inappro- priate “gender display" (Goffman 1976; West and Zimmerman 1987) for as long as 1 can remember. My daily experiences are a testament to the rigidity of gender in our society, to the real implications of “two and only two" when it comes to sex and gender categories (Garfinkel 1967; Kessler and McKenna 1978). Each day, I experience the consequences that our gender system has for my identity and interactions. I am a woman who has been called “Sir” so many times that I no longer even hesitate to assume that it is being directed at me. I am a woman whose use of pub- lic rest rooms regularly causes reactions ranging from confused stares to confrontations over what a man is doing in the women’s room. Iregularly enact a variety of practices either to minimize the need for others to know my gender or to deal with their misattributions. I am the embodiment of Lorber’s (1994) ostensibly paradoxical assertion that the “gender bending“ I engage in actually might serve to preserve and per- am..i,. ‘ (a Or P .1 a ,7 \ "a I WW la Cine harem, 12 Be Gendered Me Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System BETSY LUCAL petuate gender categories. As a feminist who sees gender rebellion as a significant part of her contribu- tion to the dismantling of sexism, I find this possibility disheartening. In this article, I examine how my experiences both support and contradict Lorber’s (1994) argument using my own experiences to illustrate and reflect on the so- cial construction of gender. My analysis offers a dis- cussion of the consequences of gender for people who do not follow the rules as well as an examination of the possible implications of the existence of people like me for the gender system itself. Ultimately, I show how life on the boundaries of gender affects me and how my life, and the lives of others who make similar decisions about their participation in the gender sys- tem, has the potential to subvert gender. Because this article analyzes my experiences as a woman who often is mistaken for a man, my focus is on the social construction of gender for women. My assumption is that, given the gendered nature of the gendering process itself, men’s experiences of this phenomenon might well be different from women's. ____r_____r___#_______c___—————— Betsy Lucal, “What It Means to Be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System," from Gender dc Society, Volume 13/1999, p. 781-797. Copyright © 1999 Sage Publications, Inc. Reprinted by permission. 113 Witt/m cob ‘- r? ‘ ' .4 dub.— oattée, flaw/nee 114 THE S OCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF GENDER ' em . gender dISPlayz = 3:39" We apply gender labels for a vaner of reasons (Goffman 1976). From this perspective, gender is I P20 or example, an indivrdual’s gender cues our rnterac- performance, “a stylized repetition of acts“ (Bun; me.” E trons With her or hrm Successful social relations re- 1990, 140, emphasis removed). Gender displa refers med” qurre all participants to present monitor, and rnterpret to conventronalized portrayals" Of SOCial cor-1- 13mm, Sande] gender displays (Martin 1998' West and Zimmerman gender (Goffman 1976). These displays are culturally 316),. b 1987). We have, according to Lorber, no socral place established sets of behavrors appearances manner‘ 06nd,; for a person who is neither woman nor man” (1994 isms, and other cues that we have learned 0 assmiate (1973 96), that is, we do not know how to interact with such with members of a particular gender. . “per a person. There rs for example no way of addressing A person who fails to establish a gendered app ar (1989 such a person that does not rely on making an assump- ance that corresponds to the person ’8 gender faces her (I tion about the person’s gender (“Sir” or “Ma’am”) In challenges to her or hrs Identity and status, First, the Zimn this context, gender is “omnirelevant’ (West and Zim- gender nonconformrst must find a Way in which [0 Count merman 1987) Also, given the sometimes fractious construct an identity in a socrety that denies her or him our g 5' nature of interactions between men and women, It any legitimacy (Bem 1993) Aperson is likely to wam Pr ,7 mrght be particularly important for women to know to define herself or himself as “normal” In the face of , the r {9'1 the gender of the strangers they encounter do the cultural evrdence to the contrary Second, the indmd l Lion: {l women need to be wary, or can they relax (Devor ual also must deal With other people 8 challenges [0 misi 1989)? identity and status‘deciding how to respond, what [ribr ‘3 According to Kessler and McKenna (1978), each such reactions to their appeara ,‘ time we encounter a new person, We make a gender at— : tributi que end to or not For exam 1 gender and by learning rules ple, a woman athlete particularly one particrpatrng [I] def , that enable us to classify individuals With a wrde range a nonfeminrne sport such as basketball, might deliber- pea ‘ of gender presentations into two and only two gender ater keep her hair long to show that, despite actions COI categories. As Weston observed, “Gendered traits are that suggest otherwrse she rs a “real” (i.e. feminine) m8 called attributes for a reason' People attnbute traits to woman But we also do gender in less conscious ways wi others No one possesses them Traits are the product such as when a man takes up more space when srttmg m2 of evaluation” (1996 21) The fact that most people than a woman does. In fact 111 a socrety so clearly or 136 use the same traits and rules 1n presenting genders ganized around gender, as o ' makes rt easrer for us to attribute genders to them ay in ne . which to not do gender (Lorber 1994). place each individual ' EANS TO BE GENDERED ME A jfically, doing one of two genders. (There :15 in limited contexts such as people doing er 1990; Lorber 1994].) he follow the norms of gender can take i gzgdgfd Is for granted. Kessler and McKenna as- Of social 13 w people besides transsexuals think of their {SplayS c K anything other than ‘naturally’ obvrous’; Ppearanjre , ve that the risks of not being taken for the clear—fled es nded “are minimal for nontranssexuals” der. t _ 25), However, such an assertion overlooks the 5 of people such as those women Devor ls “gender blenders“ and those peOple Lor— ) refers to as “gender benders." As West and an (1987) pointed out, we all are held ac- ‘e for, and might be called on to account for, ' rs. 13 who, for whatever reasons, do not adhere to gilidfihrge risk gender rnisattribut'ion and any interac- p e 5 Ghana I onsequences that might result from this to respm cation. What are the consequences of nil-sat- Titian, and so k l for social interaction? When must misattnbu- I’lsms, and so Imjnirnized?Whatw1110ne do to minimize such )ur gender 3? In this article, I explore these and related or not. Fm e 7 s using my biography. tie pal-[imp me, the soc1al processes and structures of gen- all, might dc u that, in the context of our culture, my tip 3 ewill be read as masculine. Given the conunon 1L des 1‘ I . 1i, (1. ep E: 'on of sex and gender, I Will be assumed to be a S COHSCl-OUS , ecause of the two-and-only-two genders rule, I classified, perhaps more often than not, as a :uot as an atypical woman, not as a genderless Imust be one gender or the other; I cannot be , nor can I be both. This norm has a variety of e and serious consequences for my everyday ce. Like Myhre (1995), I have found that the not to participate in femininity is not one made Y is placed yr . . ex eriences a w o f - one With w % p s a woman ho does not d em illustrate a paradox of our two-and-only-two system. Lorber argued that “bending gender and passing between genders does not erode but preserves gender boundaries” (1994, 21). Al- ‘ people who engage in these behaviors and ap- ces do “demonstrate the social constructedness _x, sexuality, and gender” (Lorber 1994, 96), they actually disrupt gender. Devor made a similar I? “When gender blending females refused to mark 'ould like to by Our socie‘ 115 themselves by publicly displaying sufficient feminin- ity to be recognized as women, they were in no way challenging patriarchal gender assumptions” (1989, 142). As the following discussion shows, Ihave found that my own experiences both support and challenge this argument. . . . GENDERED ME Each day, I negotiate the boundaries of gender. Each day, I face the possibility that someone will attribute the “wrong” gender to me based on my physical appearance. I am six feet tall and large-boned. I have had short . hair for most of my life. For the past several years, I have worn a crew cut or flat top. I do not shave or oth- erwise remove hair from my body (e.g., no eyebrow plucking). I do not wear dresses, skirts, high heels, or makeup. My only jewelry is a class ring, a “men’s” watch (my wrists are too large for a “women’s” watch), two small earrings (gold hoops, both in my left ear), and (occasionally) a necklace. I wear jeans or shorts, T-shirts, sweaters, polo/golf shirts, button- down collar shirts, and tennis shoes or boots. The jeans are “women’s” (1 do have hips) but do not look partic- ularly “feminine.” The rest of the outer garments are from men’s departments. I prefer baggy clothes, so the fact thatI have “womanly” breasts often is not obvious (I do not wear a bra). Sometimes, I wear a baseball cap or some other type of hat. I also am white and rela- tively young (30 years old).I My gender display—what others interpret as my presented identity—regularly leads to the misattribu- tion of my gender. An incongruity exists between my gender self-identity and the gender that others per- ceive. In my encounters with people I do not know, I sometimes conclude, based on our interactions, that they think I am a man. This does not mean that other people do not think I am a man, just that I have no way of knowing what they think without interacting with them. Living with It I have no illusions or delusions about my appearance. I know that my appearance is likely to be read as “mas— 1. 1 gr irrelevant. Given our two-and—only-two gender struc- ture, I must live with the consequences of my appear- ance. These consequences fall into two categories: is- sues of identity and issues of interaction. My most common experience is being called “Sir” or being referred to by some other masculine linguis- tic marker (e.g., “he,” “‘man”). This has happened for years for as long as I can remember, when having en- counters with people I do not know.2 Once, in fact, the same worker at a fast~food restaurant called me “Ma‘am” when she took my order and “Sir” when she gave it to me. Using my credit cards sometimes is a challenge. Some clerks subtly indicate their disbelief looking my signature carefully. Others challenge my use of the card, asking whose it is or demanding identification. One cashier asked to see my driver’s license and then asked me whether I was the son of the cardholder. An- other clerk told me that my signature on the receipt “had better match” the one on the card. Presumably, this was her way of letting me know that she was not convinced it was my credit card. My identity as a woman also is called into question when I try to use women-only spaces. Encounters in public rest rooms are an adventure. I have been told countless times that “This is the ladies’ room.” Other women say nothing to me, but their stares and conver- sations with others let me know what they think. I will hear them say, for example, “There was a man in there." I also get stares when I enter a locker room. However, it seems that women are less concerned about my presence there, perhaps because, given that it is a space for changing clothes, showering, and so forth, they will be able to make sure that I am really a woman. Dressing rooms in department stores also are problematic spaces. I remember shopping with my sis- ter once and being offered a chair outside the room when I began to accompany her into the dressing room. Women who believe that I am a man do not want me in women-only spaces. For example, one woman would not enter the rest room until I came out, and oth- ers have told me that I am in the wrong place. They also might not want to encounter me while they are alone. For example, seeing me walkng at night whe they are alone might be scary.3 n I, on the other hand, am not afraid to walk meme day or night. I do not worry that I will be subjected [0‘ the public harassment that many women endure (Gard. ner 1995). I am not a clear target for a potential rapiSL I rely on the fact that a potential attacker would not want to attack a big man by mistake. This is not to Say that men never are attacked, just that they are not viewed, and often do not view themselves, as being example, I found that when I walked down the halls of my brother’s all—male dormitory making eye contact, men nodded their greetings at me. Oddly enough, these same men did not greet my brother; I had to tell him about making eye contact and nodding as a greet— ing ritual. Apparently, in this case I was doing mas— culinity better than he was! I also believe that I am treated differently, for ex- ample, in auto parts stores (staffed almost exclusively by men in most cases) because of the assumption that I am a man. Workers there assume that I know what] need and that my questions are legitimate requests for information. I suspect that I am treated more fairly than a feminine—appearing woman would be. I have not been able to test this proposition. However, Devor’s participants did report “being treated more re— spectfully” ( 1989, 132) in such situations. There is, however, a negative side to being assumed to be a man by other men. Once, a friend and I were driving in her car when a man failed to stop at an in- tersection and nearly crashed into us. As we drove away, I mouthed “stop sign” to him. When we both stopped our cars at the next intersection, he got out of his car and came up to the passenger side of the car, where I was sitting. He yelled obscenities at us and pounded and spit on the car window. Luckily, the win— dows were closed. I do not think he would have done that if he thought I was a woman. This was the first time I realized that one of the implications of being seen as a man was that I might be called on to defend Self frort gt Challenf What frighl‘ Recenu: who 1" walked dc Shotfld Pm nearby I I 1 could Pf the only said: “Y0 pearance ing a bat have be than a f‘ yelled 3 haPS ‘35 i GIVl i part Cl womei l viewe' brothfi 5 two Y‘ ized \ aW’d3I had I perie one i hete thro mit of str m: ot? th is 161’; I had to ten, ding as a greet- ms dc)ng mas- Brentlx f0!~ ex- ost exclusively ssumption that IkHOW whatl ‘6 requests for d more fairly lid be. I haw: 31']. HoWevBr’ iated more re- s. eing assumed 'd and I Were hen We both he got out of '6 0f the Car, 63 at US and the Win- d have done Was [he first ’“5 of being In to defend AT IT MEANS TO BE GENDERED ME self from physical aggression from other men who 1t challenged by me. This was a sobering and some- " ha, frightening thought. Recently, I was verbally accosted by an older man he did not like where I had parked my car. As I walked down the street to work, he shouted that I should park at the university rather than on a side street ,nwby. I responded that it was a public street and that [could park there if I chose. He continued to yell, but me only thing I caught was the last part of what he said; “Your tires are going to get out!” Based on my ap- pearance that daye—I was dressed casually and carry- mg a backpack, and I had my hat on backward—I be- lieve he thought that I was a young male student rather than a female professor. I do not think he would have yelled at a person he thought to be a woman;and per- haps especially not a woman professor. Given the presumption of heterosexuality that is Part of our system of gender, my interactions with women who assume that I am a man also can be viewed from that perspective. For example, once my brother and I were shopping when we were “hit on” by two young women. The encounter ended before I real- ized what had happened. It was only when we walked away thatI told him that] was pretty certain that they had thought both of us were men. A more common ex- perience is realizing that when I am seen in public with one of my women friends, we are likely to be read as a heterosexual dyad. It is likely that if I were to walk through a shopping mall holding hands with a woman, no one would look twice, not because of their open- mindedness toward lesbian couples but rather because of their assumption that I was the male half of a straight couple. Recently, when walking through a mall with a friend and her infant, my observations of others’ responses to us led me to believe that many of them assumed that we were a family on an outing, that is, that I was her partner and the father of the child. Dealing with 1! Although I now accept that being mistaken for a man will be a part of my life so long as I choose not to par— ticipate in femininity, there have been times when I consciously have tried to appear more feminine. I did this for a while when I was an undergraduate and again 117 recently when I was on the academic job market. The first time, I let my hair grow nearly down to my shoul- ders and had it permed. I also grew long fingernails and wore nail polish. Much to my chagrin, even then one of my professors, who did not know my name, in- sistently referred to me in his kinship examples as “the son.” Perhaps my first act on the way to my current stance was to point out to this man, politely and after class, that I was a woman. More recently, I again let my hair grow out for sev- eral months, although I did not alter other aspects of my appearance. Once my hair was about two and a half inches long (from its original quarter inch), I realized, based on my encounters with strangers, that I had more or less passed back into the category of “woman.” Then, when I returned to wearing a flat top, people again responded to me as if I were a man. Because of my appearance, much of my negotiation of interactions with strangers involves attempts to an- ticipate their reactions to me. I need to assess whether they will be likely to assume that I am a man and whether that actually matters in the context of our en- counters. Many times, my gender really is irrelevant, and it is just annoying to be misidentified. Other times, particularly when my appearance is coupled with something that identifies me by name (e.g., a check or credit card) without a photo, I might need to do some- thing to ensure that my identity is not questioned. As a result of my experiences, I have developed some tech- niques to deal with gender misattribution. In general, in unfamiliar public places, I avoid using the rest room because I know that it is a place where there is a high likelihood of misattribution and where misattribution is socially important. If I must use a public rest room, I try to make myself look as nondlreatening as possible. I do not wear a hat, and I try to rearrange my clothing to make my breasts more obvious. Here, I am trying to use my secondary sex characteristics to make my gender more obvious rather than the usual use of gender to make sex obvious. While in the rest room, I never make eye contact, and I get in and out as quickly as possible. Going in with a woman friend also is helpful; her presence legitimizes my own. People are less likely to think I am entering a space where I do not belong when I am with someone who looks like she does belong.‘ 118 To those women who verball ence in the rest room, I reply, y challenge my pres- they will provide a clue th “I know,” usually in an at I am indeed in the right People will t pl...
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