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Boy, Interrupted

Boy, Interrupted


It can happen wordlessly, as in a women's restroom, where I sometimes catch a fellow patron's gaze tracking from my face to my breasts and back again, her attitude one of idle curiosity or confusion, occasionally disgust or hostility.

For days, sometimes weeks at a time, I bask in a cozy headspace where I don't think about my gender and, more important, no one points it out to me. When the reverie is broken, it is almost invariably by a stranger. It can happen wordlessly, as in a women's restroom, where I sometimes catch a fellow patron's gaze tracking from my face to my breasts and back again, her attitude one of idle curiosity or confusion, occasionally disgust or hostility.

It can happen indirectly, as when I was once within earshot of a (gay) man who, indicating me, hissed, "What is that supposed to be?" He happened to be speaking to a friend of mine, who heroically replied, "She's whatever you need her to be."

It can happen more directly, as when a clerk quite innocently calls me sir, then, noting his gaffe, showers me in pardons and sorrys, not realizing that his apologies make me far more uncomfortable than any mistaken appellation. Confusion I can take, even hostility, but I resent this notion that how others perceive my gender should -- or does -- matter to me.

Why are we so hysterical about this social construct called gender anyway?

Merriam-Webster defines the concept as "the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex." Which is a little limiting, don't you think, considering that there are just the two sexes to choose from? And considering that those two options are in turn not widely accepted as optional at all -- unless you happen to have been born intersexed.

Actually, scratch that; intersexuals aren't given any more slack than the rest of us. Longstanding protocols call for the immediate disambiguation of gender obscurity from the moment of birth. The September 2006 "Consensus Statement on the Management of Intersex Disorders" asserts, "Initial gender uncertainty is unsettling and stressful for families. Expediting a thorough assessment and decision is required." And so it is that, taking into account a newborn's genes, hormones, genitalia, potential for fertility, and family's wishes, doctors make their best guess as to whether the little XXXY will want to live his or her adult life as a man or a woman.

Given the fail rate of explicitly male or female plumbing in predicting whether a child will want to live his or her adult life as a man or a woman, doesn't it seem a bit reckless to trust the informed guesses of doctors when biology has itself abstained?

The curious human passion for maintaining the great his and hers divide is all too apparent in the professed congressional unpalatability of a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Rep. Barney Frank announced back in September that, while he had the congressional support to pass an ENDA that protects gays and lesbians from being fired on the basis of their sexual orientation -- by a squeaky margin of around 20 votes -- the yeas just aren't there for a bill that also protects gender identity and expression. The implication being that at least a couple dozen of those selfsame legislators who are finally willing to sign on to the idea that it might be unfair to fire me for being a lesbian -- a hearty welcome to the late 20th century, one and all -- still feel that it is perhaps less unfair to fire me for being really dykey.

Does that strike anyone else as kind of junior high? We're not talking about what we do in our bedrooms here; we're not even talking about behavior, strictly speaking. We're talking about how well our personal presentation conforms to public expectations. The message I'm hearing is that gays and lesbians are entitled to employment protections, but only if they're "straight-acting." Which is a little like passing an Americans With Disabilities Act that protects people so long as the larger public doesn't consider their disabilities icky to look at.

I'm not out to vilify the legislators who fought to save ENDA from defeat. I trust that in splitting gender identity and expression protections from the larger bill, Frank was sincerely trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation -- the unfortunate situation being that a disturbing number of his colleagues are wack jobs.

I'm not even out to vilify gays and lesbians who, in the heat of the controversy, not only endorsed splitting gender expression protections from the bill but took the opportunity to lobby for maybe dropping the "T" from the LGBT acronym altogether. Heck, as long as we're all high on the truth serum, I'll admit that I sometimes want to divorce myself from some of them too.

Me? No, I don't identify as transgender, though as a child I rather enjoyed boxing and playing football with my mostly male friends, and assembling model planes in my bedroom until the enamel paint and epoxy fumes made me dizzy, and jumping little dirt hills on the world's silliest-looking bike -- a bright yellow girl's step-through frame whose flowered banana seat and basket had been eighty-sixed in favor of a BMX saddle and handlebars.

Basically, I'll get on board with the idea that overtly "girlish" behaviors are native to the XX chromosomal pair just as soon as scientists identify the Disney princess gene.

My own mutability announced itself sometime around age 5. I was last seen in long-hair-and-dress drag on kindergarten picture day, after which my mother tacitly ceded responsibility for my personal aesthetic. She cut my hair short, in keeping with my refusal to care for it in any way that would make me socially presentable. And I strayed from my own closet to my brother's, snatching any baseball jerseys and Toughskins he had outgrown. Strangers routinely addressed me as "son" -- presaging all those "sirs" to come.

And I would have gotten away with it too if it hadn't been for those meddling breasts.

They ruined everything! As my eventual D-cups -- a.k.a. nature's cruel joke -- took shape, I was forced into girls' clothing. No longer passable as a boy to anyone who gave me more than a quick glance, I became just...confusing. Which confused me, because I hadn't really given gender much thought. I mean, I knew on a certain level that I wasn't a boy, but I knew on a more visceral level that I wasn't much of a girl either --- until my viscera were trumped by physical manifestations of the more delicate sex. That's when my friend's mother marched across the street to tell my mom that it was inappropriate to let me box with her son in the front yard. That's when my brother's hand-me-downs started to fit all weird. That's when my posse of male friends, declining to reconcile the messiness and confusion of being boys who played with girls, went packing.

I wouldn't have a disproportionate number of male friends again until the late 1980s, when I found a posse of gay men who had no qualms with being seen as boys who played with girls. There was no boxing, regretfully, but I had at last found another group of males who didn't treat me differently due to chromosomal irregularities. I was going to gay bars, pride festivals, and LGBT center mixers long before I came out to myself, which made that transition a lot less painful than the one from boy- to womanhood.

I count myself lucky. I live in California, where we have nondiscrimination laws that are among the most comprehensive in the nation, and for the past 15 years I've worked for companies catering to LGBT clientele. In short, I have never had to compromise who I am or how I look just to get or keep a job.

But I'll be damned if the ENDA debate didn't once again break my epicene reverie. Lesbian, gay, and transgender politicos were suddenly choosing up sides in this peripheral battle of the larger culture war that had previously united us. I was alarmed not so much by the various positions taken as by what was said and written in support of those positions, and I was alarmed to find myself taking it all a little more personally than I might have expected. While I had never had much use for gender constructs before, I found the balance of my political identity tipping more toward the "T" than the "L," because I realized that if it weren't for my geographical and occupational fortunes, my gender identity -- or lack thereof -- would leave me exposed to discrimination even where my sexual orientation is protected.

Of course, even if the House passes ENDA, it has little chance of clearing the Senate and President Bush's desk. Yet it's dispiriting to think that, in the revised scheme of things, the very best we can hope for is a federal law under which lesbians and gays can no longer be fired for having same-sex relationships but may instead be shown the back door for looking or acting too butch or too fey. It hardly seems like watershed progress to me -- and I can't imagine that it does even to straight-acting gays -- though I recognize that civil rights gains are incremental, and in the end we take what we can get. Still, I wonder if there hasn't been some small gain in this for transgender folks after all. Maybe they've solidified alliances with a whole lot of people like me who, when push came to shove, felt for the first time the uncompromising weight of their gender assignment. And as it turns out, we don't much agree with the consensus either.

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Teresa Morrison