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Boy, Interrupted

Boy, Interrupted

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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