When I was growing up, I often fantasized about having a gender-invisibility cloak. It would be this magical object that would make all my girl-parts invisible, and people would have to deal with me without knowing whether I was a girl or a boy (or neither/both/something else). I didn’t want to be invisible as a person, I didn’t want to present myself as androgynous (I don’t think my body lends itself easily to androgyny anyways), I didn’t want to HAVE a different body (or face, or hair, or whatever), and I didn’t want to present myself as a boy (in order to pass as one). In my mind, this magical cloak thing was more of a Schroedinger’s box type of contraption, or maybe a Rawles-ish veil of ignorance where people would have to interact with me without being able to know what sex (biological) or gender (expressed) lay behind the curtain. Or maybe a big ol’ Care Bear plushy suit that would modify my voice so it didn’t read as distinctly male or female. You get the idea, I hope. A totally impossible object, to be sure. But yet… I just wanted to be seen for my accomplishments, for my ideas, for my point of view, for my quirks, basically everything that makes me ME. Except my gender.
Partially it was because I didn’t really feel that I fit into the version of femininity commonly presented in the mainstream media. Didn’t fantasize about my future wedding dress. Didn’t want to have children (now it’s conditional on finding a suitable partner). Didn’t like wearing dresses or skirts (I do now). Didn’t really care about fashion. I think I wore jeans, plaid shirts and a Cowichan jacket for about 5 straight years. (And no, I was not a proto-hipster. My outfits were comfy and kept me warm in freezing lecture halls in uni.) Partially it was because I was very aware of (and uncomfortable with) all of the gendered things that people would say to me. Comments on my looks or clothing. Comments on being a woman in a “man’s” discipline (I studied math and stats in undergrad). Assumptions that someday I would be a wife/mother. And on and on.
As I got to my early 20s, I slowly started to embrace public acknowledgement of my woman-ness. I started wearing skirts more often. I started wearing a bit of makeup. I was really proud to be a woman in mathematics, proud to be a woman teaching high school math, proud to be a woman in grad school studying statistics. And as I moved into a more and more professional setting (and into a rather progressive neighbourhood), I felt more and more that I could just be myself (in whatever way I chose to express that), and not be terribly bothered by anybody. OK, except maybe the marriage/babies thing. I never totally escaped that. Although now that I’ve been married and separated, it’s really just the babies thing that attracts unsolicited advice, if anything.
Just recently, I spent a week in New Orleans. I was there for a stats conference, and, since I’d never been before, decided to take a few extra days of vacation to go check out the city. There was nobody that I knew that was going to be at the conference, I didn’t know anybody in the city, and nobody else came with me, so it was going to be a solo adventure (which is a big deal for a risk-adverse, shy person like me.) For the most part, it was a fantastic trip… I ate a lot of delicious food, heard some great music, and made a few new friends who took me to places and parties that I would have never found on my own.
It was also a very challenging trip in one specific way: whenever I was out by myself, I kept getting talked at by men in a way that made me wish desperately for that gender-invisibility cloak of my teenage daydreams. Pretty much every conversation included one of the following: a.) a comment about my attractiveness or my body, b.) a statement about how I was a woman travelling alone (“your boyfriend lets you go off and fly places by yourself?”), c.) a straight-up pickup line or inquiry as to my phone number, or d.) an exhortation for me to smile.
None of those comments would have been made had I been a man. Nor were any of those comments made when I was in the company of a man (I spent the better part of three days hanging out with new friends of mine*). When I was with my buddies, other guys would just talk to me like a person, and make the same kind of conversation that I imagine they might have made with a man. “What brings you to New Orleans?” “What do you think about the city?” “What kind of work do you do?” These are non-gendered questions.
The last day was particularly hard, as I was wandering by myself. Stopped in at a nice restaurant for lunch, and my server SAT DOWN AT MY TABLE and started trying to pick me up. And then got annoyed when I mentioned that I had a boyfriend (who I’d just been texting). Doorman at the hotel: “With a face like that, you BET I’m going to remember you.” Got to the airport and two TSA agents said some version of “you’re such a pretty girl, you should be smiling”. Walking through the food court in the Houston airport trying to figure out what I wanted to eat: “Hey baby girl, I got some pizza over here for you.” (Yelled at me from ACROSS the food court, no less). Plus the usual stuff on the street where men follow you intently with their eyes and either a.) grunt, b.) say “damn” or something like that, or c.) (AND THIS I HATE THE MOST) “hey pretty girl, won’t you stop and talk to me for a second”? As if. One guy even tried to grab my arm, I dodged, and then got a “why you gotta be like that” as I was walking away.
Arm-grabber aside, I never felt threatened or unsafe, but it was emotionally exhausting to constantly have to deflect questions about my relationship status, or respond to the various comments in a reasonably polite way (maybe polite isn’t the way to go, but I’m generally a conflict-avoider, and I didn’t feel like people were actively trying to make my day miserable, plus I figured it’s best not to piss off TSA agents). I ended up pretty much hiding in a quiet corner in the Houston airport during my layover because I really didn’t feel like I could handle being talked at* by another man that day. And I was wishing desperately that the magical gender-invisibility cloak of my teenage imagination was a real thing.
I don’t WANT to hide away in a corner. I’m just starting to become a bit more outgoing and adventurous; I want to go out and meet new people and travel and have adventures, and be able to do those things alone if I want. But I’m realizing more and more the ways in which being a woman makes that so much more complicated. And the ways I live in a bit of a bubble, working in an upper middle-class professional environment and living in a social circle that highly values equality and social justice. Even in the local Cuban salsa scene (in which I work and socialize), I rarely feel threatened or sexualized***.
The fallout of my trip has been that I came back with a more complicated and troubled set of feelings towards masculinity. I feel more self-conscious than before when men I don’t know are looking at me, and I’ve found myself feeling completely non-sexual towards men, which is a.) highly unusual for me, and b.) obviously affects at least one person besides me. Add to this the fact that my apartment got broken into last week, and the thief rifled through all my drawers and my closet (in addition to stealing my laptop and camera), which leaves me feeling violated, especially since I’m extremely protective of my space. It creeps me the fuck out that anybody was in there without my permission, and adds to my feelings of vulnerability.
These feelings of discomfort and vulnerability will pass, and I’m sure I’ll be back to my reasonably confident, trusting, sexual self before too long. But I know I’ll be wishing for my imaginary cloak the next time I decide to venture out of my bubble. And I feel a greater sense of empathy for (and solidarity with) women who have to deal with genuine harassment, overt sexism and concern for their safety every day just by daring to be a woman out in the world.
I realize the irony of wanting to be gender-invisible on International Women’s Day. Even more so because later tonight, I’m going to perform my gender by putting on a pretty dress, cute shoes, and some shimmery makeup and go out dancing at the Vancouver International Salsa Festival with friends from near and far.
It’s complicated. I’ve struggled with gender relations my whole life. I’ll probably continue to do so. But I’m hopeful that we’re moving closer and closer to a world where I won’t even need to think about my imaginary gender-invisibility cloak. Because it just won’t matter. I’m not even sure such a world is possible. But a girl can dream, no?
* Met a guy at a bar in the middle of the day (vacation = scotch at noon on a Tuesday, why not), after an hour and a half of conversation, he invited me to come along on a bike ride with his friend. I am very thankful to both of them that they treated me with respect and took very good care of me. It was the fact that they DIDN’T hit on me or make super gendered comments that led me to feel comfortable enough to go on what turned out to be a super fun adventure, and led to more fun hang-outs.
** As opposed to being talked TO, which is a totally different thing. I have NO problem with people making friendly conversation when it doesn’t immediately start with some comment about my woman-ness.
*** I have been groped on the dance floor, and there are some men who I avoid because they give me the creeps, but they’re not part of the main Cuban salsa community, and I feel like I have an entire room full of friends that I can turn to if something does come up. And it’s been RARE in my experience.