Thursday, March 22, 2007

On being mistaken for a man

I know of two women who have, well, turned themselves into non-women. One can’t take testosterone but (s)he’s doing his best. The other’s verging on manly. They’ve adopted new names. I try to remember to use “he” when speaking of them. I accept the situation without thinking much about it. They’d likely be pleased to be mistaken for men. Being a make-up wearing, male-gaze-craving female probably doesn’t seem all that swell to them. They haven’t even gazed at me much, that I can tell.

When I was growing up, the fairytale still shimmered. If you were beautiful enough, sweet enough, and lucky enough, you’d meet some man who would “take care of you” for the rest of your life. You’d have children, and devote your loving attentions to them and to him. You’d be honored for this, celebrated. You would work hard, but it would be a different kind of work— for love, not money. Your dependence on your provider husband would be echoed by his and your children’s dependence on you for those magical nurturing qualities. A seductive scenario, but one that seems a bit delusional nowadays.

Never mind that women (and men) have more abilities than are utilized by the above plan. Life takes over. Even if a person does marry early and “well,” suffering and learning inevitably occur. Poverty, boredom, abuse, incompatibility, angst, divorce, child custody battles, the Iraq war, you name it. Some of these I’ve experienced, some I have not. I never did produce offspring, so I often wonder if others consider me a “real” woman. However, I profoundly do not want to be mistaken for a man. But why not?

In the 1953 musical, “Calamity Jane,” Doris Day has an epiphany midway through: Darn-it-all, she looks like a guy! That’s why she can’t get the guy! Changes ensue. She must give up her wild ways, fix her hair, clean up her act. For the love and attentions of men (everyone has desires, right?) she must at least appear to be pedestal-worthy and risk being domesticated. Cultivating a single-gender appearance might skew one’s experience of oneself and others, but it’s worth it, isn’t it?

When I saw the movie I was nine years old. I did not laugh at this boisterous “Western” romp; I cried. I wanted to have it both ways. I understood that I was not beautiful (I wore glasses and had crooked teeth), nor was I sweet. I liked to play boys’ games. But, I now saw, unless I underwent a major overhaul, I’d have to sacrifice love. I couldn’t bear the thought of either. The film induced a three-year depression, or maybe a hiatus. I emerged as more of a girlie-girl, naturally. By 16, I was ready to “give myself to someone forever.” But no one I knew wanted that overwhelming a responsibility. So I tore the gift tag to pieces and went about my business for a few years.

I was tromping one day on Coast Guard-owned land near Plymouth, Mass., happily watching sea birds and feeling the wind. A stern voice called out from the next hill, “Young man! Better clear off! You’re trespassing!” My instinctive fear was not of being arrested or fined; it was of losing my gender identity. “I’m NOT a young man!” I retorted in a panic-stricken tone, strangely ashamed. I had not thought about being pedestal-worthy in a long time, but I apparently still wanted to have the option; I was still half-dreaming the dream.

I furiously strode off the property, not looking back, and the next time I stopped at a drugstore, I considered buying lipstick.But I thought of something else, too, in the wake of that unwanted authoritative attention to the “wrong” part of me. It had never occurred to me that love went both ways. I had to take charge of myself and my persona(s). I needed something solid to give, regardless of what biological sex I was or what gender I appeared to be. I’ll bet that my transgender acquaintances have known that for years.


Anonymous said...

What's worse, being mistaken for a man, or a woman. The latter happened to me a lot, both on the telephone and on the street. Your sisters once dressed me up as a girl and almost every house I went to said "Where's your costume?" Jeez. I was too convincing. That was their fault. I shoulda had my little dick hangin out.


Anonymous said...

They did that for Halloween...did not mean to confuse.

Marylyn said...

Isn't it odd that once you're either male or female and have gotten used to it...or something...that you really don't WANT to be the other? Unless you're like my acquaintances I wrote about. But most people...they kind of prefer the sex they are. Both have their perks.