This morning a man about my age put his hand on my shoulder, pulling me back from the door while telling me I should let “ladies go first.” He also called me “young man.” My friend and I continued on our way without much comment, and I got into my office otherwise undisturbed. Upon checking in with my WWAC coworkers, I noticed the Features Editor Claire Napier had encouraged us to read Noelle Stevenson’s short comic about her more masculine presentation. It’s difficult to explain how deeply this affected me.
feelinz bout bodies pic.twitter.com/b5Vl5dDEed
— Noelle Stevenson (@Gingerhazing) August 22, 2016
Before I can describe to you how this handful of panels moved me while I sat alone in my office, I need to explain some things about myself. I am misgendered occasionally, not often, but once in awhile. There are specific places and times this seems more likely to happen. If I’m not wearing makeup, if I’m in my office clothes, if I’m in an airport. Sometimes I feel like it makes sense, like when I was wearing a binder to flatten my chest so that my nice new button-up shirt would sit smoothly instead of gaping between the buttons. Other times I’m left baffled, like when I’m wearing brightly printed yoga pants and a flowy tunic, mascara, and lipstick.
Sometimes being misgendered hurts me, and sometimes I’m simply confused by it. I don’t know how I’m going to feel about it before it happens, and my reaction is always as much a surprise to me as the occurrence itself. In this way I feel very privileged; as a cis butch-ish woman my life is not usually in danger if I am misgendered.
I could tell you that I chose, and continue to choose, to be “masculine-of-center,” and that might ring true for a minute or so. I did choose to start buying “menswear,” and to cut off my long, curly hair, and to usually not wear makeup. However, I chose those things in the same way I used to choose to paint my nails, to buy lacy bras, to wear slips under skirts. It has always been a little bit performance–after all, fashion is a tool of communication. It has also always been “just whatever felt right.”
Now, except in very rare moments of femininity, the idea of wearing a dress causes me to break out in a sweat, my skin suddenly feeling much the wrong size for my body. I still like, and wear, makeup from time to time, but it’s growing increasingly alternative and strange in application.
A male relative of mine asked me if I started dressing this way to feel more powerful, to feel safe. Other people like to talk about my body, about everybody’s bodies, a lot. My friends, mostly straight, like to tell me that I’m not really butch, I’m still very femme. To them “butch” means “like a man,” and the average man does not wear makeup or platform sandals with his suits. On the other hand, many butch women (my peers?), have told me I’m too butch for their affections in this false and upsetting gender role dichotomy some of them have constructed.
So, to answer my relative, yes, I dress this way to make me feel safe, but not in the way he meant. I want to feel safe in my own skin. I want to feel like others can look at me and maybe see a part of me the way I want it to be seen. Maybe it does grant me that kind of safety. But to feel safe in the way he meant it, from the eyes and hands of men? Nothing has ever made me feel safe that way.
Which brings me to the short illustration by Noelle Stevenson, creator of the amazing Nimona webcomic. I too carry this potential other Al around inside me. She goes by Alexandra, and she never left the trailer park in Florida, but she can do a mean lipline without a mirror, and she finally mastered learning to walk in heels. Maybe she doesn’t know she’s sick yet, because she doesn’t have access to the kind of healthcare I did by leaving. Maybe she’s happier than me in some ways, because people tell her she’s beautiful when she wants to hear it, and society agrees because her hair is long and her lips are red. Maybe she can feel the actual me living somewhere inside of her.
The part of Stevenson’s sketches that left me shaking in the office was the next page, of being reminded of that other woman through others’ gazes. Of men and violence. My clothing does not protect me. I am still vulgarly catcalled by traffic directors and men in cars. In fact I am now seen as a challenge in a new way. In my skirts I heard terrible things shouted through rolled down windows, all sexual but, supposedly, not intentionally violent. Now, dressed in long sleeve button-ups and trousers, my hair cropped close to my scalp, I hear a new kind of threat. Men who can “turn me straight,” who will “let their girlfriends watch,” who are afraid of me touching their wives. A man at a club slid his hand down my pants to determine my sex for himself. Men who need to know that I am a woman, who need to remind me that they can see through my butch exterior to find that other woman. Man who are threatened by my clothing that once hung in their section of the store.
I don’t know many butch women, and I don’t know many butch women who write and talk about what it means to be a woman and to be masculine. I don’t know how much of these experiences we share, and it’s lonely in a quiet, thick place at the back of my throat. Stevenson captured so much of this in just a few drawn lines, expansive empty space, and a little bunch of sentences. I won’t claim to know her experience, but it feels as though she knows mine. There I sat, cactus printed formal shirt tucked into black trousers, face unadorned, and wept until there wasn’t a tear left.