Picture this: I'm in the locker room at the new YMCA. Freshly showered, half dressed, towel-dried hair. Jeans, bra, socks. I haven't reached for my boots yet, I haven't put on my belt.
[Voices travel from the next range of lockers]
Child: Mommy, that's a girl, isn't it?
Mother: Yes, honey, that's a girl.
Child: Because this is the girls' locker room, right, Mommy?
Mother: Yes, honey. Put your shoes on.
Child: Because he couldn't come in here if he wasn't a girl, right, Mommy?
So, I get that people take gender cues from clothes and hair. It's never clear to me how anyone could address me as "Sir" when I'm wearing a skirt and sweater, but whatever. I'm used to it. Still...I'm only half-dressed in the above scenario. I know I've lost a little weight this semester, but I'm still stacked up front and on top. I went home and checked the sizes on my three most comfortable bras: 42C, 42D, and 44D (inconsistent much, bra manufacturers?). I'm not built "like a guy," nor am I androgynous without my shirt (or with my shirt, really. You just can't hide that much bosom). I'd really like to know: what did that kid see that I can't see? This gender confusion (on the part of others) really ramped up once I started using the new Y, so I think it has something to do with the binary imposed on visitors by the locker rooms. But even within a space coded "female," even with an obviously female body, I'm being read as something other. Twenty-five years ago, when I donned my first tie, I expected people to be confused when I walked by. I'm not sure I understand it now, though.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
S. Bear Bergman has an essay called "Roadside Assistance" about the anxiety of offering a helping hand while queer.* As its title suggests, the essay analyzes that moment that many of us have experienced when we step up to help strangers. On one hand, there's the hope that strangers either won't recognize as us queer, or if they do, won't pull out the baseball bat to teach us a lesson about our audacious, helpful behavior. On the other hand, there's that hope that we'll be seen and remembered as the friendly, useful, kind queer--we're not so bad, see? And on the third hand (I'm sure someone has one), there's the recognition that even if everything goes wrong, it's still worth the risk to do the right thing for another human being.
So, I had another one of those S. Bear Bergman moments today. Maybe it wouldn't have been so stressful if events had unfolded at the side of the road instead of the women's locker room of the local YMCA.
Backstory: I never have problems at my home YMCA, possibly because Catherine's usually with me. I'm either talking with her or I'm completely focused on getting to my workout. Plus, I've lived in that town for the past 15 years and there's not much to make me anxious there (except for running into a former co-worker or teacher when naked). Here in VAP-land, I'm not quite so sure. I'm not sure where I stand in general, and now we've got a new Y, opened last month. I liked the old Y. No one ever used it, so I never encountered any other women in the locker room. The locker room at the new Y? Full of women and children. Full.of.women.and.children.
I'd kind of forgotten that look, you know? I walk into the locker room and the cycle starts: the nearest woman glances up, opens her mouth to tell me I'm in the wrong place, drops her gaze to my chest, realizes those must be real, closes her mouth, averts her gaze. It's funny, I never get that reaction coming into the locker room from the other side--from the pool, the weight room, the showers. I guess dripping wet or covered with sweat my body reads as female. Fully clothed, not so much, despite the bodacious bosom.
Today, as I was stripping down to take a shower, I noticed a kid about 4 lockers down from me having a fight with her combination lock. Turn, turn, turn, yank, turn, turn, turn, yank, sigh of frustration. I figured she'd eventually get it and hit the shower. When I came back, she was still struggling with it, though. I offered to give it a try, so she gave me the combination. I ran through the numbers several times, but also had no luck. And you should really try to picture this: both of us just out of the shower, wearing only towels, yanking on a stubborn combination lock, unable to get the damned thing open.
She said if she had anything other than a bathing suit to wear, she'd go to the front desk and ask them to to call her dad (her phone was in her locker). Fortunately, my phone was also in my locker and I, unlike her, knew my combination. I handed her my phone, told her to key in the area code first. She called her dad, he gave her a new combination. She fought with the lock, he gave her another combination. He decided to call the neighbors and ask them to get the combination from the house. We waited. The neighbors called the dad back, the dad called the kid back, the combination still didn't work. I gave it a spin. Actually, I gave it four spins and on lucky number four, the lock finally opened.
All this took some time, so while my phone was in use, I dried off and started to dress. And that's when the anxiety hit me. Briefs and jeans, athletic socks and boots. Each additional piece of clothing pushing me away from middle-aged lady in a towel to queer in boy's clothing. Army green t-shirt. Button-up overshirt (I actually had the thought, "I'm glad I wore the one with vertical strips, it's not quite as butch as the green one."). Was this kid going to look up and realize the phone she's holding belongs to a dyke?
This is where the S. Bear Bergman dilemma comes in, right? On one hand, I'm hoping for invisibility because I don't want a scene in the locker room--you know being recognized as "something else" is going to be 4 million times worse because it involves being naked and talking to children. On the other hand, I'm hoping the kid does see me, because when someone starts feeding her anti-queer rhetoric, I want her to remember the nice butch who loaned her the phone when she couldn't get her locker open. Or maybe there's no need for me to model good behavior because her big sister is Big Dyke on Campus and her cousin Louis(e) is ftm. And I have to say, I also wondered, what in the world prompted me to offer assistance before I'd even put on my clothes? I'm just not that nice a person. I'm really not, so I must've had something to prove, if only to myself.
At any rate, I hope someone buys that kid a new lock, 'cause the one she has is only going to lead her to more trouble.
*"Roadside Assistance" starts on p. 33 of The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009)