Hm, I think, time for a haircut.
The 'young man' in front of me turns and I realize she's a woman.
"He wasn't really helping his case, was he," she says.
For about two years in Seattle, in the early nineties, I had really long hair. During college my appearance was usually in the control of whatever director I was working with, so I hadn't gotten to indulge the experimentation many people do in college. When I graduated, and was not always subject to the needs of a play or director, I started to play a bit. Contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom, I actually worked more with long hair, and got cast in more interesting roles, in part because of the hair. (Yes, that's me up there, in Ireland in '93.)
As with any change in appearance, though, a side-effect was dealing with new reactions from people, especially strangers. Remember, this was Seattle in the nineties, so people frequently assumed I was a straight guy in a grunge band. It was not uncommon though, for people to mistake me for a woman. It was usually if the light were dim, or if they saw me first from the back, or if I was wearing earrings that dangled just a bit too much. I mean I wasn't swanning about in frocks and eye-shadow or anything. Not that I have a problem with that, mind you. Just not really my thing; off-stage at least.
One night I was leaving my 24 hour grocery store around three am; On the other side of the parking lot (I'd say at least one hundred feet) there were a couple of guys about to go into the store. One of them saw me, stopped and said, "Hey... come over here." His tone was flirty, friendly, in no way threatening, but even if I hadn't had a nice fellow waiting for me at home, I wouldn't have gone over to say hi. Somehow I just knew he thought he was talking to a woman. Maybe I was wrong and he was flirting with a guy, maybe I was right and we all would have a chuckle when I went over... but I wasn't really interested in putting it to the test. Especially not at three in the morning.
Most of the time, however, when this happened, the illusion rarely lasted long; people would get a better look, or I'd speak (I sing bass-baritone, for those who haven't met me), and they'd realize their mistake. Then they would usually scramble with great embarrassment to apologize. Apparently if someone, in all honesty and with no intent to offend, mistook me for a woman, I was supposed to be offended.
I get it, of course. I mean, come on, I grew up in this society too, let's not play dumb. People would worry that their mistake would tell me that I was looking ambiguous, or, more importantly, that I wasn't manly enough. That was what was supposed to offend me. That hapless, perhaps near-sighted panhandler in Greenwich Village has me thinking about this again, and making some deeper, more complicated connections.
Fact is, I was quite effeminate as a kid, a classic sissy in the "plays with dolls, dresses up like a girl during make-believe, always gets picked last for any sports teams on the rare occasions he couldn't avoid them all together" kind of way. My family never tried to change me, though I think the 'pretending to be a girl' part was cause for at least some consternation. A few years ago Mom shame-facedly asked if I remembered her giving me a little state trooper's outfit when I was about six. I have no recollection of this whatsoever, but I howled with laughter. The idea that this life-long Quaker Pacifist Feminist thought a law enforcement uniform would straighten me out still makes me snort. Not sure Mom thinks it as funny as I do, yet.
Obviously as I aged though, I, like most guys, was terrified of being pegged as a sissy. I didn't strive to be overly butch (not being good at sports would have always been the fly in that ointment), but I certainly tried to downplay any unfortunate habits or displays. I was lucky in that I was surrounded by a small community of people who a) didn't believe that sports was the only measure of a man and b) believed there was nothing wrong with a guy liking art, music, theatre and even (gasp!) dance. It has to be acknowledged though, the point being made was that none of these things made you gay. The assumption that gayness was to be avoided went unquestioned.
Also to be avoided were any guys who weren't able to butch it up at least to minimum levels. Guilt by association is the Lingua Franca of high school, after all; you're only as cool as your geekiest friend. I didn't challenge this assumption at all either. Then when I started college, and started meeting guys who were openly gay AND flamboyant, I was even more uncomfortable. Why did they have to fulfill all the stereotypes like that? Didn't they see that they were ruining it for the rest of us? It's unfortunate of course, but were they really surprised they were bashed, discriminated against, ostracized, since they just refused to act normal? How could I ever think of coming out if it was immediately going to throw me into bed (ahem) with these flamers? Yes, I had started to question a lot of this thinking before I actually came out, but I can't overlook the fact that the final step that pushed me out of the closet was the discovery that not one, but two 'normal' guys on campus, guys I had crushes on in fact, were gay.
Once I was out, there began to be a new dynamic to this debate. Many people hastened to tell me they didn't have a clue, that I "passed." A few folks also made a point of telling me they had always known, that I was completely incapable of hiding it. This was when I began to realize just how slippery the whole concept of manliness was. Butchness is in the eye of the beholder. I recognized I still felt a bit of pride when someone told me I passed, and I felt resentful when someone insisted I didn't. That passing was the goal went unchallenged.
I can't claim to be completely over this either. I still feel the internal buzzer go off ("thanks for playing!") for especially swishy mannerisms, or fussiness, prissiness or bitchiness. I like to believe this is no worse than disliking rudeness or arrogance, but am not yet giving myself a free pass on that count. I know that I still buy into the idea that anything too swishy connotes frivolity, and men are supposed to be serious business, even when they're funny. I no longer feel personally implicated by other people though, and I guess that's progress. I definitely believe now that every one, regardless of mien, deserve equal rights and equal protection to live their lives, which is definitely progress. I just might not find myself dating them very often. On the flip-side I am definitely turned off by anyone trumpeting "straight-acting" as a desired quality. Even if someone decides I fit this definition, it's safe to say he and I will encounter other problems pretty soon. In a attempt to address this head on I make a habit of wearing four earrings anytime I have a blind date; if this is going to be a problem, better we know now, right? I'm not sure if this is me embracing my inner woman/drag queen, especially now when tough straight guys all over the place have way more holes in their heads than I do. Hell, now the young folks seem to be putting grommets in their ears (seriously, is that a towel rack?), but my little hoops do still send a lot of the gay boys running for the hills, shrieking and flailing their hands.
In recent years I've felt more comfortable saying essentially "this is another way of being a man." Rather than worrying about fitting the definition, I assume the definition includes me, along with RuPaul, Bill O'Reilly, Andrew Sullivan, and Prince. I still make concessions, of course. I still prefer to be ignored most of the time in the city, especially in my macho Latino neighborhood. Still not swanning about in frocks and eye-shadow. In my own head though, I'm just not worried about passing anymore. Most days. The process of getting comfortable in one's own skin, I guess it never really stops.