U is for Unwritten

UI am on a writing retreat as I type this. For the past two days I’ve been sequestered away with two very quiet and serious writers in a lovely home in a lovely valley. We’ve been very dedicated since we arrived, but I have to say I am having a hell of a time producing much. I need to write a paper for class by Saturday, and I am struggling. I can’t get the words out. My failure has nothing to do with lack of effort on my part. In my attempts to jar something useful loose, I’ve read books and scholarly articles, I have watched videos—some deadly boring (really, if you ever have insomnia watch a video of someone else conducting a counseling session). I’ve listened to relevant and riveting podcasts. Yet, I’ve only managed to squeeze out about 300 words. I am interested in the topic. I enjoy the class. But I’ve got a terrible block around this paper. I’ve even asked for an extension, a request about which I am ambivalent. Is it wise to extend my struggle or should I just grit my teeth and power through?

Perhaps I’m feeling resentful that all during my three-day writing retreat I have felt besieged by this paper. Rather than working on my more creative pursuits, I’ve been straitjacketed by academia. I’ve also been thrown off my game a bit because I haven’t been for a run since Tuesday and it’s now Friday. That, and you know how the digestive system can go awry when it leaves home for more than a day or two. Should I have stayed home this week? Would the words be flowing any easier if I were wrapped in the stifling yet familiar embrace of my normal routine? Doubtful. All quarter, each time I’ve sat down to write anything for either of my classes, I’ve felt this tightness, this overwhelming ennui, and a great urge to close my eyes for a nap. Yet, somehow I have managed to keep up, to crank out the papers and turn them in, complete and on time. Mostly they’ve received excellent feedback, and, upon rereading what I’ve written, I am struck by my ability to string coherent thoughts together, paragraph by grueling paragraph.

So, what gives? Why this epic struggle to engage with the material and shape it into a useful form this week? What am I resisting? I think part of the problem may be that I am emotionally engaged elsewhere—that is, my heart just isn’t in it. My subconscious is busy working on other more compelling issues. If I could write a paper on love and loss, obsession and compulsion, friendship and forgiveness, I would be nearly done by now. If I could write a treatise on the human heart, what drives us in life and love, I would ace this assignment. And even as I type these words, I realize that in a way, this is exactly what I am doing—

My assignment, for my Group Therapy class (it’s a class on how to lead group therapy/group counseling sessions), is to write a proposal for a group that I would like to lead. Since I began my Master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling last year, I have written a few papers about and done more than a little research on counseling transgender individuals. The group I am attempting to write a proposal for now is a transgender support group. I have all of my information. I know the material, the issues, the format, but I’m fighting a major battle to put it all together and get it all down on paper. Why?

I decided to step away for a bit. Stripped my bed. Did some laundry here at the retreat center. I took a shower. And that’s where I was when it hit me—I need to give this paper a more personal twist, breathe some actual life into it, make it less abstract, more tangible. But how? I’m not transgender. I am a cisgendered female (biologically the same gender I was labeled at birth) with no desire to change my identity. Oh sure, every now and then I think it might be awesome to have a penis, if only to experience the power and privilege the penis inspires. Like my occasional fantasy of taking one hit of heroin or meth to experience what must be an awesome high—I ponder the sensations that must accompany the penis. How must that feel? All those nerve endings concentrated in that one place, exposed, expectant, exquisite?

I don’t want to have a full time penis any more than I want a heroin addiction, but I am often misgendered, that is, I am mistaken for a man. Even though I have no desire to change my gender, feel no compunction to make an anatomical correction, I sometimes present as something other than the culturally accepted female norm. I am not tiny. I don’t wear makeup. I keep my hair short. I sometimes wear clothes purchased in the men’s department, but mostly I wear clothes made for women that don’t have ruffles, sparkles, bows, bright colors, or plunging necklines. I eschew high heels and dresses and pretty much anything tight, clinging, or revealing. Do these preferences make me less of a woman? The occasional stranger apparently thinks so.

Last summer I had an experience that brought home for me the fear and real dangers facing trans* folk. I was dressed to go for a run—bright orange racer back tank top, quick dry shorts (men’s since they are longer and don’t ride up as I run), socks, shoes, iPhone in my armband. I parked my Jeep at my favorite running spot, locked the truck, and headed to the bathroom. It was early, maybe 7:30 in the morning. As I opened the bathroom door, a voice behind me hollered something I didn’t quite catch at first. I turned around to find the owner of the voice standing about 20 yards away.

“Did you say something to me?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Never mind,” he said with a surprised look on his face.

As I entered the women’s restroom and headed for a stall, the words he had yelled rearranged themselves and suddenly made sense: “Hey bro, that’s the women’s bathroom.” Ah, I realized as I sat down to pee, he thought I was a dude going in the wrong restroom. Nice of him to warn me, but how could he have possibly mistaken me for a guy in these tight running clothes? I’m not some thin, lanky runner. I have, shall we say, noticeable curves.

And then the fear settled around me. What if he thinks I am trans*? What if he wants to harm me? What if he realizes I’m a lesbian? Will he think he can do with me as he pleases? What if he hates gays and trans* people (or anyone on the LGBTQQIAP–jesus, that gets longer everyday– spectrum)? What if he is one of those guys whose masculinity is threatened by our very existence? I occasionally worried about running this sometimes lonely trail by myself, but generally shrugged my fears off as unfounded. Now, seeing myself through this particular lens, I felt more vulnerable than ever.

This vulnerability is the way into my paper for Group Therapy. This vulnerability is why the trans* counseling group needs to exist. Thanks for reading. I’m off to finish my paper now.

Gender, George Kelly, and the Coming Revolution

A number of years ago, when my nephew was four we were at the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I was wearing my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, sitting on the edge of the hot tub where he was enjoying a soak and roughhousing with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.

“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”

I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy and he could not figure out where to put me.

“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.” I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I had big boobs for one thing but I wasn’t going to go there with a four year old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie, not Uncle.  I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious. My genitals were not up for discussion. Not poolside, not without his parents’ permission. Probably not ever.

“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. Also, it has jangled in the back of my mind since that day. I was not like his mother and the other mothers in the neighborhood. I didn’t wear make up, heels, ruffles, dresses or skirts. I didn’t even wear girl jeans or shorts. I wore t-shirts and shorts—I dressed more like his dad, my brother. I drank beer with his dad when I visited. I did not sip wine with his mother. I worked with computers for a living. I drove a Jeep.  My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite. He had no social construct for me. (if  you haven’t seen Ash Beckham or iO Tillet Wright’s TED talks on gender, check them out here).

I have to write a paper by tomorrow on one George Kelly, one of a dozen or so theorists of the last 100 years or so who have impacted the field of psychology. In one of the classes I’m taking, our weekly papers go along the same lines each week—choose one of the theorists concepts (our favorite concept) and write up a paragraph on it, summarizing it. Then we write another paragraph in which we analyze another source on the same concept.

I started the quarter loving this assignment—first of all it was pretty easy initially to pick and choose concepts that intrigued me from among the early theorists. For Freud, I chose to analyze his theory that anatomy is destiny. I took him to task on that. I had no trouble finding other sources out there on the world wide web to support me in my analysis of his so-called theory. I ran across a TED Talk by Alice Dreger entitled Is Anatomy Destiny which nicely expanded Freud’s discussion on the matter.

In her talk, Dreger, an anatomy historian and advocate for patients whose body types challenge social norms (i.e. conjoined twins, dwarves, intersex folks) refutes Freud’s “anatomy is destiny” assertion. Dreger posits that there is “no such thing as stable anatomical categories that map  . . . simply to stable identity categories.” She goes on to describe how science is now revealing that gender and sex categories are overly simplistic.” For example, Dreger describes a patient who presents as male: looks like a man, acts like a man, has apparent anatomy that is typically male but who has a uterus and ovaries due to androgyne insensitivity syndrome. Dreger has patients whom surgeons want to “normalize” in her words, “not because [the surgery] leave them better off in terms of physical health” but because “they (the anatomically atypical patients) threaten our social categories.” In other words, our cultural, like Freud (and maybe partly because of him) doesn’t know what to do with people whom we don’t understand.

Which brings us nicely back to George Kelly, who in spite of not having written very much, basically established the entire concept of social cognition. Social cognition is, according to our text (Feist’s Theories of Personality) the examination of “the cognitive and attitudinal bases of person perception, including schemas, biases, stereotypes, and prejudiced behavior.”  In other words, people make judgments and base their opinions on what they believe to be true—they form their opinions based on their experiences, how they were raised, their backgrounds, their way of being in the world. They form a social construct.

When Kelly’s theories were used to measure how people viewed gender, it turned out that most people use gender as a means of categorizing other people. Among those who do have biases about gender were more likely to apply gender stereotypes to strangers in social situations. And finally, the study concluded that those who stereotype strangers are more likely to ascribe stereotypical gender behavior to family members, friends, and acquaintances.

What’s the issue, you may wonder? The problem is that gender isn’t binary. According to Dreger and other researchers, gender occurs along a continuum. We might like to neatly categorize people as male or female and attribute behaviors thusly, but I would posit that gender behavior is a social construct foisted upon us by a culture interested in easy answers and quick categorizations. When we judge people according to our own narrow beliefs, we limit them and ourselves. When we believe our dreams are not valid because they fall outside of the gender norms, we cannot reach our full potential.

We are really touchy about gender. Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than not being able to place someone as either male or female. Even me, a lesbian, who despite being of a certain age, has a wide-open mind and tries not to stereotype anyone, still squirms a bit when I am faced with gender ambiguity. Even me, who spent a large portion of my 20s and 30s being called sir (I attribute the confusion to my then narrow hips).

But, the next revolution might be in the offing as transgender rights begin to take center stage. A new discussion and awareness is beginning and I am looking forward to a new unpacking of gender stereotypes and some talk about what it means to be male and female. Imagine doing away with our social constructs around gender—imagine a world in which a four year old doesn’t care if his Auntie Pammie is a boy or a girl, or have to worry about if he likes “girl things” or “boy things.” Imagine a world in which we truly are not judged by the sort of women or men we are, but on our humanity and on the ways in which we treat one another regardless of differences. Freud might be rolling in his grave, but I think George Kelly will be proud.

Waffle Stompers, or How I Came to Shop in the Boys’ Department

Waffle Stompers
Waffle Stompers

These days as I work on my memoir, I’m writing about shopping for baby clothes, writing about the days when I’d throw baby Anna in the front pack and walk to a nearby children’s clothing consignment store. I loved to look at those tiny little jeans, the impossibly small shirts and sweatshirts, miniature jean jackets. As a lesbian mom I was determined to dress my daughters in gender-neutral colors and clothes, but I was also very aware that as a lesbian parent, whatever I chose to dress my kids in would be scrutinized closely. Evaluated for any hint of agenda. Judged as too masculine, too political, or god forbid, too dyke-y. Too much an extension of my own taste in clothing.

I don’t think I was prepared for the politics of clothing when I first became a mom. I certainly wasn’t aware of the enormous gulf between boys and girls clothes, even for kids who were not yet walking. Who knew toddler wear could be sexualized? And as much as I wanted to put baby Anna in those tiny blue jeans and a miniature grey sweatshirt, I resisted the urge, unwilling to open myself up to whatever criticism might come my way. Really, my dilemma only lasted until Anna could express a preference, which happened by the time she was two and demanded to wear only clothes that bore a picture from The Lion King, preferably Simba or Nala. What I wanted her to wear mattered not one whit after that. I felt fortunate if I could get her to swap the Nala dress for the Simba tshirt once a week for washing.

As I wrote about my experiences with Anna, I wondered if my mom worried what people would think about the clothes I wore as a kid? From the time I could walk, I preferred cowboy boots and buckskin jackets (thanks Grandpa) to Mary Janes and more lady like outerwear. I ached to wear my cowboy hat and checkered cowboy shirt with the pearl snaps. My mom still mostly dressed me in dresses if we left the house and until I was in the third grade I had to wear dresses to school. Granted, the year was, well, the year was sometime in the early 1970s, but feminism was taking hold by then, though the ERA would not be defeated for a few more years. I remember my parents lamenting the droves of hippies that had invaded our small town: men with long hair and women without bras. Gender lines were being crossed already, so I was not so much of a pioneer, though I had begun to stage my own little revolution.me_horse - Version 2

On the days that I had Bluebirds and had to wear the insidious blue and red uniform dress, the saving grace was that I also wore a white blouse under the uniform so I could smuggle jeans to school in my lunch box and change once I got to school. I’m not sure how my mother missed the great bulge in my little tin lunchbox, the red and yellow plaid pattern straining at its edges. I loved the way I felt in my jeans, saddle shoes (not so much), and white shirt. I felt free. Boys couldn’t look up my skirt when I climbed on the monkey bars. I could properly propel myself out of the swings without worrying about skinned knees or my dress hiking up around my waist. I could play kickball and kick my hardest without worrying that my dress would fly up and reveal my little girl panties to the entire outfield.

By the time third grade rolled around, my mom and I struck a deal: I could wear pants three days a week. I was still in Bluebirds, still smuggling my jeans on Bluebirds day, so realistically, this meant only one day of dresses a week for me. This meant shopping for jeans when we went to Sears for Back-to-School shopping, and by jeans I mean shopping for boys’ clothes in the boys’ department. I would not be satisfied with some girly version of jeans; no side zippers, nor zippers up the back; no wussie zippers that might break should I slide into home plate during kickball. No. I insisted on Sears Toughskins, reinforced knees and all. And while we were in the boys’ department, why not some practical t-shirts as well in some good colors, like blue and green and red. I had no use for ruffles and pastels. I despised the scoop neck t-shirts and peter pan collars reserved for little girls. In fact, I would have been over the moon with super hero pajamas and some tightie whities as well, but Mom had to draw the line somewhere.

Happy? Comfortable?
Happy? Comfortable?

I saved my most vociferous arguing for the shoe department, however. I had enough of the saddle shoes—which it turns out were my mother’s own leftover fantasy from her childhood, seeing as how her mother forbid her to wear saddle shoes—what I wanted now were Waffle Stompers. Anybody remember Waffle Stompers, named for the shape of their tread, with padding around the ankles and sliver triangle eyelets? They came in dark blue, maroon, or green, and I loved them. Back in the days before Merrells and Salomons became ubiquitous, before tennis shoes/sneakers were limited to PE class, before Nike was anything but a winged Greek goddess, Waffle Stompers offered a little budding lesbian like me a sensible shoe option of which my mother was hard pressed to disapprove. For reasons that still escape me, we (and by we, I mean all children of the time) had to have dress shoes and play shoes (just as we had school clothes and play clothes). Heaven forbid the two should ever be confused. No one could wear a pair of Chuck Taylors or those insipid Keds when in school clothes. But Waffle Stompers! Waffle Stompers offered a much needed middle ground—they weren’t tennis shoes, they weren’t dress shoes. They were sturdy and leather, and they definitely did not go with dresses. I had to get me some of those. And I would not relent. I finally got my Waffle Stompers. I wore my mother down.

But what, I wonder now, did Mom make of my tomboyish ways, my insistence that I dress like a boy? With my short carrot top hair and my Toughskins and Waffle Stompers, did I give anyone pause? Did anyone pull her aside and accuse her of having an agenda? (A sales clerk did object to my father buying me a toy rifle for Christmas one year, but that’s a different blog).

It’s interesting, the politics of clothing. Still, after roughly 43 years of dressing myself and choosing my own clothes, I struggle with what to wear, with how I want to look, how I want to be seen. What I am comfortable in. Except for a brief adolescent period, from roughly the ages of 13 to 16, I’ve always felt more comfortable in decidedly unfeminine clothes. Dressing up for me has mostly meant putting on pants that aren’t jeans, a shirt/pullover combination, or a polo shirt when it’s warm enough, and something on my feet besides sneakers or hiking shoes (though recently I’ve taken to wearing my red Chuck Taylor’s as dress up shoes).

Do the shoes make the woman?
Do the shoes make the woman?

I’m such a casual dresser that even my doctor made a note of it in my chart one time: Neatly dressed. Extremely casual. At Christmas gatherings when I was in college and in my early 20s, my grandmother used to say “Pam, you look like a boy!” I always took that as a compliment, as confirmation that I was slender and fit. Now when I get called “Sir,” and I do, regularly—just a couple of weeks ago, at the LA airport, dressed in my very womanly Izod golf shorts, not to mention my more obvious and, increasingly matronly, girl parts—I just look, like “Dude? Really?” More often than not, people are appropriately mortified. But I have to wonder, what are they seeing when they look at me?

(I do realize I’m laying myself wide open here) It has to be the clothes and my short hair—I think we’ve gotten to the point that women’s clothing is so drastically different than men’s clothing that most people don’t bother to look beyond clothes to determine someone’s gender. No visible cleavage? Guy. No floral patterns or ruffles? Guy. Short hair? Guy. Not pastels? Guy (though if you’ve been to a Ralph Lauren store lately, you know that the men are wearing a lot of pink, green, and yellow these days). Last summer, I was out and about town in a tshirt, a pair of cargo shorts, and flip flops. As I was locking my bicycle to a parking meter near the Saturday Market, a woman behind me kept saying, “Sir!” “Sir!” She got mad at me for not responding and when she found out I wasn’t a Sir! she was still mad at me. I thought that was rude. And especially now that I am a woman of a certain age, I think a certain amount of invisibility is inevitable.

Early in my professional career, I put a fair effort into dressing nicely, but in my very classically tailored clothes I was often addressed as “Sir.” I shopped exclusively in the women’s sections at Nordstrom’s and Macy’s (which was then The Bon Marche) and a gal could get shirts sans floral patterns and ruffles; I wore women’s Bass Weejuns with tassels, and (tragically) a woman’s London Fog raincoat. I even occasionally wore panty hose and a dress, and sometimes tights and professional shorts, and blazers (remember that bad 80s trend?). Eventually I tailored my career choices so I wouldn’t have to ever wear panty hose again, and these days I feel dressed up if I put on a pair of worn cords and a polo shirt for work. Most days I show up in saggy-assed Levis, a gray hoodie, and my black Converse. How I dress has no bearing on how I perform at work, except that less formal makes me happier and happier workers are better workers.

So, to bring it all back around to where I started . . . maybe what’s really important about clothing is that it makes us comfortable, because when we are comfortable, we are confident. If we are confident, we are happy. If we are happy, we are better learners, players, workers, partners, lovers, parents, children, and friends. Choosing our clothes, dressing our kids—these are political acts, not just across gender, but also across class and race (different blogs altogether). Being comfortable in my own skin, let alone in what I’m wearing? Judging one another according to what we wear? I don’t have any illusions this will change, ever. I just wish I could get over it, myself.