Shame: It Doesn’t Come from Nowhere

I went to a Christmas celebration the other day where a woman was in attendance who was serving as a gender police volunteer. I should mention that I showed up in male mode and that I was out to less than half the people there, so I was basically presenting as a cis male. That said, I do have long hair and two pierced ears and an awfully pretty jawline–but I also have a bit of a fierce personality, and apparently this volunteer police officer was just going for the easy targets. Ironically, she spent her time teasing cis males when there was a bi-gender person just a few feet away.

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She was at it literally when I walked in the door. My nephew, a recent college graduate who to the best of my knowledge is cisgender and straight, with short hair, a beard, and a suitably masculine job but also a soft voice and a quiet demeanor, was looking at somebody’s Christmas town setup: you know, the miniature buildings and little Victorian-looking people and skating rinks and things that people with more patience and table space than I have put up. He may have been actually doing moving something in it around, but as far as I noticed, he was just looking. The gender police volunteer, meanwhile, was teasing him: “Are you playing with dolls now?” she said. “Do you like to play with dolls?” This went on for several minutes.

Later she took it up with a relative about my age, who was there with his wife and daughter. Another relative had given him a scarf for Christmas, and it was the kind that starts as an enormous square, not the universally-male-approved kind that’s more of a long strip of fabric. This was in a male-approved dark blue color with a plaid pattern, yet the volunteer, as my relative was still opening the package and was just realizing it was a scarf, asked him if he liked his new dress.

Several times on any normal day I find myself thinking “Ugh, maybe I shouldn’t be bi-gender–it’s so difficult.” And yes, it’s time-consuming and inconvenient, but first, obviously, it isn’t something I get to choose, and second, what’s really difficult about it isn’t how I present myself (although that’s also difficult), but instead having to gear up mentally for what I imagine other people are thinking.

I know that’s buying trouble. Why worry about what other people might be thinking when you can just deal with how they actually act? But the mental chatter that those of us who cross gender lines have to deal with is an epic recording of thousands of voices of gender police volunteers like the one at that party from throughout our lives, not to mention television, movies, books, games, coworkers, clothing stores, laws, songs, commercials … I’d love to switch it off, permanently and completely, but it’s burned into my brain from non-stop reinforcement. Even if I were able to start from a clean slate, I’d get fresh daily doses of it from every direction.

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Here’s the kicker about the volunteer at Christmas: she’s not only a lesbian, but she was wearing a vest and tie that were clearly designed for men. She gender policed while partly cross-dressed.

But then, I feel certain she has been repeatedly harassed by the gender police herself, just for the other version of the crime: being “too masculine,” being romantically drawn to women, not staying in her assigned place and being a sex object for cis het men, and so on. This is a person who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, the most conformist period in American history, as far as I can tell.

Unfortunately, I think she may deal with her own internalized voices in a less than ideal way, being kicked by someone and turning around to kick someone else in return to shore up her sense of worth. (Helpful hint: passing on the pain doesn’t really work.)

I feel sure she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. I suspect that in her mind she’s being fun and entertaining and simultaneously engaging in a joke with people she has shown every evidence of genuinely liking. I can judge her for not being more self-reflective or more aware of the harm she’s doing, but there’s probably not a lot of point in that. I mean, I’m not writing this post because I think a lot of gender police will read it and change their ways. I’m writing it for all of us who have been persecuted by the gender police–cis and trans and bi-gender, straight and queer and undeclared. I can’t tell you it doesn’t matter, and I can’t shut those recordings up or make the volunteers stand down, but I can at least tell you that you’re not alone, that you’re beautiful for who you actually are and not for who someone thinks you should be, and that the gender police are profoundly and permanently wrong. When you hear them, don’t forget that what you’re hearing are fear and ignorance: they’re not truth, they’re not helpful, and their handcuffs only work on you if you let them.

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