Apologies for the radio silence recently, I’ve been working on a conference paper for an upcoming event in Taiwan (I’ll blog about that soon). But in the mean time, some words:
I’ve been thinking a lot about academic writing using autobiography, and about the difficulties of striking a balance between anger and scholarly rigor (whatever that is, I’ve yet to achieve it). The book Why are faggots so afraid of faggots: flaming challenges to masculinity, objectification, and the desire to conform – a collection of essays edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has prompted this, as well as my disenchantment with a lot of academic writing which is, frankly, unreadable and pitched in its humanless tone at a privileged few, one of which, in spite of being half way through my PhD, I (thankfully, or perhaps, worringly) don’t consider myself to be. I heard recently a fellow PhD student say that during the research process, the thought of being a ‘writer’ doesn’t occur until the final stages. This is far from my experience. For me, writing is as important, if not more important, than the data collecting, the reviewing of literature and a whole host of other rather shudder-inducing bullet points in the thesis recipe.
I thought I’d try writing, quite informally about my own experience as a queer person, as a particular type of queer person; someone who presents themselves as gender neutral/gender queer; someone who feels marginalised (thankfully, or perhaps, worryingly) from mainstream gay male culture; someone who feel marginalised within academia (or, at least, in my own higher education institution); someone who constantly carries around class guilt at referring to myself as being from a ‘working class background’ but having found myself, having tumbled down the rabbit hole, in the very privileged position of studying a funded PhD; someone who feels perpetually underequipped for higher education, due, partially to this guilt, partially to my queerness, and partially to my constant eye-rolling at the absurd world of academia. I said once in a queer reading group (eye roll), that I thought that writing a thesis, particularly in the arts and humanities is an act of narcissism, that essentially we spend three years researching and writing, about ourselves. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, I think there is real value in research that is rooted in the personal, that’s angry and involved, and a bit bruised and damaged. That said: I will now write about ME.
I think constantly about gender. It’s pretty much my main preoccupation. We were sat in Soho square one summer day, and a drunk old woman, who we assumed had been sleeping beside us, suddenly arose and crawled towards us (like Sadako mounting the inside of the well in Ringu) and exclaimed to me “you think you’re a woman, but you’re not”. A violent start to an uncomfortable and incoherent conversation. My friend later said, of the rather unusual exchange: “It’s weird that she said that, it must have been the only time we’ve ever not been talking about your gender issues.” While this was said in jest, like most funny things, it was based somewhat on the truth. What is it about me that day that said to a woman – with her eyes closed – that I believed myself to a woman? My appearance often elicits a double take (sometimes welcome, othertimes an awful intrusion, stop looking at me, get a grip etc.), because I happily present myself as femme, but she couldn’t see me. My voice, to the unenlightened is a man’s, camp and sibilant at times, but I’m not softly spoken; I bark. And bark even louder when I’ve had a few cans of red stripe in the sun. Not to mention I swear like a fucking trooper. I think ultimately, what stumped me and my friends that day was that my gender presentation is fast becoming an afterthought to us, there isn’t, I’d like to think, anything contrived about it (or at least no more so than anyone else’s), for the past ten years I’ve worn makeup and had long hair, and while at first it was an act of some delayed teenage rebellion, and a plea to be noticed, it is now something that I don’t really think about- unless someone else’s response to me makes me think about it. The act of putting makeup on is no more or less part of my routine than brushing my teeth. My close friends, too, are taken aback if someone says something offensive or stares or nudges a friend on the tube to point at me, because they don’t see anything else other than Sean. What is everyone else seeing? And why are they interested?
An interesting thing happened at work today. Three or four of my colleagues, who have all seen me present as femme for many years now, commented on me wearing a bright pink tshirt. My response was, perhaps defensively, perhaps self-deprecatingly, “I thought I’d go for something a bit more masculine today.” Would they comment on a cis woman colleague wearing a pink tshirt? Maybe. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. I probably am. But I can’t help but think that people who compliment what appears to be a boy who presents as femme are really saying “I get it, I’m okay with it.” A round of applause all round. It’s just a pink fucking tshirt. I know I’m defensive about this, but I’ve been conditioned this way (spit on me in Manchester as you cycle past on your bike, take a picture of me on your iPhone on the bus, called me a tranny etc. etc. etc.), much the way that my colleagues have been conditioned to make doubly sure that I know that they ‘accept’ me, just the way that boring oafs on the tube have been conditioned to resent women, and anything/anyone feminine by proxy.
I do think about gender all the time. I have to, I’m constantly reminded about it, whether I want to be or not. When I was an undergraduate, I was asked to leave the men’s toilets in the student union club because they thought I was a woman, a bouncer then removed me from the women’s toilet. My friend, who remembers the event more clearly than I do, told me the next day I had said to the bouncer “where am I supposed to piss then? A pint pot?” the answer I’ve learnt, is not a pint pot, but the disabled toilets, which I feel incredibly guilty about using, because I am able bodied. I am reminded about gender every time I need to use a public toilet, because of other people’s discomfort. Not my own.
I’m reminded of gender when I’m in gay bars. Where women and trans people are cast aside, where gay men aspire to be seen as ‘straight-acting’, where beards have become currency.
I was reminded of gender on the bus the other evening, I was going to my friend’s for dinner. I could hear a group of school boys behind having a very involved conversation about whether I was a ‘man or a girl’ (funny that I become infantilised if the latter is the case). I didn’t really think much of it, aside from being mildly irritating (and a bit surprising; for once I had no makeup on, my hair was tied up and I was wearing a bloody hoody). But afterwards I thought about it again and about how intrusive the conversation was, because, since they didn’t seem to be able to glean any idea of my gender from my appearance, what their curiosity ultimately boiled down to was about my genitals. I expect more from kids usually, they tend to know better than their parents, but on the other hand how long can we excuse people’s behavior because of youth? When they turn 18? 21? When they have a child? When they or someone they know is a victim of misogyny, transphobia or homophobia? (to borrow a phrase coined by Nigella Lawson – intimate terrorism).
I’m constantly aware (and feel guilty about- I am part of the twitter generation after all) of my privileges. Even as a queer person, I am very privileged. I am able to be very visibly and unapologetically queer, I’m not sure I’d be afforded such a luxury if I still lived in Sunderland. But until people stop thinking about my genitals, I won’t be able to. I’ll keep banging on about my gender identity and about gender inequality until I stop being reminded about them by other people’s incapacity for critical thought. Sometimes I’m happy to engage with people who are curious about gender variance, but other times, I wonder why it’s my fucking place to educate them.
I’ll finish with a song.