Friday, May 29, 2009

Gender Presentation & Disability

The conversation started at Flip Flopping Joy where BFP asked What is Butch?. Cripchick took this up in On Gender and Disability and Wheelchair Dancer gave her perspective in Butch/ Femme - Crip. There are great discussions in the comment sections of each of the three posts.

My contribution is going to be a little feeble and rambling and has taken all week to get round to, as I am a bit of a slug next to these blogging butterflies. Still, Cripchick and Wheelchair Dancer's posts certainly helped to buck me up when I faced clothes shopping on Tuesday.

Clothes shopping, especially in person, is a deeply humiliating experience for me and I only go about once a year, only when I really need to. I often get much the same feeling as I did when, aged nine, I made a single defiant attempt to join the school football team. There were no rules against it, and I knew I was as good – which is to say, as bad – a football player as any of the boys. Suffice to say, the boys were rather hostile and, for the very first and last time, I was physically intimidated by my classmates. So when someone finally kicked the ball my way, it seemed directed with such malice that I ran away.

This game is not for the likes of me. Gender presentation isn't all about clothes or shopping, of course, but I am most conscious of my outsider status in clothes shops and at beauty counters. They display things close together and on high hooks and rails. All the mannequins are standing up. They have bright lights and loud music. And the assistants can be so condescending, as if I am a child playing at dressing up. They huff and puff if you ask them for help, they roll their eyes with impatience, they sneer at your choices and it feels the height of rudeness to leave without parting with money. I guess the awful ones might be awful to everyone, but I need help, I need a little patience from them. I really do leave shops because I get intimidated. Some of those women have really long nails!

At one huge branch of a well-known high street store (post-DDA), I was told that the entire ladies' department was on the top floor and there was no lift. The assistant did to offer to go fetch things - if I knew exactly what I was looking for. I said no thanks, as I'd need to try things on. She said I might as well use the men's fitting room. Nobody would mind.

I do hope the men would have minded to have me in their fitting room. I daresay in some future utopia we can all take our clothes off in one another's presence without embarrassment, but until such a point, I really wouldn't like to think I'm that safe. They might well have found my presence somewhat less unsettling than that of the pretty blonde shop assistant, but still.

There may be advantages to my apparent genderlessness, but it goes hand-in-hand with my infantilisation. It's not that I'm just cut out - which would be bad enough - I am categorised as something else. I'm with Patti Smith in that “Being any gender is a drag.” But you can't avoid it. If you try to reject the idea of your physical presentation as a form of communication, you're still communicating something all the time. If I resign myself from the game, I can never truly leave the pitch. And I'm not entirely sure I want to.

The first time queerness entered my dress-code was when I was seventeen, my Dad made some remark about a woman he had spoken to who was “probably a lesbian” because she had her ears pierced three times. We had an argument about it and later that day, I went out and got my ears pierced three times. Still waiting for that penny to drop.

In her response to BFP's post, Sutton writes
“... for me, the whole femme thing plays out the stereotype of females in our society as frivolous, superficial, silly, empty-headed, vain, spendthrift, allowing themselves to dress for (or in the case of expensive baubles, be dressed by) men, blah, blah.”
And I think this is where my game begins. Even if my mind was full of fluff and kittens, I haven't a hope of aspiring to any mainstream feminine “norm” - nor would I want to (well of course a part of me would like to be beautiful, but I'd also quite like the power of flight). Myself, I like skirts and jewellery and what my stylist friend calls romantic clothes, but I can't be doing with discomfort and material frivolity. I can't cope with it in terms of pain and energy levels, and I can't afford it. So I break the rules.

Cripchick says
“don’t know that i’m femme, butch, etc, i just know that i like to play with roles and gender. for me, the word to describe this gender play or personal recognition of identity i’ve been having lately is cripchick. cripchicks (or gimpgirls) are fierce, strong disabled women who interact with the world on their terms. ”
Not exactly fierce, but this is more like it. Most of my clothes are either second hand or hand-made. My favourite jewellery is hand-made (though mostly by other people). And like Cripchick, I adjust things all the time to work for me – and to last longer, so I don't have to go shopping again. I find pretty things to make myself more comfortable and to compensate for my oddities, both physical and aesthetic. I'm with William Morris on beauty and functionality.

The effect is not startling. I look a little eccentric but I don't turn heads with it. I'm certainly not as glamourous as Wheelchair Dancer or as funky as Cripchick. But I am playing with it.

Is this all a bit femme? Given that two of Wheelchair Dancer's prospective lovers said she was butch, possibly not. I'm sadly lacking in physical prowess and am a rather womanly shape, but I get called unfeminine because of the way my mind works, because of the way I see myself in the world (I've only ever run away from small boys with balls and shop assistants - otherwise I'm a force to be reckoned with!). I've never been called butch but was once called a bulldyke, which made me laugh out loud.

Is this crip? Maybe so. Maybe there is something special about our adaptive style. Just as maybe there is something special about our adaptive sexuality.


Sutton said...

I need time to think about a more substantive comment on the more substantive parts of your post. For now, though, thanks for what you wrote on shopping.

I have always told myself that I hated shopping because it was such a pain in the ass, physically. All that dressing and undressing is hard work! (This from someone who hikes for fun.) You nailed it: It's the humiliation. I've not encountered so many rude clerks--for one thing, I can't afford to shop on the U.S. equivalent of high streets, so there are often no clerks to be found. It's more that everything for sale is so wrong for my body. And lifestyle. It's one giant (acres and acres wide) message that, once again, I am literally out of step with the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

I love your posts. I don't tell you that often enough.

seahorse said...

We do what we can in the style department. I have many a similar tale of woe where clothes shops are concerned.
I find that 'making do' leads me away from mainstream 'must haves' and therefore my style is at least more creative. Which is a polite term for all over the place ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hope all goes well with AJ's op.
Love from Sue

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone!

Sutton, I think as far as clothes are concerned, there is this great illusion of choice where of course, there's very little real choice...

Starrlife - thank you!

Seahorse, yes, I think I like to think I have a slightly refined version of "all over the place" - but hey, look at the catwalks, if they're not "all over the place" then you and I are probably nowhere near.

Sue, thank you!

Diane J Standiford said...

Boy, I'm really outa this loop. I read WCD and her post turned me on. I felt crude and as I read, I kept thinking,"go on go on..." LOL, now I HAVE to laugh at people calling you a bulldyke---and I have NO idea what you look like but frome what you write, well, I don't see that at all. (And I've know some PROUD-TO-BE bulldykes.) I guess I'm a "soft butch" but I always have an uncontrollable desire to beat up the bulldykes. My partner (bi) of 30yrs, says it is evolutionary and in my genes. She also accuses me of "posing" around her when other gay women or handsome men(she DOES have good taste))oh, that sounds cocky, oh crap---how do I back out of this...) what is my point here...oh yeah, I can't see the bulldykes I've known giving a dang about their clothes, shoes, or stores that sell them. You had a rough time shopping in the fem world, I wouldn't roll in that world to shop if you cut off my fingers one by one. (the butch) But I emphasize with your experience. (soft)

S. said...

All of the posts lately about this have definitely been food for thought. I'm a trans man, and one who has constructed a lot of his identity based on a particular way of dressing that's no longer feasible. The joints in my hands can't deal very well any more with the buttons on waistcoats, tweed jackets, even cardigans. No more braces; I need trousers I can just pull on and have done with. T-shirts, god forbid, have made a reappearance in my wardrobe after years of absence, even blue jeans.

It's ridiculous how much that bothers me, as I never really thought of the way I dress as such a big part of my gender, you know? But it is, and I feel like having to change that because I'm disabled has basically robbed me of a coherent gender and sexual presentation I've worked fairly hard to construct.

And like you said, no, it's not about the clothes entirely, but they're certainly a visible marker that we can't just wish out of existence.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I'm sort of with Diane on this, particularly in the UK, the idea of you being a BullDkye unless you look a LOT like James Dean and get picked up my gay men often is sort of um, difficult for me to assimilate.

Quite honestly, the response is that I want to take you shopping and have some REAL fun. If I can get a butch-butch into a women's clothing store for the first time in 10 years or more and get her to buy a corset, I am pretty sure I can have some fun shopping with you! Of course, there will be corsets! And yeah, it is dress up.

Elan Morgan said...

This particularly grabbed me:
"I'm with Patti Smith in that “Being any gender is a drag.” But you can't avoid it. If you try to reject the idea of your physical presentation as a form of communication, you're still communicating something all the time. If I resign myself from the game, I can never truly leave the pitch. And I'm not entirely sure I want to."

You are so very right. Thank you for clarifying an idea I was having a hard time articulating.