Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lesbian Radio Redux

[This is the piece I read on Lesbian Radio yesterday. It went well, even the chatting. But it still terrifies me enough that I felt shaky the whole rest of the day.]

Skirting the Issue

“You should wear a skirt more often,” my lover whispered a week ago, sliding her hand up my bare thigh. I want to, when she speaks to me like this, and she does every time I wear one. We were in the kitchen, preparing for our separate daily work when her appreciation for my attire took precedence over coffee and toast. I had a meeting later at my office job, which had prompted the skirt in the first place, but this was a lovely side benefit. I put down my mug of coffee and allowed myself to be distracted, feeling beautiful.

Later, as I carried the mail between the post office and my work, noticing how the late-summer breeze held an undertone of fall, a car approached me and slowed. I knew what was coming, even before the call floated out the open window: “Hey baby, you got some of that for me?” and the car passed down the street. My legs felt suddenly exposed, and I wished for thick jeans to cover them. I walk this street every day, every season, but wearing as skirt will almost always bring comments about my body from strangers.

Ah, the skirt. Weird symbol of the feminine, enforcer of crossed legs. Open to the ground and to the breeze, accentuating my vulnerability, my sensuality, my femaleness. Catcher of wind and symbol of my gender. Binding and airy, sweet and threatening: I have had to make my peace with this particular article of clothing, and it has involved my deepest conceptions of myself and my world.

For many years, the kind of person I imagined when I thought of “lesbian” is now what I would consider butch—like my lovers, like many of my friends. Generally short-haired, often broad-shouldered and big boned, sometimes slim and boyish, these women are as awkward in dresses as most men. They are the ones my baby-dyke self would notice excitedly in the grocery store or walking down the street. I would nudge my best friend during those coming-out years—a slight blonde boy who was the only other queer person I actually knew—and whisper, “is she?” “Definitely,” he would answer. “Family.” And we would somehow feel bolstered by this sighting, proof that were not alone in our Central Maine town, that there were others out there who were like us.

Made visibly queer by their gender transgression, butch women became my icon of lesbianism. Thus, when I finally decided to be out, my hair came off and my wardrobe settled into a very comfortable dyke-chic: baggy jeans or dockers, button up men’s shirts or t-shirts, boots. The dresses and fancy shoes went in a big bag to Goodwill, the makeup and razors into the trash can. I wanted people to know, when they looked at me, who I was, who I loved, and what I stood for.

But as I learned about the distinctions between gender and sexuality, and became more comfortable in my sexual orientation, I began to collect skirts and dresses once more, at first hauling them out for special occasions and then for almost regular days, like the one last week. I have begun to understand a more fluid sense of my own identity that blends and crosses traditional boundaries. The armpit and leg hair stays but the baggy dockers go; the high heels will never return but the lipstick does, for dates and job interviews. I appreciate the feeling of air and freedom a skirt gives me, and I enjoy feeling pretty—to myself and to my lover.

Still, often, dressing femme—or at least femm-er—makes me uneasy. The skirts and dresses that hang mostly unused in my closet have become heavily fraught symbols of my identity and desire. Many times, wearing more traditional women’s clothing, and especially when my daughter is with me, I unintentionally pass. Since my wardrobe has shifted towards more feminine clothing, I have to come out a lot more frequently; people often unknowingly refer to a boyfriend for me, and I have to state what used to be much more obvious: I am a big old dyke, and there is not, nor is there likely to be, a boyfriend. Probably. And I can forget how it feels to walk visibly queerly through public space—that funny ripple of attention that sometimes trails you like a canoe wake—though when I hold hands with my lover I am quickly reminded.

The kind of attention I get wearing dresses is sometimes unwelcome—like the guy in the car. Sometimes it reminds me of how gender norms are enforced by social practice, as when I waitressed a few years ago and my tips were consistently higher if I wore a skirt to work. Putting on a dress means putting on a whole way of being in the world. It affects how I feel, how others see me, what kind of space I occupy, and what power I appear to have.
Likewise, I find myself dressing in a more masculine way when I am feeling especially vulnerable—like the day after a man in a passing car comments about my body—and I have to remind myself that equating masculine clothes with qualities like strength and safety is the worst kind of essentialism.

Clothing is often shorthand for the various categories we all occupy; it’s a quick way to sort out people and their affinities. Our clothes do often serve as our armor, our exoskeleton. But people are more complicated than their clothing, more flexible, more hodge-podge. Less like cotton or silk and more like the layers of light reflected off water. More like the way skin stretches seamlessly over muscle and bone.

What I would like for myself and for my daughter—for all people—is a world in which any person can dress in the way that makes them feel comfortable, regardless of the body they were born with; where anyone can enjoy the cool softness of their legs together under a skirt without fear of violence or assumptions about who they love. For now, the best I can do is to challenge what I know of gender essentialism, to embody that paradox with heart, and to proudly wear my queer skirt on my hairy legs, with my lover’s hand planted firmly on my bare thigh.

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