Preface: this intro paragraph doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with transition but you have to read on to see the connection.
So this past Monday, I gave a public presentation on the evolution of sex roles and gender. I was trying to deconstruct common misconceptions that people have about how prehistoric men and women behaved and how these behaviours would have supposedly led to “modern” sex roles. The basic message is that 20th century scientists tried to find prehistoric evidence that would justify male dominance by showing that it had been in existence since prehistoric times but that their interpretation of the “evidence” was coloured by their own bias to start with and, therefore, hogwash. My talk was located within a framework of feminist and postmodern anthropology.
Anyway, how these presentations work is that they are held in the school auditorium and other teachers bring their classes. One of my colleagues who brought her students to the talk saw her class again later this week so they had a chance to discuss the presentation. According to her, once they had discussed the actual topic, the conversation shifted to me and my lack of breasts. Not sure I had heard her right the first time when she told me that on the phone, I said: “What? My lack of BREATH? Like I was talking too fast?” But I had heard right – she really meant my lack of breasts.
Apparently, it all started when one student commented that it was interesting that a woman who looked like a man (as in breastless, because I wear a chest compressor, and as in dressed like a man from men’s shoes to a monkey tie) would stand up there and give a feminist perspective on evolution. Since some of the students in the class had known me when I went by my given female name and had long hair, and some had even seen me in a skirt, a discussion of whether I was an effeminate male or a lesbian ensued. With a name like Jacky, who knows?
I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall as the debate raged. “She can’t be a lesbian, she has a son.” “But then WHAT IS SHE?” My poor colleague and friend was put on the spot. “You work with her, you must know her. What is she anyway?” My colleague smartly responded that it shouldn’t be relevant, since it did not affect the content of my presentation.
At first, when I heard that someone has asked WHAT I was, I thought it was funny. Then I felt bad for my colleague who had been put in such an awkward position. But now it makes me sad. WHAT am I? Not WHO am I, but WHAT. “What” is a word people use for things, not people.
Then, of course, the fact that it even matters to them WHAT I am bothers me. If my message that there is no evolutionary or biological grounds for patriarchy and male dominance makes sense, why should it matter whether I am male, female, lesbian, etc.? Finally, all the assumptions flying around would’ve driven me nuts. I can’t be a lesbian if I have a child? I must be a lesbian if I am female-bodied but wear a tie?
In any case, it was quite a wake-up call. I have been binding my breasts and presenting as male all semester with the assumption that students wouldn’t really notice or question. After all, women in Western society, in spite of all the messages about excessive thinness and unattainable beauty, are given a lot more leeway than men when it comes to dress. And I figured they don’t look at their teachers as “sexed” objects anyway, so why would they notice the flat chest? But apparently they notice – which shouldn’t be surprising considering I used to wear tight T-shirts and have quite a substantial pair.
As I plan to begin hormonal therapy this spring or summer and am on my way toward a period of about a year (I imagine) or gender ambiguity, I imagine the situation will be compounded. Will students be able to pay attention to what I am trying to teach them when they are busy trying to figure out WHAT I am? Should I do like one of my lesbian colleagues who just walks into class on the first day and discloses, getting it out of the way so that we can get on with business because all the cards are on the table?