Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How I Found Out I Was Sexist

I wrote this piece for On the Issues magazine, and it's since been picked up by Bilerico and by AlterNet, so I thought I'd post it here, too.

It's been a surprise to find out what a sexist I really am. I've been calling myself a feminist for two decades, and surely was one for the two decades before that.

I'm a woman who found myself with a female husband - the man I married is trans and currently transitioning to living as female in the world. She has been doing so socially for some time and only now has decided to make it official with a name change and all the legal ballyhoo. I've been surprised by a lot of aspects of this process, not least of which is our relationship surviving it.

People can't and don't just change their sexual orientation because they want or need to, and partners of transgender people are no exception. I can't magically become a lesbian, no matter how useful that would be. I am seen as one by most other people when I am holding my female spouse's hand.

If I were categorically heterosexual I wouldn't have managed this transition at all, which is one of many reasons I think of myself as simply queer.

I never played a heterosexual woman very convincingly, but I tried. That's one of the reasons I didn't expect any sexism in my own attitudes about gender in relationships. I was a tomboy growing up. As an adult, I was always a little too forthright and ungiggly for most straight guys. I preferred buying my own dinner and drinks in order to avoid any expectations later in the evening. I didn't play along, reflecting them at twice their natural size, as Virginia Woolf once so famously put it in A Room of One's Own. That said, as the woman in a straight relationship, you're assumed to be the more feminine of the two of you - even if you aren't.

What has surprised me the most are the expectations I had first of a male husband - and what the loss of "him" meant - as well as my more recent expectations of having a female wife. I use both husband and wife because both are true: legally, she is my husband, but socially, people see her as my wife. It is one thing for someone to become "not man," which is more like subtracting visible markers of masculinity, both physical and social. And it is quite different for someone to become a "woman" - which involves something far trickier.

When it came down to it, I feared my partner's transition because I expected her to become a woman, but what I didn't expect was how differently I would see certain things she did.

It wasn't about her femininity. As I noted, she was always more feminine than me, even when she lived in the world as male. My own gender, and our relationship, makes a lot more sense to people - what the gender theorist Judith Butler would call "cultural intelligibility" - now that we live in the world as a lesbian couple. Because I'm a tomboy, mentioning a boyfriend meant conversations would grind to a halt while I waited for people to make sense of what I'd just said. Now, when I mention a female partner, people just keep on talking, underwhelmed by the detail.

I'm sure that there are plenty of women like me, who are regularly surprised by the subtle ways our culture has of telling women to take it down a notch. A friend of mine had someone chide her about how openly she tells her husband how much money he can spend on drinks when they're out. A few years ago a bunch of college guys said they didn't want to marry women who had more money or more impressive jobs than they did, and women who make a lot of money or who have a lot of authority in the world have found that being in relationships with men who don't wear the pants in the relationship still want to be treated as if they do, as Carrie Fisher once pointed out to Maureen Dowd.

But at home, I wanted her to stop doing Lewis Black impersonations and playing air guitar. At the time I'd convinced myself I was just trying to help her fit in - something some transgender people value very much. In other ways, I was shielding her from the kind of admonishment any tomboy is sensitive to. I didn't want her to hear the snide comments I'd heard as a kid, and as a teenager: you're too angry, you don't smile enough, or, why don't you wear heels or dresses or more makeup.

She was - due to the demands of her own internal sense of gender - a tomboy too, but the kind who wears heels and beats everyone at pool. I found myself discouraging her from being the kind of woman who kicks ass and takes names, all for fear she might be clocked as trans.

What's funny is that I never shielded her from the jokes about how "whipped" she was. She heard these regularly when she was my boyfriend. But that was about my gender and my feminism. It was okay for her to call and see if I was cool with her hanging out with co-workers when she was a guy, because that was considerate. As a woman, I found myself embarrassed by her being so considerate because it seemed "clingy" instead.

It astonishes me that that was all it took: same person, same decision, same expression of her love for me, but my own sexism kept me from seeing how much the same it was.

When "he" used to get us both drinks, it was gentlemanly; but once she became female, it was hard not to see it as subservient. "His" humility can look more like a lack of confidence; "his" graciousness can be read instead as self-sacrificing.

All of what she does looks like something else because she's a woman.

I should have known better. My own decision to stay with her as she transitioned to a woman has been categorized as either the worst kind of self-effacing, "stand by your man," doormat codependency, or as evidence of my own radicalized choice to reject gendered expectations.

Feminism is in the eye of the beholder, apparently. I just never expected my husband to be the one whose gender would let me know I needed an optometrist.


Cath said...

Hats off. Very honest and clear-eyed, a real eye-opener. I've had a similar experience (well, more dissimilar than similar, i suppose)when I figured out that the transition from being a judgmental patriarchal intellectual snob to being a feminist only meant i was being judgmental in the opposite direction. still being it, i know, but trying to watch it now that i know.

Dessa said...

I read this post at en|Gender a week or so ago and liked it. On rereading it, I LOVE it.

Fantastic post, Helen.

Unknown said...

I hope that within all of the emotion and gender specific parity checks that you two appreciate how you have taken the covenant of marriage to an all new height.

The love the two of you share has seemingly transcended the flesh in a very real sense. You are pretty amazing (meant as an understatement).