Gender and Presentation

I live in the Orange Bubble now. It’s what we call Princeton, that mystical land shielded from all politics except the most cultured debates; from socioeconomic class differences and extreme disadvantage; from care or worry or really any of the problems that plague the majority of Americans, especially in these challenging financial times. Any permeability in the Bubble, in the sameness of never having to worry about anything except occasionally academics, is shocking. It is, rather embarrassingly, such a stark contrast that departing from the Bubble causes days’ worth of contemplation. But I intend, here, to talk about not the effects of the economic crisis or even the nature of Princeton’s atmosphere of gross entitlement. I intend to talk about another, to me more surprising, aspect of the Orange Bubble.

I wrote in high school about “my life as a guy,” my constant quest to balance my baggy sweatshirts and short haircut with the boobs and womanly curves underneath. More often than not, this was a mental and psychological challenge, trying to decide how I wanted people to perceive me. Sometimes I found that this made it easier to be accepted in certain, particularly all-male, social circles; more often than not my presentation was and is just an expression of how I feel most at ease. But that usual ease didn’t erase the fear I felt, for example, whenever I entered a women’s restroom, lest my right to be there be questioned or lest I simply be screamed at in alarm.

I still have very serious and confusing questions about my gender identity, but since coming to Princeton, things have changed. I no longer fear to enter the women’s restroom, because no one’s screamed at me all semester; I no longer get double-takes when I wear a tie to a function. For all its conservatism and traditionalism, Princeton students are surprisingly unfazed by a girl doing her level best to look like she isn’t one.

That may be a testament, though, to the circles I travel in more than it is to Princeton as a whole. There are more folks here who are “tuned in,” as my mother would say; who are used to seeing and interacting with young people who aren’t too into the gender binary. And they’re easy for me to find, whether through LGBT groups or in the less-labeled, though alternative, aspects of the undergraduate social scene; or among graduate students and faculty, all of whom certainly have encountered many of the “nontraditional” among their own number. But whatever it says, whether about college, about Princeton, or about the friends I’ve made here, I no longer expect the criticism that I don’t take enough care to look attractive to boys, nor my fellow teenagers asking me outright what my gender is. I no longer, most importantly, even think too much to myself about how I present. When I went to see a Broadway play last month, for example, I wore a skirt, sweater, and boots, easily the most feminine I’ve dressed since my high school prom. On the other hand, last night, I wore a tie just for the hell of it. It’s easier, in this college world, to go back and forth, and to avoid getting entangled in massive identity crises in the process.

Imagine the striking nature, then, of such remarks when they do come, out of context as they are. It was jarring last night, for example, when I was having a conversation with some fellow members of my residential college. I mentioned east-coast standards of dress, and how I’d asked my parents to get me collared shirts for Christmas, so that I wouldn’t feel quite so underdressed all the time in my California sweatshirts and cargo pants. A girl, apparently quite taken aback, exclaimed something along the lines of, “But guys wear collared shirts!” I didn’t quite know what to say, so unused am I by now to the sense of constantly challenging expectations that pervaded my last two years of high school. I looked down at myself, dressed in jacket and tie on that particular occasion, and wondered. I saw this girl often, in the dining hall–had she noticed me? Had she registered at all how I dress, how my hair is cut, how I sit with my knees apart and laugh loudly? Or maybe–and this was the particularly jarring bit–I really am ultra-insulated, in a sort of Rainbow Bubble within the Orange one, if you will, where gender norms are defied daily and everyone has the language of theory to talk about it. Maybe, I realized, people are just more polite at Princeton, and maybe most are as traditionalist as the kids in my high school who didn’t know how to react when a girl asked for guys’ sizes in t-shirts and PE clothes.

I still don’t know what purpose my presentation serves, gender stereotypes being as they are a societal construct. What statement do I mean to make with my appearance and my mannerisms? Am I just being a provocateur, or am I being me? How much of that would I sacrifice not to feel afraid of the constant challenges and confusion that I’m paranoiacally starting to anticipate again? Or is there, perhaps (the conclusion I’m now reaching) an educative purpose to all this? Can something be gained from telling a girl in my residential college that I prefer to wear collared shirts, even if they’re considered a “male” clothing item? Can I consider it an achievement to respond matter-of-factly to all the teenagers’ challenges?

But if I’m still confused as to where exactly this leaves me and my sartorial choices, I know a few things. I write this now on a plane back home to San Diego, a city in a state that I haven’t seen since Proposition 8 passed in November. And I think about what I said and wrote, when that happened, about the need not to hide anymore. As I said many times in the weeks after the election, the past few years of the gay rights movement, and the marriage equality movement, have relied on normalizing. The idea is to demonstrate that queer folks are just like straight folks, and therefore non-threatening; that everyone wants a house and a yard and two kids and is, if not conservative, at least not radical. Not question-inducing. Not different. But I think what happened in California indicated that our future lies in confronting and embracing difference. On a very small scale, my ability to always walk into the restroom of my choice without any girls screaming depends on doing it often enough, and putting up with the screams, until it eventually becomes commonplace. That, in our own ways, is what any of us have got to do to get ahead in this world.

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