Monday, April 12, 2010

Labels So Useless

At first I thought Chris was gay, even before I met him. It was his husband, Marc, after all, who had told me that he and Chris had been married for four years. Marc is one of the students attending the school at which I work. After telling me that he had a "friend" that also wanted to enroll as a student, he closed my office door and quietly confided that he and Chris have a legally recognized marriage, Prop 8 be damned.

Then I met Chris, with his purple punk-esque hair and baggy cut-off shorts. I liked him immediately. Where Marc is tall and gangly, Chris is short and rotund. Both wear corrective lenses. Marc had some more information to confess. Chris, despite appearances, is still physically and legally a female. Marc uses male pronouns when speaking about and referring to Chris.

I was happy to do the same. I've had two years of Gender Studies as a major, at a major university - I'm well-informed and hip for a middle-aged guy. I'm open-minded and flexible (I like to think).

Still, it was a bit of an adjustment. Chris's financial aid officer explained that for legal purposes, we need to refer to Chris by his birth name, and even change the name in our electronic files to his original female name. I found myself struggling with pronouns, bouncing between the words 'she' and 'he,' 'her' and 'his,' during our weekly meeting with the Director of Financial Aid, sometimes in a single sentence even.

My level of discomfort is minimal, and it's not even with Chris or with his marriage to Marc. It's more with his financial aid officer who is not from here, originally, not from Southern California. When discussing Chris with this coworker, I found myself tripping over pronouns more than when casually chatting with Chris, himself, or even just with Marc.

It's a learning experience for me, to meet Chris and adjust to how he would like the world to perceive the way he presents himself - the way he "constructs his gender," as we had learned about in school. I have comfortably called biological males 'her' for years, now, and have referred to male friends as "she" in a light teasing way, even in the spirit of gay camaraderie ("Get a load of her. Who the hell does she think she is?").

If men have the freedom (to a degree) to act and behave as women in our society, then why can't the reverse be allowed? Sure, even someone as "hip and open-minded" as me - someone as gay as me - needs to confess to feeling some discomfort when interacting with individuals such as Chris.

Perhaps it's because I take little risk when constructing my own gender in the "socially acceptable" way that I do.

I know several men who act as masculine as they want or as feminine as they want, depending on the individual. Masculine and feminine traits are even interchangeable among some of my friends, given the situation.

Chris should be allowed to be as boyish as he wants and as feminine as he doesn't want to be, no matter what's underneath those baggy cut-off shorts . . . 'should' being the key word here. I'd also like to think that Chris may be typical of a more open-minded younger generation, at least here in the Los Angeles area. I'd like to think that this punkish, purple-haired individual is a sign of progress.