29 June 2013

To Kiss or Shake Hands

This is a rant for all the women who like to keep their hair short and enjoy their pants with deep and useful pockets. Women who haven't the time or sense for make-up and jewelry, who'd rather avoid shopping unless it involves scavenging parts and tools for some constructive invention or spending time in some workshop seeing how things are put together or taken apart and imagine how they might be reassembled for some other use. Why are these interests and habits and personalities associated almost exclusively as “masculine,” “manly” behaviors in our western modern society? How does the presence of certain genitalia help one hold a hammer, or a saw, or a measuring tape? How does gender relate to one's ability to think spatially or mechanically, to design and have a desire to build, to create, to tinker? I am not trying to be a man when I put on my work pants with the hammer sling and reinforced knees. I am being a woman who happens to work in construction, who finds that clothing designed for men is more durable and has better pockets. I am being practical keeping my hair short in my line of work, not wanting anything dangling into a saw blade or distractions that might catch on my work gloves, make gripping tools harder to reach. I do not understand how I am made to be less of a woman simply because you perceive of me as more like a man. These judgments and exclusions hurt both genders and insult our shared humanity, preventing us form being a whole and well-rounded species.

When I was growing up my mom bought me a beach towel with the following mantra printed in big letters: Whatever a boy can do, a girl can do better. A one-sided stab, a tongue-in-cheek jab, but a phrase that bolstered my inner tomboy and still comes to mind every time I am faced with machista sneers or skeptic looks questioning whether we girls actually build our house or had a manly carpenter hired. As I have grown, moving about the world, I have surrounded myself with talented and creative humans, self-identified boys and girls who all know how to chop firewood and cook fine meals, or who can perceive the subtle tones of color, of melody, and express inner visions without a shred of confusion as to who they are. Because in the end we are all artistic creations, each unique as snowflakes, searching for ways to express ourselves fully and completely, begrudgingly having to tolerate at times the judgments of a diseased society obsessed with checking boxes with only one of two options.

In a culture like Chile, your gender identification is a split-second judgment upon meeting a new person: women receive a kiss on the cheek, men a firm hand shake. To kiss or shake hands and I see the anxiety on this new person's face if he is a man because kissing another man's cheek is a custom only among gay men or very close family, and no one wants to insult a woman shaking her hand when you could be getting a kiss. I haven't got the normal cultural markers; no earrings, short hair, practical clothing very unisex. At first I tried to use direct action: taking the firm hand shake presented and pulling the bewildered man in for a quick cheek kiss, declaring my femininity, insisting on my gender recognition. In many cases, realizing the error mid-reach for the hand shake, things were laughed off and accepted. But recently as we meet more people in our rural community, with gender bias more pronounced ironically even though most women in the countryside are as tough as men and work just as hard, I have been receiving deadly flashed of shocked eye contact, cold reactions, and even threats. My insistent kiss when the hand shake was clearly the judgment not only calls out their error publicly, it embarrassingly makes a fool of the man to his face, and everything is further complicated by the continued perception that I am a man, or a boy as my lack of bulk and facial hair indicate, thereby creating even more confusion that I am a gay boy being cheeky. And a cheeky gay tween in the Chilean countryside is not in safe territory. Norah Vincent's excellent book Self-Made Man helped me understand the subtle gender codes I was breaking and confirmed the danger I was sensing as real. I can not change the societal norms of gender bias overnight and certainly have no intention of dressing myself up in conforming, codified “gender appropriate” disguises, so in the mean time I have decided to just take the hand shake with warm eye contact, hoping humor fuels recognition of the silliness of these rituals, and if upon leaving we have an understanding, he may or may not receive a kiss depending on how I feel about it.

In the end, to kiss or shake hands is all about confused norms of gender perception, calling attention to the ridiculous aspects of dividing ourselves over gender rules and judgments. We are all a little of both genders and a little of neither as well, but in my opinion everyone is deserving of wonderfully designed pockets in comfortable clothing regardless of their hair length.


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