Masculinity and Survival

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A handful of years ago, perhaps 2010, I wrote the following essay for a genderqueer zine that never came to fruition. Since then, it’s been included in a Madison-based music and feminism zine series called Crucial Twat. I thought I’d share it here, too, ’cause why not? I tend to cringe a few times when I re-read it, primarily with use of the terms “female-bodied” and “male-bodied,” which are rather un-PC in 2014, and probably were in specific circles in 2010 when I wrote it. It’s difficult to keep up with the terms, and I hope readers understand my good intentions in stimulating gender discussion. Language irritates me in its limitations and the ease with which it can hurt more sensitive members of our communities. In any case, here’s my story:

Masculinity and Survival

A few years ago, one of my housemates told me of a conversation that he and a close friend shared about masculinity among their peers. In this conversation, the two of them agreed that I was the most masculine person in our five-person house, which is made up of a mix of genders and sexes. When I heard this, I was at first amused and proud, being the genderqueer, female-bodied lady I am, and interested in what qualities they thought I possessed to give me this handsome title. Further contemplation invoked images of the negative and oppressive behaviors associated with masculinity, and, being the “most masculine” in the house suddenly brought forth anxiety and insecurity. Thinking of the gender-presentation hierarchies polluting some queer cultures, I panicked even more; I don’t want to be the abusive, insensitive asshole receiving praise and attention for my masculinity because I’m somehow “succeeding” in the sport of gender-fucking.

I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the masculine/feminine binary. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who are somewhat gender non-conforming. Mom was the “tough love” type, reading science texts, and usually the first to discipline my brother and me. Dad was more reserved, cooking our meals, bathing us when we were little, and serving as a teacher in a lot of practical skills and life lessons. Both also performed cis-gendered roles, with Mom doing the laundry and Dad chopping the wood. My parents were my two most prominent role models as I grew up, and the blurred boundaries between masculine and feminine as performed (or not) by them are what has helped shaped my own gender fluidity.

Thinking more deeply of my own struggles with gender growing up, I realized I built some pretty strong defenses during my coming of age to shield myself from anything that could potentially hurt me. That’s where my masculinity came into play – masculinity as a survival tactic against the insecurity that plagues most young women (and young people in general) in this society. I didn’t want to be subjected to what I perceived to be the consequences of femininity: weakness, oppression, and victimization. I wanted to be like TV heroines Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose strength protected them from becoming victims, and whose power grabbed others’ attention and admiration. I also wanted to be like and liked by my dad, who possessed a lot of knowledge and skills that I admired, hoping that would help me become a strong and independent woman.

Despite my brother having a penis and me having a vagina, I’m the one that spent the most time doing things outdoors with Dad. (My brother, like my mom, was more of the indoor type. Funny how these binaries carry through generations.) I was always out hiking, hunting, and trapping with Dad. In most of my early photos, I’m helping Dad garden, do demolition work, process deer meat, and other manly feats for a four-year-old. Throughout childhood, I recall Dad praising me for my masculine and tomboyish traits, and often ignoring or criticizing me if I took interest in anything particularly girly. I was commended for my interest in science and the natural world, for my intelligence and strength. I got attention, from my dad especially, not for being pretty or nurturing, but for being tough and opinionated. When I decided to stop shaving my legs and armpits, Dad applauded me for casting aside frivolous female fancies. When all of my best friends were guys, Dad considered it a success, as it would be easier for me to find a [traditional] life partner if I was able to relate well with males. In my first romantic relationships, I was the more dominant partner and usually the heartbreaker; I never felt like I didn’t have my share of control in a relationship. My dad indirectly taught me that my masculinity was something to be proud of, and that it would ensure my survival, both physically and emotionally.

Of course, my peers, teen magazines, and television also taught me that I needed to be careful, to not appear too masculine or else suffer the consequences of being (gasp!) “different.” So as I practiced all of these masculine personality traits, I never tried to conceal my feminine qualities. I always looked and dressed like a girl, and besides sometimes wishing I had a penis so that I could pee standing up, I never wanted to be anything but a girl. I wore makeup, went to Lilith Fair and prom, and choreographed Spice Girls songs with my neighbor (who happened to be a boy, I should add). Not until more recently have I become a more introspective being, noticing that my masculinity, which can be perceived as a wall I’ve built up to protect my ego and hide away my insecurity, has its disadvantages.

Whereas my insecurities in childhood included fear of feminine weakness and foolishness, much of my current insecurities stem from my masculine traits – dominance, insensitivity, impatience, and critical nature. I go back and forth between feeling strong and weak, insecure and confident, lady-like and manly, thriving and failing. Most of my personal struggles involve navigating these dualities, and the limitations of language keep me disoriented. I’m learning to let go of language and just be myself, irrespective of labels. This is pretty difficult for someone raised in a culture that needs a name for everything in order to separate and segregate, to rate and rank. Yet, without these words, how would we be able to communicate thoughts on gender and identity, or find others similarly engrossed in identity struggle?

I’ve had some gender discussions with my dad in the past few years, and he still seems to value masculinity above all else, whether it’s projected by what he perceives to be a female body or a male body. He has criticized my male partners for not being macho enough, and encourages me to find a partner who is as “strong” as I am. He was surprisingly accepting of my trans housemate and their use of neutral pronouns, although I doubt he’d feel the same if they were a male-bodied person displaying feminine traits and not vice versa. I see a lot of my dad’s masculine-favoring personality traits in myself, and I’m trying to figure out what that means to me and those I interact with.

Being raised in a patriarchal, sexist society that values masculinity over femininity, many individuals must adopt a masculine front in order to survive, to stand up against the macho bullies, to come out a “winner” in competitive situations. The dominant culture isn’t set up to support a balanced gender scheme, or systems of cooperation and reciprocity, even though, in reality, I believe that it’s the people who can articulate both masculinity and femininity fluidly who are most well-equipped to survive this society as it destroys itself. My dad, who believes in individualism and capitalism, encouraged me to build up a masculine front in order to protect myself in conflict, take care of loved ones, and thus ensure a secure and happy future. He used masculinity to set me up as a “winner” in a patriarchal world.

In my youth, I was surviving feminine insecurity and disempowerment by becoming more masculine. Now, I feel like I’m trying to survive my masculinity so that it doesn’t completely overtake my being, as I don’t want to become some dickhead/bitch stereotype, nor do I wish to be a part of this society’s obsession with competition. I feel grateful for my close friends who endure my machismo and overconfidence, and part of me wonders if they would be as patient with me if I didn’t have a vagina. In any case, I strive to be well-balanced, accountable, and nurturing in my own particular way, without compromising who I am somewhere down deep.

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On Being the “Bike Lady”

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I embraced the title of “Bike Lady” as soon as the words left the 10-year-old’s mouth.  He pedaled to the community shop looking for help with his brakes.  “Hey, Bike Lady!”  Most of the kids never really bothered to learn my name, but that’s cool, ’cause I could never remembered their names, either.

Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth about all those other gendered descriptors forced upon me.  Never quite felt right about “woman,” and “girl” is a bit of a stretch for this 29-year-old.  Titles of Ms. versus Miss, and the dreaded “girlfriend”?  Don’t get me started.  (They all give me the heebie-jeebies.)  But “Bike Lady”?  That’s something I can get behind.

I am currently the only “woman” working as a mechanic in my [rather large] local shop.  And I’m one of … three? … four? professional lady techs that I know of in Madison, versus at least 100 dudes.  We generally hear about each other because of the novelty of such a thing; news spreads through the cycling community almost as fast as wheels can fly.  It was kind of funny when I first met a fellow lady mechanic new to town: “So YOU’RE Sarah Tops!  The only girl mechanic in Madison!”  I soon discovered a third lady tech also associated with my shop.  Suffice it to say: It’s nice to find more ladies wrenching on bikes for a living.

Being a female-bodied bike mechanic can be challenging at times.  Although Madison is a pretty progressive town, I still get the patriarchs who don’t realize that they’re being kind of offensive. In my experience, the icky comments almost always come from customers.  Just two weeks ago, I had an older gentleman come in, innocently aghast to see a woman behind the service counter.  “Wow!  A woman bike mechanic!”  I get this a lot, and some days I love it, some days I hate it, and the difference is all in the unspoken body languages.  The customer offered me his bent wheel.  When I broke the bad news to him that his wheel was “totaled” and that he’d need to replace it, he looked me in the eye and asked me, “How long have you been a mechanic?”  Uhhh… five years professionally, dude, so I friggin’ know when a wheel needs replacing, thankyouverymuch.  My coworker that night, a male sales associate, was watching the exchange and stepped in to agree with me that the wheel indeed needed replacing.

I don’t get too bummed out, because it’s usually older men that say this kind of stupid shit, and I don’t blame them personally for having grown up in a very different era with mentors who reinforced degrading gender stereotypes.  I’m kind of proud that I can amaze them with my greasy, estrogen-fueled presence.  Plus, I get the benefit of adding their behaviors to my growing list of stories.  I get a little more irritated when the comments come from women.  In fact, if my memory serves me right, I think it was a lady who insisted on working with a male mechanic one day at the non-profit shop I managed.  Part of my job duties at that shop was to train our young coworkers in mechanics, so I was constantly helping them do bike repairs and answering their questions.  When the customer went to our newest hire for help “from a man,” the teen kinda shrugged and said, “I don’t know; you’ll have to talk to Sarah — she’s the mechanic.”

There’s also the times I’ve been hit on at the shop, which is generally a nuisance, and even more a nuisance when you see older male customers hitting on the teenaged employees.  That’s just gross.  However, the time I was hit on because a man was admiring my leg hair was an even mixture of gross and HILARIOUS, especially because he offered to drive me around in his expensive vintage Cadillac.

The good news is that I’ve had a blast working with a lot of the dudes at the shops I’ve been involved with.  Most men are actively supportive of women in the bike industry, and I feel as though I’ve been treated fairly as a fellow collective member, employee, coworker, and manager.  The non-profit shop I worked at was MAJORITY female (although the tech department was almost wholly male), and I thrived in that environment. Many men have taken the time to train and mentor me in bike repair, customer service, parts-buying, managing, and community organizing.  I wonder what it would have been like to have learned this stuff from non-dudes, which is why I’m working hard on becoming that role-model for the next crop of lady and trans* bike mechanics and shop owners.

Working in a male-dominated space, the parts that make me wince is the off-handed comments or distasteful jokes that affect me not as a mechanic, but as a female-bodied person.  It’s the kind of crap you hear from dude-bros everywhere: fat-phobia, obsessing over women and sex, the occasional gay joke, and, yes, a fair amount of cock jokes.  (Okay, I will admit that I like a good cock joke … when appropriate.  Which is admittedly tricky.)  These comments are not all that common in the cycling circles I’ve been involved with, but they do persist.  Sometimes they catch me out of nowhere, like last night, which may have spurred me to get off my ass and finally write this blog post.  Two coworkers and I were getting ready to close up shop, casually discussing female mechanics.  “We used to have two full-woman mechanics.”  I asked what he meant by “full-woman,” thinking it had something to do with weight and gesturing to my belly.  He answered by gesturing to his invisible breasts, making a comment that a trans-woman tech was not “full” woman, as if erasing her existence and her struggles!  I exclaimed something along the lines of “Oh!” and stuttered something in defense, but we were all distracted with closing, and I was confused because I really like the guy who just spewed utter SHIT out of his mouth.  Twenty hours later, I am still kicking myself for not making it more a point to call out this trans-phobic, sexist bullcrap.  As I edit this post a week later, I feel like I missed my chance.  But I’m SO prepared for that next comment that comes up, and I’m going to kick some metaphorical ass.

Which brings me to my next point within the scope of “Being a Bike Lady:” Being One of the Guys.  It’s a skill that I’ve grown quite good at, I think.  I spent most of my life hanging out with dudes, except for that awkward-makeup-and-padded-bras stage in junior high.  A tom-boy, you could say.  Perhaps my close relationships with boys and men have allowed me the privileges and abilities to comfortably take up space in male-dominated places, … and have allowed men to occasionally feel comfortable enough to make stupid sexist remarks around me.  I tend to be pretty confident and straightforward, which helps me put up with a lot of shit.

If you look at mass media and dominant culture, there are a million reasons why we don’t see more women in the bike industry.  First off, Park Tools don’t come in pink!  Okay, so that was a joke, but, honestly, toys marketed to girls are never toolsets; they’re play kitchens and baby dolls.  When you google-image-search “woman mechanic,” half the hits you get are soft-core porn.  And do you know how fucking hard it is to find a decent pair of women’s work pants?  Like, actual work pants, not the kind you wear as a waitress at Applebee’s.

I guess what I’m trying to say that bike shops are still full of testosterone and the occasional machismo that shines through, which is why there aren’t many of us Bike Ladies out there.  We’re headed on a good trajectory, though, as more and more women step forward as leaders in the bike world.  And I have crushes on all of them.

To end, let me explain why I like “Bike Lady,” because I know you’re all dying to know.  First off, the term is a collision of macho and femme: the greasy, gritty, uncontrollable bicycle; and the delicate, playful, prim-and-proper female.  If you know me, you know I like collisions.  Secondly, “lady,” to my complex brain, is a word I associate with gender play.  The term “lady” is often thrown around in burlesque and drag scenes and used by feisty feminists, playing up femininity and the power of choosing femininity to express oneself.  Every day, I feel like I’m playing out gender, and so “lady” seems a better fit than “woman” and the myth of some kind of shared “sisterhood.”  Thirdly, “Bike Lady” reminds me of all those sweetly mischievous kids who wanted to learn how to fix their bikes, and they’re a part of strong memories that I carry with me as inspiration and guidance.