To Sir, With Love

If gender-stereotypes don't exist anymore . . . why am I still getting called "Sir"?

In recent discussions of my "Overheard at Safeway" (posted here and at Shakesville), some commenters said that they had been raised "gender-neutral" (one even referred to the "gender-neutral police"). Others posited that their male and female offspring were "just different" from day one, which seems to support the concept of innate differences between biologically male and biologically female humans.

Now, I am definitely "biologically female". I check out chromosomally and everything -- so why am I still getting called "Sir"?

(Warning -- some photos below may be NSFW.)

Exhibit A -- this is a photo of me snapped in September of this year (for Kate Harding's very excellent BMI illustration project):

Looking at this photo, you will undoubtedly notice right away that I am "obese" (I kid, of course -- but the BMI doesn't-- I'm obviously at death's door -- OK, I kid, again. Sorry -- this shit just cracks me up!).

You may have also noticed that I have short hair, and that I have a rather noticeable set of tatas (those are the things that are making bulges outward from my upper torso, and which gave rise to the now-infamous TWH[tm] -- "Titty-Wrap Hug").

For those of you not "in the know" lesbionically, I am what is known as a "butchy" dyke.

Let me make it clear here that I am not a "stone butch", but I'm pretty butchy, and I always have been pretty butchy. It's been reported that I am "not butchy enough" for some dykes, and "too butchy" for others.

Que sera, sera.

(As a side-note, I just realized that when you include the word butchy many times in a single paragraph, it starts to look very strange. Butchy. Butchy. Butchy.)

There's the set-up.

The other day, when I was at the store, I was called "sir". Again.

As is usually the case, the person who sirred me, upon hearing me speak, became instantly flustered, apologized quickly, and then looked away -- as hard as they could.

This is not the first time that I have been called "sir" (nor, I imagine, the last). I used to get this a lot more than I do now, and I've pondered whether it was because my hair is slightly longer now than it used to be, whether I dress ever-so-slightly less butchy than in the past, or whether, since I gained weight, my tatas are even less avoidable than they were when I was a skinny little shit.

However, I don't think any of that is really the source of the gender-projection dysphoria that I seem to produce in strangers.

Here are some pictures of me from my past (click to enlarge):

During the time that these pictures were taken, I was sirred at least once a month (on average), even when I had hair down to my ass.

What you cannot see in any of these photos are these:

Face it -- they're kind of hard to miss, and they have been with me since age 13, at approximately the same size and shape (disclaimer: altitudinal coordinates have changed over time).

Do not click to enlarge this photo -- it's just not necessary.

My hypothesis is that it is not my hair, facial construction, or body type that results in me being genderized by strangers via a "masculine" form of address.

I am very short, my voice ranges from high-pitched to "annoyingly-squeaky" (depending on how much I've been smoking and how excited/upset I am), and my fashion choices (I'm using the term "fashion" very loosely here) are decidedly gender-neutral -- usually sweat-pants and a fleece shirt -- 90% of the time (OK, I'll come clean -- more like 97% of the time)

So, I don't think it is my physical appearance or dress -- I believe it is my manner and my mannerisms.

I speak loudly. I am brash and direct. My natural stance is "feet apart, arms akimbo" (think "Stands-with-a-Fist" -- but only if you can avoid thinking of Kevin Costner at the same time). I tend to look people directly in the eye, to stomp when I walk, and my stride is long and forward-moving rather than short and side-swaying.

And it's always been that way:

So how did this happen?

Nature? Nurture?

I've decided that it simply cannot be "Nurture": I was raised in a culture and a time when gender roles were far more stringently applied than they are today.

I was constantly admonished to keep my legs/feet together (even though no one bothered to explain to me that to do otherwise was either an open declaration of my slutitude, or an attempt to emulate a man).

I was repeatedly lectured on the appropriate toys/activities/body postures/vocal tones that fit with the following descriptors: "Feminine", "Girl-Stuff", and "Lady-Like".

Somehow, it just didn't take.

I'm going to argue again that the gender roles and expectations that many people would like to attach to chromosomal sexual status CAN NOT be scientifically proven as genetically pre-disposed -- even if you do extensive studies about how humans are supposed to be able to identify gender by gait patterns -- because gender-expectations and gender-roles are cultural, Cultural, CULTURAL!!!

(Oh, and have I mentioned that they're cultural?)

Let's take a fairly external item: Clothing.

Even though fashion in clothing is a phenomenon which is incredibly mercurial, changing literally year-to-year within our culture, there remain clothing-based stereotypes which invoke gender-roles and expectations, such as: "Who wears the pants in this family, anyway?"

Ask any English-speaking person in western culture what that means. They can probably tell you. (Hint: It has to do with Patriarchy.)

Even though pants are relatively new to western culture (introduced in Europe as an evolution of the "hose" worn by men in the 15th century), it has only been within my lifetime that the thought of women wearing pants in the US was down-graded from scandalous/possibly-culture-destroying to acceptable-but-not-really-feminine. (The demurely crossed ankles that you see in the photo above -- the one with me pouting on the porch -- are those of my grandmother in 1964, who wore "slacks" exactly once in her lifetime -- and only after my grandfather passed away, cuz God knows that would have killed him.)

You may want to say: "Oh, hey, Portly Dyke -- now that's 'a bridge too far'! ;) No one really thinks that pants are reserved for men anymore!"

Wanna bet?

Google the phrase: "women wear pants", and take a look at the ongoing debate about whether good Xtian women can wear a specific article of clothing without incurring God's wrath by violating Deuteronomy 22:5.

Oh, and just for good measure? Why don't you suggest to some "Masculist" that he "get back to his roots" and put on a pair of tights? I double-dog dare you.

Never mind that, at the time Deuteronomy 22:5 was written, the men in question weren't wearing pants (not to rub it in or anything, but they were wearing dresses), and a woman wearing pants wouldn't have had a problem with being mis-identified as a man and being punished for cross-dressing, so much as being annihilated because she was mistaken for a Scythian.

See, it's cultural. It's Cultural. It's CULTURAL!!!!!!

Gender identification/roles/expectations are incredibly flexible constructs. They change from generation to generation, from country to country, and from tribe to tribe.

Still don't believe me? Tell me: who's the man and who's the woman?

We all know that graceful, swaying motions, make-up to enhance the eyes and mouth, elaborate jewelry and headdresses are the province of women, don't we?

Tell it to the Wodaabe:

I "read" as "sir" in this culture, because of this culture's gender-role coding. I don't "cue" correctly for this culture's expectation of what a woman is supposed to sound like, walk like, act like, dress like. I don't cross my arms over my breasts when a man stares at them. I'm more likely to stare back and when he finally looks up, say: "Are you lookin' at me?" in my best DeNiro.

Truth be known, I don't even mind being "sirred" -- in fact, I prefer it to being "ma'amed" (which I think, sadly, testifies to my own internalized and culturally-coded misogyny).

I want to repeat again, in case anyone hasn't gotten this yet -- I'm not saying that it is impossible that there may be innate differences between biological males and biological females. I am saying that, until we can really perceive and understand our own cultural biases, assumptions, and projections about gender-roles, I don't believe that there is any way to perform empirical research on what, if any, those differences might be.

Which probably means that we need to have an extra-terrestrial to do the research for us:

Posted byPortlyDyke at 10:30 PM  


NameChanged said... December 9, 2007 at 8:51 AM  


I was thinking of this while reading your last post. The cultural indoctrination of gender begins in the womb. Parents are asked if they want to know the sex of their child, so they can "prepare." I wanted to wait, but my hubby wanted to know, so we found out. Now I am swimming in pink everything. There is nothing wrong with pink, but everyone is ready to tell my daughter what it means to be a girl, beginning with wearing pink. I feel strange about this, as I want to be as gender neutral as possible, but this stuff is coming from so many other outlets, that I feel I won't be able to combat it.

Anyways, enough about my bs. Yet again you have blown my mind with a fab post!!! Also, other than the hair, age, and the "butchiness" you and I are quite similar. I haven't been sirred, and I wonder why.

Continue confusing, and I think you will inadvertently educate some idiots. :)

Melissa McEwan said... December 9, 2007 at 9:46 AM  

Great post -- and great tits.

To your total lack of surprise, no doubt, I'm in complete agreement with you. Knowing how much my psychology effects my body (why, yes, extreme stress does give me headaches and stomach upset, and telling myself to fucking relax cures me almost instantly!), I can't imagine that, if I were pregnant, my knowing the sex of the fetus I was carrying would have no affect on it.

How could my thoughts and hopes and concerns and fears for my future child, nestled inside the same body that reacts to my thoughts and hopes and concerns and fears for myself, leave her/him unaffected?

And how could it not make some difference, when my thoughts and hopes and concerns and fears for a daughter would be different than they would be for a son, because I know our culture would treat them differently, because I would worry about raising a daughter who did not succumb to sexism and a son who did not perpetuate it? I can't believe for a moment that the womb of a woman desperate to reinforce gender roles provides an environment less affective in this way.

Transmitting via our bodies the realities of the culture in which we live seems incredibly more likely to me than not doing so.

Which is, naturally, why all the biological determinism rubbish holds little sway for me. Even if an ostensbily sex-specific behavior is demonstrable from birth, that doesn't remotely convince me it's in our genes.

And anyone who's ever had a physical reaction to something they've thought or felt should, IMO, be similarly unconvinced.

PortlyDyke said... December 9, 2007 at 9:54 AM  

Namechanged -- You have strong empathy from me about dealing with the deluge of societal pinkness --

I agree with Melissa entirely -- I even used to say, when my boys were teens, that I was glad to be raising boys because I would have worried about my daughter's experience of the world.

Here's to working for a world where your daughter can wear pink if she wants to be, and is safe and strong.

NC -- aren't you, like, ready to pop that baby out any minute? Hope you are all well and comfortable.

PortlyDyke said... December 9, 2007 at 9:57 AM  

Oh, and Melissa -- I put in that Divine clip just for you ;)

Jennifer said... December 9, 2007 at 12:29 PM  

My family has a photograph of a great- (or great-great) grandfather (or some such) dressed, as a baby, in his best pink dress.

Pink being the masculine color at that time, of course. Too strong and warlike (or some such) for us delicate flowers.

My girls are swimming in Barbie stuff because they love it and their grandparents (on his side) love to buy it for them. They love the pink and the sparkle and you should see the poses they strike because that's how you pose/strut when there's a camera or an audience.

They are also aware that individual preferences are valid, that tools and cars and science and sports are for girls too. I'm looking forward to them growing out of the automatic conformity as they mature.

But I wish I could see what they would be like in a world that promoted individual choice over automatic pink & bluing.

NameChanged said... December 9, 2007 at 2:15 PM  

You are correct PD. I am down to less than 2 weeks. Everything seems to be going well, and I thank you for noticing. :)

PortlyDyke said... December 9, 2007 at 2:19 PM  

NC -- Best of easeful deliveries and happy new baby times to you and your spouse!

Anonymous said... December 9, 2007 at 3:53 PM  

When I was pregnant, everyone kept asking me "what are you having?" I kept responding "a BABY I hope!"
It was very confusing to them that I never "found out" the sex of baby, cause it really wasn't important to me. Even now, folks say "O-so you have one of each! You can stop now!" I remind them that I had decided to "stop" before I the second child ws born, and that gender played no part of that decision. I think many folks don't think you are complete till you have birthed a male. Sigh.

FriĆ°vin said... December 9, 2007 at 3:56 PM  

I have an Alan Watts book around here somewhere in which he suggested that it makes way more sense for a woman to wear pants than a man, because, if I recall, we have the issue of which leg of the trousers does the {ahem} manhood belong in.

I guess I consider myself fortunate because my {ahem} manhood isn't long enough to matter.

The Cunning Runt said... December 9, 2007 at 6:42 PM  

kona, HAAHAHAHAHAHA! Ask me about size!

I recently saw jazz amazionado Craig Harris perform, wearing a floor-length skirt of sorts.

I say "of sorts" because it was a skirt-like single panel in front, with separate legs behind.

And peeps, he was hawt! A Big Black Dude with At Ti Tude!

Recounted because I believe there are pocket of dissolution re: gender-specific clothing.

The Goths are doing their part in this, and I thank them!

The Cunning Runt said... December 9, 2007 at 6:43 PM  

PS, Devine rocks my world! She had as much 'Tude as a Body could hold!

PortlyDyke said... December 9, 2007 at 7:54 PM  

Yeah CR -- I was intent on ending this post with some vid of "Walk Like a Man" -- I couldn't believe my luck when I found Divine.

Gender Blank said... December 9, 2007 at 10:12 PM  

Great post, PD, as usual.

I used to get sirred as a high schooler mostly because I had short hair and didn't wear makeup. Now that I have long hair, I notice that people comment on it a lot if I wear it down. I've told them that I wish they wouldn't do it because I feel the gesture, professed to be well-meaning on their part, is an attempt to enforce some sort of code of femininity (especially because my long hair is about the only feminine thing about me).

But it doesn't stop them from commenting every effing time. And petting it. Why do people feel entitled to pet my hair? It's like they're trying to "reward" me for being a good little girl and conforming to their codes.


Stomp on, PD, stomp on.

splord said... December 10, 2007 at 11:10 AM  

PD, here's a non-gender specific tag for you. Enjoy.

witchtrivets said... December 10, 2007 at 4:11 PM  

Great boobs, I mean great post.

I think it must be a cultural bias, but the basis of the whole sirring thing is very hard for me to completely understand. My partner gets sirred all the damn time, but even when I had a buzzcut I could not get sirred. I don't understand it. She has obvious boobs (and fabulous too, I might add) and a girly voice.

But she walks confidently and wears comfortable clothes. So, obviously she is a man. Because a woman is not supposed to do either of those things.

Fannie Wolfe said... December 17, 2007 at 8:51 AM  

Ugh, I'm so glad you mentioned the Body Mass Index.

I find it extremely annoying that the BMI considers me almost overweight- when I am very athletic (5'10", 160 pounds) and have more muscle mass than most women! (Not to brag)

Anyway, great post. I'm sure my girlfriend, who has obviously large boobs, yet gets sirred all the time, can relate :-)

Anonymous said... December 17, 2007 at 2:25 PM  

I think you are correct that it is mannerisms/attitude which so easily confuse people who buy the gendercrap. I'm stone femme and people "sir" me often.


Anonymous said... December 18, 2007 at 7:13 PM  

I love this post, and I love you (followed you here from your posts at Shakesville).

I am a pretty "femme" looking gal, I think. I've got the kind of button nose Laura Ingles Wilder would kill for. My facial features are all round--cheeks eyes nose mouth. I have hips and thighs (though, sadly, not much ta-tas). My wrists, feet, and hands are tiny (with long fingers and toes).

But I cut my hair off, and get "sirred" all over the place. And once they realize I'm female, they assume I'm gay. Because of SHORT HAIR.

Is it misogynistic that your boobs are the first thing that popped out at me in the first photo? :P

If confident, out-spoken, opinionated, and intelligent are "masculine" qualities, I'll take being "sirred" any day.

Sabertooth Screaming Lemur said... July 21, 2008 at 1:28 AM  

I agree with both the post and the tits! It's nice to see some non-porn boobies on teh inter-webs. actually, they look a lot like mine (is that a TMI?). I never get "sirred" but my partner does; however she's pretty dude-lookin.
And gender blank, I feel you on the "petting the hair" thing. Sometimes people do it to me too, and it's like "thanks for the compliment, now please get your hands off me when i didn't give you permission!"
PD, you're awesome (did I mention your boobs are great, and is that wrong of me?).

Anonymous said... March 21, 2009 at 5:50 PM  

The word "lesbionically" is just one little gem of win in the treasure chest of awesome that is this post.

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