by Mahfam Malek
Today? Oh, am I ever struggling with notions of masculinity and femininity and the in-between and the outside-of.
Over the past couple of days at work I have been subjected to the highest concentration of the toxic combination of male gaze and male boundary-pushing aggression passed off as sincerity and compliments and why won’t I just engage? he’s just trying to be nice! since I began working in this particular place. Since this kind of thing has been increasing steadily and slowly, I can’t help but associate it at least partly with the growth of my hair, the femininity and sexual orientation it implies, and the ways it makes my queerness and my ever-evolving gender identity invisible to dominant and mainstream culture.
This is complicated. The more generally aware I become of power dynamics and oppression as I age and learn, the more I rage in the face of being interacted with by this culture as “a beautiful woman,” “a pretty girl,” “a pretty face,” and basically any and all comments outside of a hyper-politicized and safe (to me. as in, queer) context about my beautiful hair. I have been cultivating this hair-growth for somewhat muddled reasons: proving to myself that I can step into the uncomfortable, care for something over the long-term even when it is not convenient, and push myself gently beyond the limits I have set for myself. But the implications are proving to be more uncomfortable than I had anticipated. Part of what being genderfluid means for me, so far, is that I can’t seem to integrate who I am inside with who I appear to be to the outside world, ever. In fleeting moments and in certain spaces, I feel safe in this. I feel held by people who understand that what I look like, and how they perceive me, is not necessarily who I am. But in most of the world, I feel both hyper-visible and completely invisible – defined by others’ perceptions, rather than by my self-definition. These disconnects are becoming less and less bearable.
I stand in a funny place. I don’t want to make light of, appropriate, or make assumptions about trans-masculine, butch, or otherwise masculine identity. I don’t identify in any of these ways, although I do hover around the edges of these identities, sometimes dropping in, and I stand in allyship, shoulder-to-shoulder with my trans, genderqueer, and otherwise gender non-conforming homies in our queer community and in our fight for gender justice. In my fluidity, I similarly hover near and around feminine identity, sometimes touching down, and because of my body, my parts, my socialization, and our collective socialization, I am far more often boxed into femininity than masculinity. I don’t want either of these ends of the binary, nor any part in the in-between space in this spectrum, to be punished. But mostly, considering that power dynamics ingrained in our society locate femininity as inferior, I feel most protective over my femininity. I don’t want my femininity, external or internal, public or private, to be punished, or objectified, or deemed powerless. (I know these are not new thoughts.) How then, to live with what is? A culture that wants to punish, objectify, and strip power from any whisper of femininity? Do I rage in the face of that? Or do I adopt an outward, more masculine identity that might feel safer, like I am less objectified, less likely to be desired or sought after or raped (which is about power, and not about desire) by those with bodies and skintones and bank accounts that determine that they have more power than I do? Wouldn’t that play right into what I’ve been told is right? That masculinity is not only allowed, but celebrated, a thing to be coveted and revered. And femininity is nothing more than what it is in relation to the dominant.
I know this is tricky. I grapple with writing this. I can’t imagine what relationship to these dynamics my trans-identified friends (and the many transfolks I don’t know) have. I don’t want to diminish the validity of these identities. I am just trying to figure out where I land. I am in a big opening around my gender identity and I don’t know who I am, or which direction to go, or if I need to go anywhere at all.
So here’s what happened. Yesterday afternoon, at work, a young man asked me for my phone number. I was far nicer than I would have been had this taken place anywhere but at my workplace, which he has patronized more than once. With that power dynamic already in place, I politely explained that I was feeling pretty maxed on the social sphere and not looking for new people to add to my life. He persisted, “What if I just got your number and texted you a nice message every once in a while, and maybe sometime you’d change your mind?” He remarked on my tan, saying it indicated that I like to be outside, and maybe I’d like to hang out by the lake sometime? I declined again. I explained that I was at capacity. He asked me how many friends are too many. I explained that I was not looking for new friends and I didn’t want to get into that discussion. He then informed me that “other baristas like to talk.” He told me that he just wanted to get to know me, so I told him something about me: that I’m good at drawing boundaries. He told me he’s good at pushing them. Taking a breath and taking a moment and forcing my brain to scream at my mouth and demand that it not call him a rapist, I said, “Well. That feels non-consensual and icky to me.” And I turned around and walked into the back room.
What the fuck kind of rape culture do we live in that this lizard thought informing me that he’s into “pushing boundaries” was some kind of pick-up line? This level of entitlement and male privilege and power show make me want to vomit.
I was approached twice more in the last 24 hours. Once by a friend and coworker of a friendly regular, who first informed me that he thought I was “really cool,” while staring hard and leaving a five dollar tip for one beer, and who then came back to buy a round for his friends and tell me that he thought I was really beautiful over and over again, waiting for some kind of response that he was not getting. And you know what? I was thanking him. Because that is what I’ve been trained to do. Thank and thank and thank. Thank you for deeming me acceptable, thank you for telling me that I’m doing my job, my woman’s work, being something nice for you to look at. Thank you, drunk man. Thank you for making me feel like an absolute piece of shit. Thank you for helping me notice that I am nothing to you but a fulfillment of your fantasies. That I am a woman who is trapped behind a bar, serving you and smiling and thanking you, for as long as you are here and you don’t do anything too rape-y. Thank you for reminding me that this world thinks I am nothing but a hole or two or three, with a “pretty face” attached, topped with “beautiful hair.”
For so long, all I wanted was to be beautiful. In a world that taught my little awkward, four-eyed, immigrant self that everything about me was bad and wrong and ugly, being beautiful was the greatest thing someone like me, born with a vagina, could be. Three decades later, I own my beauty fully and hardcore, loving the strong body that has brought me to this point, the brain and heart that have led this body here, and the family, culture, and community that have taught me and held me up or picked me up when my own sense of self failed. But this? These interactions? These are not about my beauty. They are about what these people, trained to believe that I am here for their pleasure, want me to be. And I just don’t want to participate in that anymore.
I’ve worn my queerness as armor. The physical indicators, the signals we develop so we can find each other, like our short hair and our big, baggy shorts, and the packs we run in wearing multi-colored clothes and button-down shirts. Do I still have to wear this armor? Do you? Or is it a choice? What about within our own community, when we continue to play into these dynamics? What about our attractions and desires, and the things we assume about each other, the ways we label each other? I find myself in the tug of replication of binary interactions and relationships, butch/femme, masculine/feminine, and how these partnerships are so largely normalized and valued and prioritized within our queerness. I never know where this puts me.
On May Day, of all days, as someone who had to go to work so as not to lose her job, I think about these intersections. I sit with them. And instead of running to catch up with the marching in the streets, I sit at a computer, trying to process the assault on my body, on our bodies. On CeCe McDonald’s body, on Brandy Martell’s body. On the bodies of women & queers & transfolks & disabled folks & people of color & the poor & the working class & those affected by this climate crisis & disenfranchised folks everywhere. And I still don’t have an answer. I never have an answer, or an easy way to tie up and end these things. But I want you to know I’m thinking about you and how to support you in being your whole and glorious self. And I hope you are with me, too.
Mahfam Malek likes to write, perform, dance, cook, practice somatics, and play kickball. She has an opinion on everything and is kind of bossy. She’s beyond honored to be the first non-black girl featured on Black Girl Dangerous.