Gender and stuff
Yesterday I was in town, and had a look in a couple of charity shops, as you do. In one of them, I was browsing a rack of jeans when a couple of goths about my age walked in and asked the bloke on the counter about the price of a dress on one of the window mannequins – a little black thing with lots of buttons and a ruffle or two. Having established that it was £3.99, they started bickering over who should get it whilst the volunteer was taking it off the mannequin.
Both of these two were a little taller than me, both long-haired – one with dyed-black hair worn loose, one with a wavy brown ponytail – and both in the kind of goth gear that (and here, finally, the point) defies attempts at conventional gender-classification. Baggy long-sleeved T-shirts, capacious black jeans with chains, trainers, nail varnish. And arguing over who got to wear the little ruffly dress. (Eventually they agreed that the slightly taller one got first dibs, and if it didn’t fit, the slightly shorter one could have it.)
The incident stuck in my head, both because it’s not every day you run into pretty goths in charity shops, let alone two at once, and also because I had been having thinky thoughts about gender and stuff anyway and they gave me more food for thought. After all, both of these two were presenting a clear, consistent and legible identity: they might as well have been holding big signs saying “GOTH”. And yet too often, no matter how obvious it is what somebody’s outfit is supposed to ‘say’, it’s not treated as a valid or complete message if it isn’t clearly gendered. (I’ve written about gender and other messages before.)
The temptation to assume that there must be a simple, binary answer, and then to try and deduce one from circumstantial evidence, is deeply conditioned. I suspect it’s also helped along, or at least bolstered, by the way that we (as a society) currently talk about and understand sexuality. Ambiguity can be threatening, because if you’re vastly attracted to someone and then it turns out they’re the ‘wrong’ sex underneath, opprobrium awaits: even in relatively progressive communities, the reactions to people whose self-stated orientation is perceived not to ‘match’ with their sexual history can be toxic. (You can’t be straight/gay, you’ve slept with someone of the same/a different sex. You can’t be bi/pan, all your partners to date were the same/a different sex to you. You can’t be asexual, you slept with someone once. Etc.) It’s not always entirely externally imposed, either: sexuality is a cornerstone of identity for a lot of people, of all orientations, and it’s disquieting to have things you thought were axiomatic about yourself show signs of mutability.