As a cis-gender, gay male who writes a bit about intersectional oppression, I tend to take something of a pragmatic approach to engaging the queer fluidity of gender within the reality of intersecting local and global social landscapes that have, throughout time, proven to devalue the personhood of those on the feminine end of the human spectrum.
That was a really long sentence to say, I feel committed to wrestling with how best to celebrate women today (or any day).
Back in November I was flying from Seattle to Baltimore to attend the American Academy of Religion conference. On the plane, I was doing some long overdue personal life homework, reading bell hooks’ book feminism is for everyone.
I have to say, that while I live in Seattle, write this blog, and enjoy a certain amount of liberty to express my personal engagement of gender with ease, I am not without self-awareness on a day-to-day basis of how I come across as a gay man. I am aware that there are ways that I move, dress, inflect my voice, and present my body that transgress the expected norms of someone with my genitalia. In other words, I know how to work my male privilege and “butch it up” in order to be heard, safe, or granted access. And doing this comes at a cost to my humanity and the humanity of those whose bodies cannot access that male privilege.
So, when I boarded that plane in November–hell, when I packed my bags–I was making deliberate choices to embrace, as freely as I was able, the feminine parts of myself. Given the freedom of a week away from my workplace and normal routine, I felt less of a need to guard my behavior. All that is to say, I was looking pretty fabulous and allowing myself, in public, to move and act with the kind of freedom in my body that is often reserved for my time with close friends. This is something I’ve been actively working through and I had decided to use this time as practice for caring for myself through caring less how others perceive me (this also has a lot to do with my INFJ personality type which often leaves me more aware of external social dynamics than of my own inner world).
In the middle of all that, sitting on the plane, I took notice of the flight attendant noticing me. The attendant appeared to be about a decade older than me and, given their choice of uniform and engagement with social norms, I’m presuming they engage the world as a woman. As she pushed the drink cart down the aisle, she stopped it just behind me so that she was standing parallel to my right shoulder. I had pulled out the airline magazine to check the price of a whiskey, which I intended to mix with seltzer water and the peel of the organic blood orange I had in my bag (yup, I did that), which meant that the bell hooks book was lying on my seatback tray, the cover in clear view.
Glancing up, I saw the attendant look from the book to me and then, quite literally, bend halfway over and turn her head sideways to look more closely at the cover of the book. I really didn’t think much of the little interaction–I passed her my piece of plastic, she gave me my beverage, and the cart was pulled farther down the aisle. It wasn’t until an hour later that I really started thinking about what was happening.
The drink service was over and we were somewhere over the Midwest, when the attendant was walking briskly up the aisle. Without breaking stride, as if she were reaching into a row to turn off a light over a sleeping passenger, she slipped two small bottles out of her pocket and dropped them, without a word onto my tray and the tray of the man sitting next to me. Startled, we noticed that they were duplicates of our earlier drink orders. The stranger next to me shrugged and said, “okay.” And that’s when my mind kicked into high gear.
What was going on? Why did we, out of everyone on the plane, get free refills of our overpriced airline booze, delivered without a single word from this woman? I couldn’t help but fill in a narrative inside my head.
It started with questions–was it because of the book? Well, of course it was! But why? What experience had this woman had that led her to interact with me in this way? Was it that a person presenting as male was reading about feminism? Was it that a gay man seemed to give a shit enough about women to read a single book? She had no idea how I was engaging with what I read, for all she knew, I could have hated the book and been reading it as a requirement for some sort of class.
And what about the booze for the other guy? Did she assume we were together? Was he benefiting for being feminist-adjacent? Or was his simply placation booze–a sort of hush money for the hetero-man so he wouldn’t say anything protesting his neighbor’s free lunch?
I had no real way of answering these questions, but I settled on her gesture being somewhere on a spectrum of solidarity to gratitude–a metaphorical fist bump, meant to reinforce behavior that she saw as beneficial in the world. Who really knows what she was thinking/feeling?
It took some time before I could explain in words just what I was feeling. Why was it that I felt both perplexed and annoyed by her kind gesture?
As I tried to explain it, weeks later, to a friend, “I don’t get a cookie just for being decent!” That my action was noteworthy at all fills me with a measure of grief. You see, I have a vested interest in the well-being of women in the world–not because I experience intersecting oppression because of masculine normativity; not because I have a mother, sister, and nieces that I want to see loved and celebrated and treated with every human dignity; but because every person is a person and deserves to be treated as such in society and community.
My celebration of women must play out in my day-to-day activities in the world–standing up to oppression, cultivating compassion and curiosity, and seeking diverse human flourishing–these things are acts of theo-political commitment; a joining with God in calling good every member of our global community. This commitment is a reassertion of my belief that governments and policies may grant privileges in the name of rights, but the right to be treated as full persons is a foregone conclusion given the very existence of our breathing bodies in this world.
So how do I celebrate? Do I use words like “strong” and “fierce” to name the goodness of women–words that derive their power by their apparent unexpectedness given dominant perceptions of women? Do I use words like “beautiful” and “vulnerable” to describe myself and other masculine bodies in order to counteract the narrow definitions of masculinity that I believe reinforce misogyny? And can I find a way to celebrate the dignity and humanity of each person while acknowledging the particular and shared cultural experiences we each have of navigating gender and bodies that are different and similar to one another?