That Damn Yang, Part 1

There is a logic to the men’s section of a department store that is largely missing from most women’s sections. Take shirts, for example. short sleeves are over here and long sleeves are over there. In the women’s section, this is not necessarily the case, except maybe during late spring/early summer when we are expected to shop for summer. The more formal “dress” shirts are often separated by color, or at least light from dark, and usually by material (smooth vs. rougher). You can easily find what you are looking for without having to look at all the shirts in your size on seven different racks.

And color! Men’s shirts have sensible colors: cranberry, navy, loden green, chambray blue. Black with pink flamingos. Purple with white bicycles. Stripes that usually don’t clash. plaids, the same (except for Madras plaids; there’s just no accounting for those). women’s shirts are a riot of colors: orange and pink paisleys, or jewel-tone flowers on a tomato soup background. Gaah. And turquoise, that irreparably iffy color that can make your skin tone look healthy in one light and fatally jaundiced in another. Sure, in the 1970s even men wore colors and patterns like that, but if the 1980s did nothing else good besides massive benefit concerts, it put to rest that particular sartorial nonsense.

And then there are the pockets. Men’s shirts (and pants and coats and vests) have pockets. And pockets are liberation. It is no mistake that the Nasty Woman Perfume mock ad video that came out back in November put clothes with pockets in the same category as reproductive healthcare and equal wages.

In comparison, the problem that men’s shirts always (if they are long-sleeved) have sleeves that are too long for the average women. But, you can always just roll them up; in fact the kind of women who are likely to shop in the men’s section are exactly the type to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Year of the Fabulous Socks

Well, 2016 was a year of many things, most of them pretty bad. We lost Prince, and Princess Leia, Colonel John Glenn and Major Tom. Voldemort and his chess set of white supremacists gained entry into the White House when Russia took a page out of the US playbook to help make that happen, putting immigrants and queer folks and women and people of color at even greater risk of the kind of things that made Germany into an object lesson eighty years ago (one we have ignored, it seems).

In the midst of all this darkness, it is difficult, but not impossible, to light a few candles.

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  1. In February, my union got my colleagues and me a 26% increase in pay over the next three years, because, yes, that’s how little the school had been paying us.
  2. In March, I started playing Lesbian Dodgeball on a monthly basis (see #5) with a bunch of overeducated goofballs. This started my collection of Fabulous Dodgeball (and other) Socks.
  3. In May, I got a fabulous roommate and her Hello Kitty bestest buddy.
  4. In August, I went alone to Boston ComicCon, wearing an Agents of SHIELD uniform and had a pretty good time. This is also where I got my Wonder Woman and Groot socks.
  5. In November, I went to the Love Rally on the Boston Common with the abovementioned goofball friends, now in Deeply Serious mode. Then on Supergirl, the Girl of Steel’s sister DEO Agent Alex Danvers figured out that yes, she is into girls, as I had some months before.
  6. In December, I went on my first date in eleven years.

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Now, when I originally started writing this post, I had some vague idea about writing about the tradeoffs a gal makes shopping in the men’s section, but my pen had other ideas. Still, I stand by my title.

Because we could look back on 2016 as the year we lost so many of the best and brightest: Leonard Cohen, Muhammed Ali, Janet Reno, Richard Adams.

But I will look back on this past year as the year my sock drawer–that oft-ignored repository which, like a bookcase, tells the world through its changes how one’s life is changing–got a little fabulous.

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So yes, 2016 will go down as the Year of the Fabulous Socks. And as God is my witness, 2017 will go down as the Fabulous Year.

And when that starts happening, I will get back to talking about traversing the men’s section.

Muscles & Mascara Monday: Truthful Statements

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“Style is fundamentally a truthful statement… There are layers and layers of truth; and style, whether in dress or life, art or literature, is involved in their discovery.” –Freya Stark

I have been thinking about makeup lately. I used to think that makeup was something women put a huge amount of time and money into to get the attention of men, who often don’t even bother to shave. O, patriarchy, why you so mean?

I am lucky enough to have clear skin and dark blue eyes so I always figured that if a guy needs me to “put on my face” simply to notice me, then he’s not a person I really feel like being noticed by. I still feel that the Manhattan style of makeup is over the top, but New York has always struck me as being a hard-edged city and maybe it’s just a form of protective coloration, layers of powder rather than a sword and buckler.

Boston, as an academic city (we’ve got thirty colleges just within a few miles of the city center) tends toward the mildly androgynous. We probably have more comfortable women’s shoes in just a five-mile radius than they have in Manhattan and Los Angeles combined. And women who work/teach at these colleges are not an exception, whether they are full-time, part-time or graduate students (and the undergrads in baggy sweatpants). This always worked for me. As long as I looked “professional” and teacher-like, I figured that nobody would care if I didn’t take the time to put on makeup before running out the door guzzling my coffee and trying to remember my lesson plan. I get good student evaluations every semester. The rest is meaningless.

But in January, I started going to the monthly lesbian happy hour, which is a fascinating sociological activity. Where else are you going to find a sample of about eighty women with such a wide variety of clothing styles in the same bad bar lighting? More than half of our sample look like any other women you might see on the train every day. But there are a few types who stand out.

Fashionista/International Femme: Makeup, long hair, dress, heels. An air of being exactly where she needs to be. Even if I wore the exact same thing, if I was standing next to her, no one would notice my existence. I have had friends like this.

Grad Student Femme: Shortish wash-and-wear hair. Casual clothing, such as skinny leg jeans. Comfortable shoes, minimal makeup. The glow of youth.

College Dean-ish: An excellent haircut, whatever the length. Makeup, but never too much. Classic jewelry. Professional clothes, more femme than not. Classic but comfortable shoes, probably expensive. An air of quiet authority.

Grad Student Butch: Short hair with a little product for style. No makeup. Men’s style clothes but not necessarily menswear. Comfortable shoes, maybe spiffy. The glow of youth.

Flannel Butch: Plaid flannel shirt, dark wash jeans, expensive sneakers. Most of the jewelry is in one ear. One or more tattoos. A. The glow of youth AND/OR B. An air of quiet authority AND/OR C. Laidback attitude.

Bowtie Butch: Short hair. No makeup. Menswear, including either necktie or bowtie. Men’s style shoes. Laidback attitude.

Perhaps if I saw the same people in the bright light of day, the differences might not be apparent. But in the dim light of a bar, the women who don’t wear makeup, especially if they are over 40, look kind of grey and washed out.

So I’ve made a couple of visits to Sephora, one to get help in picking a shade of lipstick and one to get a 15-minute primer on how to apply eye shadow the right way and get help picking good colors. The young women (and one or two men) who work there are all made up to within an inch of their lives. But when they ask me what style I am going for, and I say, “Sorta like Ellen,” and they say, “Oh! You mean natural!” they are gung ho in helping me achieve a look that is as little like theirs as possible.

My shift in thinking about all this is primarily a shift in thinking from more outward–what do other people see when they look at me–to more inward–can I see my best self when I look in the mirror, blue eyes, Polish cheekbones and all.

It also helps that two of the faces of makeup companies in recent memory have been Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Ellen Degeneres (Ellen the Homophobia Slayer), both of whom have fresh light looks that don’t scream, “Look at me! I’m wearing makeup! Ask me how!” Which is funny, actually, considering that is exactly what they’re getting paid to do… Ah, marketing, why you so sneaky?

Styling Saturday: The Geometric Sock of Improvement

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At their best, men’s clothes have advantages over women’s—admittedly with grave exceptions. To my mind, good men’s clothes are structured rather than droopy. (The unfortunate trend among young men lately of wearing sweatpants with ankle cuffs is probably caused by a huge bribe to fashion designers from the Center for Population Control. Even my eighty-year-old father knows better than to wear pants like that.)

Another thing I like is that the colors are generally less saturated and more muted (think of a standard box of eight Crayola crayons. Add pale grey to each color). Such shades are kinder for my Celtic/Polish complexion and I find them much more restful most of the time.

The last advantage is the patterns, which are often calmer. If there are flowers, they are either on tropical shirts and the particular type of flower is recognizable, or the flowers are tiny, almost like irregular polka dots from a distance. None of this Women’s Section Let’s add flowers! And paisleys! To the same shirt! And matching skirt/jacket/pants! And you are much more likely to see geometric patterns as well.

But up until recently, it would never have occurred to me to attempt to shop in the men’s section (although in high school I bought my sneakers and Oxford bucks in the boy’s section; the sizes were better). But I recently bought some shirts in three different stores in the men’s section, to replace a bunch of shirts that I got rid of a while back because they either were too small or had been worn to rags.

And all these advantages in clothes even pertain to socks, which is good because the vast majority of my socks are fairly boring. And if I am going to be playing dodgeball once a month in my socks from now on, I am totally going to require New & Improved Sockage.

 

The Bisexual Cento

 

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I was on a blog the other day and the poet’s “and” list was exactly like a cento, a poem created from the single lines of other poems. I was looking at the Tag Cloud for this blog today and saw the ones that stand out:

 

Bisexuality, Catholic school, cufflinks,

Joss Whedon, androgyny,

butch, femme, hair, Jesus,

Katherine Moennig, ally,

lesbian, menswear, perception,

shoes.

Styling Saturday: The Giraffe in the Room

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So I was wandering around Pinterest last week and I saw this illustration and immediately had a visceral reaction to it: Yes! That’s it!

After my self-revelations last fall, I started the new year intending to test out the possibility of bisexuality, but how does one do that? Eventually, I realized that the local Meetup had some groups for lesbians, so I nervously signed up for a few—one at a museum, one at a dance at a local hotel, a concert, a movie, and one at one of the few gay bars in town (apparently). For all of these events, I dressed carefully in my work clothes: French cuff shirt, blazer, earrings and necklace that complement my cufflinks (because duh), boots with two-inch heels because I am not particularly tall in flats… The very first event I went to, a woman said, “Nice outfit,” which was a huge shock; I cannot begin to tell you how much I never, ever hear that.

Most of the LGBT women I know I met at either seminary or church, and priests do tend to dress a bit conservatively (luckily a black shirt with a white collar goes with everything, dear). But at every event I went to it was pretty much 96% women you would pass on the street and not be able to tell whether they were gay or straight from any stereotypical markers; 2% women in menswear; and 2% women in plaid flannel.

What did I expect? That I was a Clydesdale and the bar would be filled with zebras who would sense my deception immediately? That the room would be filled with quarterhorses and I, a giraffe bicycling my way into the mix, would smack my neck on the rainbow, the gate also become the gatekeeper?

SPOILER ALERT: That didn’t happen. (Big surprise, right?)

At one lesbian happy hour meetup, I was talking to an older women—short grey hair, dress, good jewelry: the kind of woman I would expect to be a dean at one of the schools I work at—about how surprised she was that it was my first time at that bar; presumably when there are only two or three gay bars in town, one naturally assumes that everyone who is there has been there before. I explained that I had just recently realized I was bisexual. She said (more or less), “Seriously? I totally thought you were a lesbian.”

Reader, I thanked her. Contextually, it was a huge compliment, while at the same time explaining why I haven’t had any dates with guys for the past eleven years.

Somewhere in heaven, God and Joan of Arc are sharing a huge laugh at my expense.

Also, apparently, there’s nobody here but us horses.

Let’s Talk about Categories!

 

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I have been reading a lot of blogs lately trying to sort out all the new stuff in my head, and I am interested in how much energy goes into the words we use for ourselves. Having spent decades being more concerned about how I used language to explain my religious affiliations, especially as they changed, since “straight” is the unmarked category that doesn’t have to bother naming itself, wrapping my head around this new tangle has taken up more of my brain time than I would have expected. Perhaps it is not so surprising, as I learned about white privilege long before I saw how privilege impacts my life in other spaces as well. I am white, middle class, educated and Christian (although at the time I was still Roman Catholic, which is not the problem that it was for my father forty years ago, but at times it can be a problem). Yes, I have heard every Polish joke in the book, but on the other hand, I speak unaccented American English with the very good vocabulary of a born English teacher. So I floated along, clueless.

It never even occurred to me to wonder what my sister went through when she came out of the closet 25-30 years ago. I assumed it was traumatic, as it coincided with transferring schools and taking time off and then going back. But we don’t talk often and when we do, we focus on the present, as I am always catching up on at least a year of her life. Going that far back would push our phone conversations to marathon length, and neither one of us can afford that kind of phone bill.

Anyway, for those of us who haven’t known since we were young that the world was going to be a very…interesting place for us, figuring out how to talk about who we feel we are seems like a difficult thing indeed. This is especially true, it seems, given the power that the ideas of “butch” and “femme” seem to have in the LBGT* world. One writer even described being told when she came out, “We’ll just have to wait and see what kind of lesbian you are,” as if she were a little bird sticking her beak out of the cracked egg and was going to have to find out whether she was a duck, a swan, a toucan or a phoenix.

James Dawson, author of This Book Is Gay, writes, “It’s human nature to label things, and if you’re having some confusing thoughts, giving a name to the situation may make you feel better because you can be part of something–a bigger support network–the International Haus of Gay, if you will” (17). And as he points out later, some of the names we might choose in this instance can act both as subcultures (allowing us to recognize each other) and stereotypes (allowing us and others to think they know more about us than maybe they really do).

And in any case, how do we figure this out? Well, apparently the same way the birds do, by looking at our feathers. This works relatively well for the folks who dress on either of the extreme ends of the spectrum. What about the other 90%?

I did wear skirts when I started teaching, especially when I lived in Japan right after college. My go-to “No, really I AM a teacher” outfit was an A-line skirt, a blouse and a blazer. If you added kneesocks and tie shoes for my nylons and flats, I would have been back in high school again. At some point in the time I have been teaching college English, I dumped the skirts and flats for pants and short boots or Oxfords, and I have been happy as a clam ever since, although, yeah, the dating scene was pretty thin.

Then when I went to one of the queerest non-Roman Catholic seminaries in the U.S. (for an MA because I was burnt out; I’d make a horrible priest), I realized I had a French cuff shirt a roommate had given me, but no cufflinks. So I bought pair of cheap cufflinks. And I REALLY liked how that looked and felt, so I bought more cufflinks. And then of course I had to buy more French cuff shirts, first cheap ones through Chadwicks and then somewhat more expensive (But Very, Very Nice) ones from England.

Mind you, this is at least six years ago, around the same time that I bought the Victor/Victoria broadway poster. But I am pretty slow.

I seem to have begun to catch up very fast in the last six or so months. I remember after a friend said (based on a number of posts I had made on another blog), that I seemed to really like the tough beautiful women on TV lately… And I had to put into words what I had been wondering about myself: “Am I bi?” “Sure looks that way.”

A while after that I started wondering if the way I dressed might not be–not only NOT a problem–but actually kind of perfect. Blew. My. Mind.

So yeah, I have been thinking about categories lately. I jotted these down in my little pocket notebook on the train on Monday evening:

Androgyny

Tomboy/Femme (OK, I stole that from a blog)

AndroFun.

Beer & Boots

Cufflinks & Cosmos

Liberating Menswear (I stole that too, from Wild Fang clothing)

Hourglass Plaid

Tweedy Silk

I don’t know what any of it means, but as a writer, I guess having words for things is kind of important to me.

 

Dawson, James. This Book Is Gay. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2015.