(Originally written August 26, 2009, while I was temporarily clean-shaven in preparation for starting a job.)
My aunt A has a better poker face than her husband.
It’s the little widening of the eyes, the tell off a repressed startle. In some people it’s the tiniest flash. In some people I can’t see it at all.
Often I miss the obviously inquisitive ones. D tells me about them.
The waitress at the Chinese restaurant the other day, nearly craning her neck to check my chin for shadow, trying to figure out if I was the same person she’d seen with a beard (maybe 3 times in the past year, but still memorable).
The dyke-looking woman walking down the street towards us who gave me a full head-to-toe scan.
The couple we hiked past, who stopped hiking and turned around to figure me out. D was several paces behind me, so they didn’t realize we were together and that their staring might be reported.
I like watching the eyes though. Seeing if I can see the question, the surprise. Hardly anyone ever comments or asks.
Even when I shaved the beard, almost no one commented.
Joanna asked if I’d gotten a haircut. So did Kyle.
The scruffy guy down at the Lagunitas store asked what had happened to my beard. When I told him, he said he thought it looked good before and I should grow it back.
One of my labmates, Jeff, who I hadn’t seen since April, said “You shaved your beard!” in a friendly, disappointed way. He too seemed happy when I said I was growing it back. Then we asked how each others’ summers had been and he showed me pictures of his newborn son.
I wish I knew what was behind that flash in the eyes. I can see the question but I can’t tell what it is.
I wish I could know what people say and think about me. Not because I want their approval. Just out of curiosity. It’s like a secret. The flash in the eyes is, to me, the little kid taunting, sing-song “I’ve got a secret! I’ve got a secret!” Maybe I’m just nosy. Maybe I spent too much of my teen years with people gossiping about me. Maybe I’m bad at reading people’s expressions and that fires my curiosity more. I want to know who sees me as a woman with a beard and who sees me as a guy with tits and who’s just confused and whose mind works in a way that they see me without an instant label. I want to know what my relatives wonder. I can see all the questions people have, that they don’t ask.
I want a little pin to wear on my backpack strap that says “It’s ok to ask.” Saying that aloud when I see the eye-flash seems rude, like I’m calling them out on an impolite moment. But I want people to ask. For my own curiosity about the questions and so I can give them the answers they’re seeking. The questions I do get are often so simple – “How do you grow that?” “Are you a boy or a girl?” Not hostile, just seeking information.
I want more people to know how to ask respectful questions. How to precede a personal question with “May I ask you a question?” How to gracefully accept when a person declines to answer.
I’ve been told, by other queers and genderqueers, that I’ll get tired of the questions. That I’ll get tired of being an involuntary public educator. But I don’t see that yet. I’m not burdened by people asking me questions. It’s interesting for me to see what they ask. I hesitate to suggest, when teaching workshops on gender, that it’s good for people to ask when they’re curious, because I don’t want to increase the burden on the people who don’t want to answer. But I fear that valuable conversations and questions are much too often avoided out of fear of being impolite. It seems like the standard is to politely pretend like the person is normal. To do one’s earnest best to hide the flash of the eyes and to suppress the questions. I worry about this polite silence – how it denies the “clueless public” these tidbit chances to learn about queerness. For the vast majority of people who will never attend a queer-awareness training, I’m happy to do this bit of public-outreach queer-ally education. I know not every queer is, but I am. But no one starts the conversation.
And, to be honest, I’m not very good at starting it either. I don’t want to force queer education on people who’d rather not know. i don’t want to come across as having an agenda or hosting the all-about-me show.
Speaking of the all-about-me-show, I start teaching tomorrow. So, failing to find a tidy conclusion to this pondering, I’m off to bed.