27 January 2009

Not Queer in a Gender Studies Class

So...I survived my first day as a student in 16 years. What do I make of it?

Well, I got in a few minutes late. The class is a seminar, in which everyone sits around a long table, so it was pretty hard to hide--especially when the last remaining seat was next to the professor. If I'd had enough presence of mind, I could've made a joke about being seated at the right hand of the goddess or some such thing.

And I looked at the reading list. Yes, lots of reading, but I expected that. After all, it is a PhD level course in English.

What gave me pause was the kinds of reading: Lots more theory than I expected. It didn't seem to phase any other student in the room; from what I could tell, they were all ongoing students in the PhD program. And a couple talked about research projects in which they were immersed.

I learned of them as we introduced ourselves and talked about what brought us to the class. I confessed that I was indeed taking my first class in 16 years and that until I signed up for the course, I swore that I would never, ever take a gender studies course, or anything that resembled one. Surprisingly, the students seemed to humor me. A few even smiled approvingly.

And the professor seemed pleased. I also mentioned that I'm transgendered (The prof and some students probably knew that already: After all, she's the president of the Graduate Center's Gay and Lesbian organization, and probably half the students in that room are members.) and joked that I'm taking the course "to hear what you guys and all those other scholars are saying about me."

I think I broke some ice there: I noticed that one student, who was sitting diagonally across from me, slackened her jaw and a couple of other students' postures seemed to expand a bit. I wasn't trying to open up the class: I think the professor could have done that perfectly well on her own. But if I helped, well, I'm happy.

I'm happy. Yes, I actually enjoyed being in the class. Of course, it was only the first day and we didn't do any of the hard work yet. But in spite of the gaps in my knowledge and education, I didn't feel like a misfit there.

And I got to talk to the prof a bit after class. I can see why her students at Hunter College revere her. (Most of the Graduate Center faculty teach at CUNY undergraduate colleges, of which Hunter is one and York, where I teach, is another.) And the idolizing remarks I read on Rate My Professors came from students in advanced courses, not students in freshman-level courses who said that she's an easy "A." Those Hunter students says she is rigorous but fair and accessible and even sweet and charming, according to some. I could see that.

Besides being smart and nice (always two huge pluses with me), she's attractive in a soft-butch kind of way. I mean, she makes a handsome butch, but she could almost as easily be a cute femme. And, yes, she was wearing Doc Martens (or shoes that looked like them) and what looked like chino pants with a button-down shirt, but in a way that no male would wear them. No guy would also accesorize as she did: I came this close to asking where she got her earrings. So, while her style isn't Michelle Obama, it's style--real style--nonetheless.

Thinking about her, I recall a conversation I had with a York College adjunct prof who recently got his PhD. We were talking about what people mean by "queer." He said that according to any number of gender theorists, it means "nonconforming," which is close to the original meaning of the word.

I don't remember which of us said this: The way I'm living and express my gender identity now, I'm actually less queer than I was when I was living as a straight male. As far as most people can tell, I'm just another middle-aged straight female. People who express consternation upon finding out that I'm transgedered tell me that, until then, they thought I was a straight woman. Which, of course, is what I am, kinda sorta.

So why that last qualifier? Well, I am seeing Dominick now, and I find myself interested in men these days. But I don't think I'll lose my ability to be attracted to a female, whether or not I act on that impulse if it presents itself. Furthermore, the kinds of men--and women--to whom I'm attracted are probably different from what most straight men or women like.

But attracted to men, and dating one, I am. Also, I dress and otherwise present myself in ways that most people would expect from a straight, if rather conservative, woman. (Students have told me that they like my clothes because they're "conservative but nice.") On the other hand, my ways of relating to the world were, in many ways, different from those of most straight men. Bruce and other people who've known me for a long time have always told me this.

Most important, though, is that in the very fact of living as a straight male, I was a "queer," at least in the sense that it wasn't what most people would expect from the bisexual-to-straight woman I always envisioned myself to be.

Hmm...I wonder if I could work that into one of the papers, or the presentation, I will have to do for the class. Or a tell-all book: "I Was A Teenaged Queer Bisexual Male."

I guess I'm not so queer in that class, after all.

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