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Gender Roles Among Women

I AM INTERESTED IN HOW ideas about gender organize identity and social relationships among women. Perhaps because I am a lesbian and have noticed how women who are lesbian adopt one gender role or the other (female or male), then discard it, combine roles, and act in ways that confuse me, I feel a need to come to better terms with the use of gender roles by women. Why am I fascinated, confused, repulsed, and drawn in when a woman acts like a stereotypical man, or like a stereotypical woman, for instance? Why do I hate, at one moment, to see stereotypical gender roles among women, and then take satisfaction from seeing these same roles the next?

Do I want to be a woman or a man? To be seen as a woman or a man? Do I have to be seen as one or the other? Do I have to choose; do I have a choice? Do people like me because I am a woman, or because I am a woman who is also like a man? Do I really know which gender I am? Why do I perpetuate a rigid gender system despite my wishes to the contrary, saying, with my choice of women, that gender really does define people? If gender did not matter, I might as well choose a man. I might as well be a man. Yet gender matters more than it might seem.


Even attempts to make one's gender ambiguous or to push away conventional gender roles suggest the formative nature of those roles.

By gender roles, I mean ways of defining oneself that are congruent with common ideas about how a person of one's perceived sex type behaves and feels—so that the outside world sees a woman, for instance, and so that the inner sense of self is that of a woman. Ideas about how to be of one's gender vary with time and culture. In this essay, I wish to identify neither universals nor variations, but rather to discuss what an individual does to come to terms with the fact of her gender, however that is defined. I focus on particular social settings with which I am personally familiar.

I think that coming to terms with gender is a process never settled once and for all but one that is ongoing—a series of repetitive motions much like "coming out of the closet" (it is never enough to announce only once that one is a lesbian). Repeated attempts at defining oneself by one's gender are integral to defining oneself as a person, in my view, although gender is often talked about as if it were secondary to a nongendered status—that of being a gender-neutral "person," for instance—and as if one's gender were a relatively trivial aspect of oneself, something one could easily be without. The importance of gender, in other words, is frequently denied.

When I teach about gender socialization among women, or think about it in my own life, the denial of gender—that it makes no difference, is not important, or not as important as something else—is the biggest fact I have to confront and the most persistent. Students in my classes on women become disturbed when required to see gender everywhere, particularly female gender, because doing so reveals a world not congruent with ideals of equality. When looking at gender in my own life, I feel a similar discomfort. I want to believe I can be separate from my gender and that I am not a victim of it. I do not want to be reminded of my female subordination or of the gender role-playing in my life—the ways I try to be like a woman, or like a man, and the uncomfortable responses I often feel upon seeing others who act as I do, or who act in ways that are more extreme or deviant. These include both those who play the femme or the butch more strictly and those who say they follow no gender roles at all. My discomforts with gender-related behaviors are


key to the comforts of gender. They suggest reasons for the enormous hold of it in my life.

Discomforts With Gender Ambiguity

Each year, I attend the annual lesbian and gay parade in San Francisco, where I see gay men in drag pretending to be women. I become uncomfortable when I see them because I want them to be one gender or the other, male or female, not the two mixed up. If they are to be women, I want them to be real women, authentic and appealing, rather than caricatures of certain aspects of female styles that I usually stay far away from—high heels, stockings, made-up faces, and ways of saying "dahling" and gesturing broadly to crowds. The superficiality of these men playing women scares me, much as it probably comforts others who like it precisely because it is superficial.

Over time, I have become more used to men in drag, but I still feel hurt and left out by them. The women these men like, those who seem to matter to them, are glamour queens, not me. Having grown up wanting boys and, later, men to like me, and having felt that the right ones—the popular and handsome ones—never did, I have always felt awkward as a woman around men. It was with relief that I turned from the heterosexual world to a lesbian one where I could forget men and seek only the affections of women. However, even among lesbians and gay men, occasionally at a party, or a political gathering, I would find myself with men and feel uncomfortable again: Why should gay men like me? I would feel. They have no use for me, they only like men. When they like women, they like the desperately outgoing types—the kind of woman I could not be when I was straight and cannot be now. They like the trappings of being a woman—the effusive, stylized parts—because that is all most of them can grasp. When they imitate women, I feel it is a way of putting on a show, or externalizing. It does not present a fundamental challenge to being a man. It is more like putting on a new pair of clothes, a new act, annexing a new country. Yet, however crude the caricature, a man putting on a female act may feel a greater sense of freedom. He may feel more himself.

The year before last, my favorite part of the gay parade was a marionette


of a man in a purple sequinned dress riding a unicycle. He had long teased-out blond hair swept back, wore makeup, very high heels, and stockings, and he gestured to the crowd occasionally, throwing kisses and showing off his legs. High above him, a man on stilts worked him with strings, walking the entire length of the parade near the edge of the street, his attention riveted to the ground far below him where the little lady on the unicycle had to be kept upright and in constant motion.

To me, this marionette of the woman in the purple dress was wonderful. I liked it because the woman on the unicycle was not real. She was not even supposed to be real (in the sense of being a flesh-and-blood person), and so did not confuse me about reality—about whether she was a woman or a man. She was clearly a doll who looked like a woman but who was actually a gay man in drag. Because she was not a caricature of a woman so much as she was a caricature of a gay man dressed in women's clothes and makeup to be in the parade, the doll did not make me question whether she was fully enough a woman, or the right kind of woman—someone I could be. The questions she raised were, instead, about men. When I saw this little woman in her purple dress riding her unicycle down the street, I saw her as a comment on gay men parodying women. "You might as well be a doll" was one possible message to them. Although she was a doll, the marionette was lifelike to me. I liked her because she let me see, without confusion, something that really existed—a man dressed in drag as a flamboyant type of woman who, nonetheless, was still a man.

Before I ever saw a gay parade, I saw a movie called Tricia's Wedding , featuring a song and dance group called the Cockettes—men who played women's parts and dressed in women's clothes and hats and generally went wild. The movie was a takeoff on a wedding party for Tricia Nixon. What most bothered me as I watched it was that although the men in the movie impersonated women, imitating female mannerisms and styles, they did not change their voices (they still used deep men's voices), and they did not put makeup over their beards or appear to have shaved closely. The hair of a woman and a woman's hat and dress would be seen from behind, then the face would turn around and it would be an unshaven man's face. I thought, at the time, this must indicate


a cheaply made movie, or that the men in the movie were simply slobs and had not finished applying their makeup.

Now I think there were probably other reasons, having to do with maintaining male gender visibility, rather than completing the act of appearing to be a woman. Different would be the case of a male-to-female transsexual who tries hard to complete the act of passing as a woman, or the case of any everyday woman whose behaviors are aimed at constructing a convincing appearance of being a woman because her life—and getting proper treatment and not ridicule—depends on it. Watching the Cockettes, I felt these men were not taking the pains they should have with the female gender, or that I, or most socially-constructed women, would have taken, and are required to take, and that seem necessary for our safety. When I stepped outside the theater after seeing the movie, I was shaken. The images of women the Cockettes had presented scared me and made me angry. They certainly looked ugly under their hats.

About the time I saw the Cockettes, I saw the Andy Warhol movie star Holly Woodlawn in a monologue-type movie, Trash . Holly Woodlawn was a man who played a woman so well that in watching her, I did not feel distress. Her gender moved into the background, and her qualities as a person—down to earth, honest, interesting—were most important. Woodlawn enacted a woman in such an understated way that hers seemed not an impersonation but a way of being. I felt comfortable with her and accepted her gender switch, suspending my anxieties about whether, indeed, she was truly, and once and for all, a woman or a man. The difference, I think, between my responses of uneasiness to men who pretend incongruously to be women, and my more accepting responses to others, like male-to-female transsexuals, everyday women, or Holly Woodlawn, is a difference tied to my experience of my own gender.[1]

Because I have been socialized intimately as a woman—taught that what is female is me, and that what is male ought not to be me—I identify much that is male as foreign and artificial, and much that is female as natural and good. I tend to understand women better than I do men, and to value women more. I seek my protection with women, I want men to be women, I do not want women to be men. My gender thus


splits the world in two—providing a line I feel I should not cross, or that I cannot cross, and that I feel others should not cross either, unless they are very convincing about it. Most fundamentally, I think, I do not want the boundaries between the two genders to be confused because my sense of gender is closely tied to my sense of social order and personal safety. If the genders get confused, I get confused about who I am and I cease to know how to be safe: for if I am not a woman and cannot do things women do to protect myself, what can I do? I fear I will be left wide open, that I will easily become the victim of abuse. To be left genderless is to be left defenseless, or it feels that way to me, perhaps because the basic defenses I have learned are gender-linked. These defenses hinge on my ability to feel and act like a woman—to speak quietly, appear innocuous, or defer to others, for instance, and to feel "not myself" when I behave differently.

I think it is worth keeping in mind that while felt in such ways very personally, and as integral to the self, gender is more than personal. Because it is essentially about dominance and subservience, visibility and secrets, gender is political. To be male is to be powerful, to be a woman is to be weak. Given such a context, it is useful, if not necessary, especially if one is a member of the subordinate group—which is kept subordinate, in good part, through camouflage, through confusion of the difference that gender makes—to clarify relationships and not to forget who is who. A man appearing to be a woman may still be a dominant and dominating man; a woman appearing to be a man may be simply ignoring the chains that bind her, or ignoring what is noxious about perpetuating a style of dominance. In a system where women are neither equal nor safe, and where a great deal of one's safety depends on knowing the right ways to behave—how to dress, how to speak—it is good to see clearly the gendered structure of one's relationships. At the same time, such a vision is difficult, for gender distinctions are often hidden. Their significance is understated because these distinctions are thought of as trivial and because they are embedded in personal identity and in much that is taken for granted about daily life. The embeddedness of gender in daily life can be seen in instances of mistaken gender identity. These disturbances in the surface of gender expectations


raise questions about the relationship between gender appearance and inner gender identity.

On Being Mistaken For A Man

I used to like to be mistaken for a man. I do not anymore. In the past month, I have been mistaken for a man, in person, at least three times. The first was in a hospital waiting room where, when I emerged from using a women's bathroom, a small boy asked me, "What'cha doing using the women's? Why didn't you use the men's?" His comment made little sense to me when I heard it. I thought he was talking to someone else. However, there was no one else behind me and he was standing in front of me, looking straight at me. I felt uncomfortable, and ridiculed. I did not wish to be seen as a man. There might be grounds for it in my style of dress, but would a man wear two gold earrings and have a face like mine? Curiously, on each of these recent occasions when I have been mistaken for a man, it is my earrings I have focused on. I think my earrings surely show I am a woman. A man would wear one earring or a mismatched pair. I forget that the two gold hoops I wear are relatively small and perhaps not what the person facing me sees. Instead, that person sees an image suggested by short hair, jeans, a sweater or jacket, oxford shoes, a physical stance. Yet so much do I feel not a man that when mistaken for one, I doubt I have heard correctly the person speaking to me. I become confused and wonder what I have done wrong. I become, in other words, unclear about whether the mistake in identifying me is someone else's or mine. I usually do not question or correct the person who has called me a man, for I do not want to call attention to myself at that moment.

In my second recent experience of mistaken gender identity, I was buying bread in a bakery. A woman behind the counter addressed me as "sir." I mentioned this to a friend who was with me. "That can't be," she said. I thought of my earrings and thought I might be mistaken. I must have heard wrong. Still, I had felt some pride in being seen as a man, as if that made me more desirable than being seen as a woman, and I did not want my friend's disbelief to take that away from me.


When the woman behind the counter addressed me as "sir" a second time, I felt vindicated. I had heard correctly after all. Nonetheless, I still felt doubt: Was it really "sir" the woman had said? What about my earrings? What about my face? Why do people do this? Do they call me "sir" because when in doubt, it is better to assume maleness, better to call a woman a man than to insult a man by calling him a woman?

The third instance of this sort occurred one afternoon when I was walking down a street in the city. A man called after me from behind, asking what the date was. I was in an area where it is sometimes unsafe, and I did not want to turn around and find a strange man making faces at me, or making an obscene gesture referring to sexual parts, or a sexual act, simply because I was a woman. Why else, I thought, would this man be calling after me except to taunt me? It was late on a Saturday afternoon and I did not think he really needed to know the date from me. He could walk into any nearby store and find out. I kept walking. The man kept calling after me. I walked faster. He called out, "Sir, what's the date?" I thought his calling me "sir" was a ploy to get me to turn around so then he could make fun of me for being a woman. I kept walking. He kept calling after me. Now he was calling me, "Hey, sir, you with the gloves." I was wearing gloves because it was cold, but most people that day were not wearing gloves. By this time, I thought the man behind me probably did think I was a man. What kind of man, though, from the rear?

I thought maybe he saw me as a gay man, this being San Francisco, and that he was going to taunt me for that. Gay bashing came immediately to my mind and I was frightened. I had never been mistaken for a gay man and picked on for it. I felt I would rather be obscenely gestured at for being a woman. I was familiar with that. The man kept calling after me and I kept on walking, quickly and determinedly. He finally simply howled at me with no particular words. I felt he was frustrated that I would not obey him by turning around and answering him.

Afterward, I thought this man must have been troubled, that he wanted to be responded to, and that he was not a person who was planning to harass me for being a woman or a gay man. At the time, however, I did not want to take the chance of turning around and finding out. What stays with me from that episode in terms of gender, aside


from my fundamental, and probably female, fear on the street, is my feeling that it was more frightening for me to be mistaken for a gay man than to be treated as a woman, and my more basic feeling that I did not want to be mistaken for a man at all. This mistake must have been made, I told myself, because of the jacket and pants I was wearing. These were men's clothes, chosen for a reason. Men's clothes are more durable than women's and I feel more physically protected in them. I also think these clothes make me look more like a man than a typical lightweight woman, and that people will treat me better as a result. However, although my clothes were men's, that did not mean I wanted to be seen as a man, a distinction that is sometimes difficult to grasp and that may seem to be asking for too much gender discernment. It is also a distinction that raises the question of what it means to want to look like and be treated as a lesbian. This question is related to the broader issue of lesbian invisibility. People are so used to seeing heterosexual women that a lesbian who looks different, who is, perhaps, more male in style, may pass unnoticed as a woman. People see the man in the image rather than the woman behind it. They say "sir" rather than something else they are perhaps afraid of.

The Clothes Of My Gender

Both the pants and the jacket I wore on that day the man called after me on the street were purchased in men's sections of a department store, where, too, the issue of gender appropriateness arises for me. When I shop there, I always feel awkward: Will someone kick me out, look at me funny, think I am shopping for someone else—a man? Will they wonder what I, a woman, am doing here, think it strange? Have they seen other women do this? Didn't women used to shop in men's departments? Where are they now? I see women elsewhere wearing men's clothes. Is it not normal then? Is it not okay for me?

Clearly, the question of what is suited to my gender concerns me not only when I look at others (men in drag, for instance), but when I look at myself. A worry about gender appropriateness seems like something I have had all my life. I constantly think about whether I am acting enough like a woman, or in ways considered, by others and myself, as


fitting to a woman, or as felt to be revealing of a woman. Am I dressing, speaking, feeling, moving, taking out the garbage like a woman? I wonder. Should a woman even be taking out the garbage? Am I assuming too many attributes of the other gender and, mistakenly, expecting good treatment for it? If I become too much like a man, what will happen to me? Will I be looked on as a freak, a bad person, a bad woman? Will I no longer qualify as a woman? One problem I have with thinking about these questions is that I easily become confused. There are so many injunctions—statements deeply learned about how I ought to be—and, at the same time, many factors interplay. It is hard to tell what is gender and what is not.

It is also hard for me not to see myself as a man when others see me that way. This is complicated because my own aims have often been to be a man. I think I have tried, since young, to be like men and boys, and not to be like women. My efforts have sources in my family. My mother, for instance, did not like frilly dresses and taught me not to like them and what they implied. She preferred a tailored look. She wanted to be taken seriously and not to be seen as a frivolous woman. I associate my mother's choice of clothing style with her wearing a light blue shirtwaist dress and silver jewelry. The shirtwaist style, a dress made like a man's shirt, was clearly not a ruffles and bows style; it commanded more respect. The silver jewelry, to my mind, meant my mother was a socialist.

I do not wear shirtwaist dresses and my mother has, for a long time, I think, found my style of dress inexplicable. "Why not wear brighter colors?" is the way she speaks of this. She does not say, "Why not wear more ladylike clothes?" The message I hear is the same, however: Why not wear something more complimentary—more expressive of you, more fitting to your gender? When visiting my mother, I try to please her with the colors of my shirts. I give up on my pants, my shoes, and my posture. Perhaps not surprisingly, I feel awkward when my mother looks at me, as if I am failing to be a woman and, for no apparent reason, masquerading in the clothes of the other gender. I feel that I am denying myself, that I am terribly uptight (which I am, since I am with my mother), and that I am denying others—my mother, most certainly—pleasure in me.

My relationships with the world at large are like those I have with my


mother. Not that these relationships are the same, but there is a similar sense of failing to live up to what is expected of a woman, joined with a sense of being an imposter as a man. One solution to this sense of dual failure might be to change my clothing style, another to relax about it. However, I am not good at relaxing and I find that my costume cannot be switched easily, nor can the more fundamental imperatives that cause me to want protections associated with maleness. I am not trying to argue here that my basic nature is male, or even that part of it is, and that therefore a male costume is fitting to me; that I only feel such a costume false, or not truly mine, because others think so. Rather, I wish to speak of the hurt of being seen as a man, or as a woman trying to mime a man. Such hurt seems to me central to my experience of female gender.

The Hurt Of Being Called A Man

When on various occasions, I have been accused of being butch, a male-identified woman, a man, like a man, or, as once happened, a bulldyke, I have shuddered, feeling, "Of course I must be as they say" and, at the same time, feeling wronged and hurt. So central to me have been my efforts to be like a man, and not like a stereotypical woman, that I think I have succeeded. Thus the "Of course." In addition, so fundamental have been my identifications with important men in my life (my father, men in movies, boys when growing up) and not with the seemingly less adventuresome, more confused, less self-satisfied women (my mother, women in movies, women relatives) that I am surprised to find I am still a woman, that my attempts to outstep my gender have not worked. Often I know this only when called a man, or when ridiculed for being a mannish woman, for it is then I feel the hurt of having been overlooked as a woman for so long, the hurt of "you are not seeing me."

It was only a few years ago that a student in one of my classes told me that another student, a man, had called me a bulldyke outside of class. That was the first time I had heard that term applied to me. I felt I did not fit the image. In my mind, I pictured some other woman who was bigger and squarer than me, wore a leather jacket, rode a motorcycle, and slicked back her hair, and who did not make my little concessions


to femininity—the earrings again, a woman's watch. Maybe that woman made her concessions, too, but, at the moment, I was mostly aware of mine, and of the degree to which the term "bulldyke" unnerved me. It made me anxious, as if it were indeed true of me, and uncertain about what kind of monster the student had seen.

At first, I thought it was the hate in the word that was so unsettling. The male student who said it was a ROTC officer, and he had not, I was sure, used the term bulldyke with pride, or with affection for me. There was fear in the word, I assumed, his of me, and I did not like to be feared. More importantly, however, although it took me longer to see it, I think the term shook me up because this fellow was calling me a man. In calling me "bulldyke," he was transforming me into a grotesque male thug, a person ostensibly a woman, but whose principal features were male—being brutish, for instance. There was something intrinsically horrifying to me about both the ridicule of my gender and the denial of me that were involved in the male bulldyke image. I was not well enough defended against the accusation of being such a mannish grotesque to disbelieve it entirely, however, or to keep it at a real distance from me.

Only when I spoke with a friend who was also a lesbian, and who, too, had experience being called a bulldyke, did I begin to see what bothered me. She said the term upset her because it made her feel she was being called a man and being told that she should not be like a man. My friend clearly looked like a woman to me, even in black leather with inch-length hair. Thinking of her, I was able to see myself also as a woman, rather than as the caricature in the bulldyke image. I was able to see that I could reject being called a man.

Nonetheless, after the name-calling incident, when walking the stairs and hallways of the building where I taught, I was more than usually self-conscious. What did people see when they looked at me? I wondered. Did they see a big, tough woman and hate her? Did they see a woman trying to be like a man? Did I look very odd? There was nothing much I could do about my discomfort except to try not to care. The discomfort was not really new to me, for it was about gender appropriateness and my own acceptability, about whether I could be a woman when seen as a man, and, most basically, about whether I had a right to be seen at all. In one sense, the story had a good ending. By the semester's


end, the student who had called me a bulldyke came around to liking and trying to understand gay people, finding fault with his previous prejudices. He told me about this after the last two class sessions, pleased with himself for how he had changed. His ability to alter his prejudices seemed less unexpected to me, however, than my own response to a single word he had used. I would not have thought that being called "bulldyke" would have fazed me.

Another experience when being called a man hurt me occurred with a woman, a close friend whom I loved. In part because she was a woman and, in part, because of the context, I was hurt more deeply and for longer than when the male student called me a bulldyke. Why, I still wonder, did she do that? Why hurt me that way? Was I that bad? She was a straight woman. I was a lesbian. We had a minor sexual involvement. "It was like being with a man," she said. I heard, "It was not supposed to be that way with a woman. You were not supposed to be that way." I imagined I must have been barbaric, brutal, unfeeling, insensitive, like a living-room rapist. I felt terrible, as if part of me (the female part) was cut off by her comment. She had seen only my self-protective (male) shell. I felt there was more to me, but she no longer wanted my advances.

This straight woman did not want me to touch her, to be near her, to take her any further than a subdued sense of sexual arousal that she could experience by herself. During our sexual encounter, I had wanted her to respond to me so I could know that I mattered to her, that she was willing to be with me. She did not want to respond, to be a lesbian, to feel it was worth it. She wanted to lie on a couch, or a bed, and go into a trance, I felt, to be near oblivion, and then have a transcendent experience. I failed to provide that experience. I was a man for her. Are not lesbians really men? Are not butch lesbians, especially, stand-ins for men, to some women? Such questions keep haunting me.

At the time, and for some time after, I felt my friend's reaction to me implied that I had tried to make her feel more than she wanted to, and in doing so, that I had forced myself on her. Thus I had been like a man in a most offensive way. However, she did not give me a chance to be different; I also did not take the chance. I did not show my friend openly how I felt, but, instead, I wanted her to show her feelings to me.


I wanted her to be the yielding, revealing, expressive woman, while I was the one who shows little, who covers how she feels and tries to urge feeling in another. Only much later did I think, Why did I not see her in the man's role? Why am I so quick to put myself in that role? My friend was the one who lay there unwilling to feel, who would not respond. She felt hard and unyielding to me. I did not, therefore, say to her, "You felt like a man to me." Was that because she wore stockings and I wore pants? Because she lay beneath me and looked up? Am I fooled by such appearances? Do I see them and act like a man just so I can play the gender role I think will provide greater protection for me? Did I act like a man? Did acting like one make me one? Why does the hurt of being called a man run so deep for me?

That episode of my being seen as a man in an intimate encounter appears to me, eleven years later, in such highly gendered terms. The other woman seems the woman, I the man. I clearly associate maleness with self-protection and femaleness with a lack of it. When a man accuses me of being a bulldyke, or looks at me and sees a man, it hurts me far less than when a woman does so. A woman, I assume, knows me better. I take seriously what she says. I find it hard to rid myself of feeling I am the person another woman sees.

Much of my feeling that I am a man thus hinges on how I think I look to others. I feel often that my gender lies in my appearance. I also think such a feeling is deceptive. What is true of gender is not that it is primarily a matter of appearance, but that it is so important as to need to be signaled constantly by appearance. It is constantly necessary to tell who is female and male, to announce one's gender and be confirmed for it, for it is not only the outer but the inner world that asks, Which gendered terms describe me? How? Do these terms fit me well at all?

Responses To Femme And Butch Styles In Women

I usually think it is other women, and not me, who adopt gendered roles, that these roles—femme and butch—do not describe me. I am clear that I would not call myself a femme. That style is, for me, too associated with what women traditionally stand for. However, I am less certain about the term "butch." I feel uncomfortable applying that


term to myself and I am suspicious of my discomfort, as if it means I am trying to avoid who I am. I think I want to deny I am butch because of the male implications of the term, and because the goal people speak of always seems to be androgyny, a mix of gendered elements in which no one role is dominant. I also wish to deny I am butch because I have learned that a woman should not ape a man, because I think being butch is not true of me underneath, and because of how I often respond to other women I see as butch.

When I see a woman in a butch role, I recoil. I do not want to be near her. I see no point. What would I gain? I feel I am in search of a womanly woman. I do not fathom very well that the style might not be the person, that the whole might be more complex. I see male clothing, physical mannerisms, or style of speech, and I think, "This is a man," just as others may do when they look at me. Sometimes, I try to undress a butch woman in my mind. I think that if I can see a female body beneath this woman's clothes, I will feel differently toward her. If I can see breasts and a woman's rounded shape, I will feel this is someone soft and caring, capable of saying the gentle things I need to hear, which I often cannot say to myself because my mother did not say them. If I see a woman's body, I will be able to imagine myself curled up between this woman's breasts, my head nestled in them, myself as a child held and protected. I will know then that this is a woman. Of course, that is stereotypical thinking of an unreal sort. All women do not have breasts, all breasts are not nurturant, all mothers are not good, all mothers are not women. Yet I persist in looking for the most clichéd of female appearances.

When I see a woman wearing a dress, for instance, or with breasts whose shapes are visible through a shirt, a woman with a way of looking at, and speaking to, me that suggests she will be caring toward me, when I see long hair and a full-bodied figure, when I see the most standard displays of female style, I think, "Here is someone who will be kind to me. Here is a woman." I want to go to her, to be held, to go to bed with her. In that closeness, I think I will feel what I need. I fall for a symbol and move immediately to intimacy, and both the fall and the move can be disastrous for me.

One reason I think I look for femme-style women is that I do not feel


I myself am a woman. I have breasts, but they are not breasts. They belong to someone else. They are bumps, they are too small. My shape is not the shape of a woman. It is a man's shape, but it is not a man's shape. I have kindness in me, but it is not the kindness of a woman. Rather, it is my father's kindness. When people receive from me, they receive from him. What I offer is what a man offers. Usually, I think I am a young man, offering adventure and gentleness and a need for nurturance that some women will respond to. The sources that make me feel I am a man thus include my desire to be a man. This is so strong in me, in good part, because I have seen it is men who receive the affections of women. It is men in the movies whom women hold, men whom women are most caring toward. My mother slept with my father. My younger brother aroused much affection in people, and I always wanted to be him, to be male.

Heterosexuality has profound effects. It is more than an observation about who mates with whom. It is a theory about incompleteness and completion, about the desirability of women valuing men over women, and about the need for maintaining distinctions between the genders. I think it is a bad theory, but I am not immune to it, to the gender idealizations that come with it, and to the way it shapes the imagination.

Lesbian In A Heterosexual World

Several years ago, for the first time, my lover, whom I will call Judith, and I spent a night in a country inn. We stayed in a room upstairs with a down comforter on the bed, wine and mints on the dresser, and antique dolls in the bookshelves. Nearby was a common room with a woodburning stove, and across the hall a bathroom with copies of magazines neatly set out. I was not accustomed to the deliberateness of the setting, but the least familiar part of the experience was the group breakfast in the morning. In the kitchen downstairs, around a big circular table sat all the people who had stayed at the inn the night before—ten people, five couples, including Judith and myself. The four other couples were heterosexual. One of the men was a coroner, another designed downtown department store windows. Over breakfast, while the innkeepers served us, the heterosexual couples discussed other inns


they had stayed at, antique furniture they had bought at auctions, and large round globes that were the trend in department store windows that season. Judith and I felt out of place and very aware of the heterosexuality of the company.

Later that day as we drove away from the inn on our way to the ocean, I imagined a changed scene. No longer was the social climate of the inn heterosexual couples speaking of consumerism. Instead, the guests were lesbian couples and the inn was a setting for a mystery. My mystery began with a woman in dark clothes lurking in the doorway to a barn in a field behind the inn. But it was the nature of the couples whose paths might cross out by the barn that most fascinated me. In my mind, I saw one couple clearly. They were inside the inn talking in the common room by the woodburning stove—a small, dark-haired, butch-style woman and a larger, more outgoing, femme-style woman. I had little sense of the plot that would unfold. My focus was on the mystery of the attraction between these two women and, potentially, between these two and others staying at the inn.

What did the open-mannered, femme woman in the couple see in the smaller, dark-haired woman? I wondered. What did the quieter, dark-haired woman have to offer? What comfort did she find in the larger, more sociable woman? What was on the surface in each of them? What was underneath? Who gave what? Who needed what? What about the femme-butch aspect of their relationship? How important was it? What did it mean? Was the butch really the femme underneath, and the femme the butch, if one looked closely? Why would anyone value the butch woman when the femme, it seemed to me, had so much more to offer? Clearly, these questions were from my own life, but that was not the point for me at the time. The point was that I could not escape structuring my imagination in terms of gender roles—those female and male styles, highly variable and essentially heterosexual, here adopted by women.

Although I never was able to write a mystery plot set in the inn, the image of the lesbian couple by the stove stayed with me for a long time. It was a way that I reminded myself of a puzzle that bothered me. All of us, I think, have situations, or puzzles, in our minds in which the gendered behaviors we see are unsettling for us and not yet figured out. My


mystery of the inn was a story of my own importing gender roles from one context, the inn (a heterosexual world), to another, a world of women, and then attempting to determine the meaning of these roles in the women's world. To what extent did female and male gender roles become different when adopted by women or, more accurately, when adapted by them, than when adapted by men, and different still when adapted by lesbians? To what extent did women adapting gendered roles perpetuate a system of male dominance and female subordinance in which women appear less substantial than men, and men are more important and more safe? Was a straight femme woman the same as a lesbian femme? Or was a lesbian different because she was more false in that role—less subordinate to men, although subordinate, perhaps, to women who acted like men? These distinctions seem important to me because women who act like men are not men, and because lesbians are again different, and the differences of women, and of lesbians, often are not seen. At the same time, what is seen—a surface gender style—is often not well understood, either in terms of what it means to an individual, or in terms of a deeper structure of gender.

In recent years, I have heard it said that gender roles are declining in significance both among lesbians and among heterosexuals. The gender differences these roles reflect are said to be increasingly superficial, rather than basic, reflecting people's attempts to hold on to old symbols of identity, even as these symbols lose social import. The two genders are said to be becoming more equal; women and men are becoming more the same. Gender role-playing among lesbians is often seen as something done years ago, in prior generations, when there was less of a feminist critique against reproducing heterosexuality. In prior years, the roles were supposedly taken more seriously: butch lesbians dressed in clear male ways, acted differently than femmes, chose femmes for lovers; and when they lived together, the two often divided labor according to traditional heterosexual marriage roles. Members of a more contemporary lesbian couple will usually not divide in such a strict manner, and there is a new "playing with gender" attitude. Yet it seems to me that gender roles persist and re-arise in many ways that are beyond our control and consciousness, some of them subtle, others blatant. The roles appear among working-class lesbians who take traditional gender


roles seriously, as does the surrounding class culture; among younger lesbians who play at the roles, keeping, or feeling they keep, a more stylized distance from them (lipstick lesbians in the femme revival, for instance). The roles appear among women who wish to transcend gender roles in themselves and others, yet who see the roles everywhere, like myself; among career lesbians in male-style female clothes who must make great efforts to prove they are still women; among queer women and transgenderists, who often deal with gender by treating it as malleable, and by switching back and forth between female and male styles, as if they seek to do away with gender by mixing it up.[2]

My point is not how sharp the roles are, or how unchangeable, or how much the same from place to place, but the needs they speak to. More than announcing who is female or male, they represent a preoccupation with gender, a need to define oneself in gendered terms that is no less real for being unacknowledged, and that in women is often understated, or engaged in so quietly it seems to be natural. People who know me, for instance, think I look like myself, and that I am a woman. My clothes seem fitting to me. They are not aware of how much I feel, and fear, I am a man. When younger and wanting so much to be a man—in order to be free of being a woman, or like my mother, and in order simply to be free—I used to take greater pride in being mistaken for a man than I do now, and to feel less discomforted when called one. Maybe I got so accustomed to the pants and freedom that being called a man did not seem so much of a compliment anymore. I felt better when seen as a woman. But maybe the reason has more to do with a change in what the genders came to stand for in my particular world. At some point, the meanings switched, and good became female, and freedom became female, and so did I.


This is not a completed story but, rather, a suggestive one, providing a few illustrations to indicate the presence of inner conflicts in a female gender role. Although I have emphasized male elements in my gender style, my central concern is with my appropriateness as a woman—with whether I qualify, and what I must do, to be seen as female. My efforts


to be a woman are harder to talk about than my efforts to be a man. They are more embarrassing, and less self-conscious, and they may be viewed as unnecessary—I cannot help but be a woman. However, I cannot remember a time when I could take that status for granted, nor when being seen as female was unrelated to feeling I was female. I know I gain a sense of protection when adapting elements of a male style—men's clothing, for instance. However, I feel touched most deeply when seen as a woman, as if being female is the most and least visible thing about me, and the most important thing.

I rely on women for both intimate and more formal relationships because of qualities the gendered role of women provides for me. Among women, I find some who are, in style, like men, and others who are more like traditional women. I, myself, am often unsure of how to be. I feel that my gestures are either female or male, that a nongendered choice is not one I can make. At the same time, I often think that my actions are an individual matter and not gendered. Yet when I look closely, it seems to me that my needs for protection, the sense of vulnerability these needs are tied to, my compliance with a system that says I am unimportant, my fear on the streets, my wanting to look tough like a man in my clothes, my seeking out femme-style women for comfort, my undressing butch women to find a similar comfort, my hurt on being called a man—all these are very much related to my being female. They are bound up with what I have learned is my gender, much as I wish they were simply signs of myself.

Clearly, I import heterosexual habits and perceptions into my female world. I would like to do differently. I would like to stop trying to be like a man, stop seeing femme and butch styles among women, stop thinking these matter. Yet I cannot easily do so, as if part of my self-protection lies in not overlooking the signs—woman, boy, girl, man. These identifications emerge from a context in which women do not count for much, and in which the basic gender categories remain strict assignments for most people most of the time, even when gender roles other than one's own are tried on and partially adopted, blurring lines between the genders. Gender categories are so strong in their consequence that playing with gender remains just that—elaboration, embroidery,


variations on a theme of male dominance and female subordinance, male importance and female silence.

The seemingly trivial behaviors involved and the inner preoccupations of my gender have far deeper impact than perhaps they ought to. I speak here for acknowledging the importance of gender rather than succumbing to the confusion of it, and for trying to think about why the confusion so easily sets in. Anything that makes light of gender and understates the degree to which it is defining of people, and constraining for women, may have great appeal. Our social system depends on a female underclass, and attempts to disavow the importance of gender conveniently hide this dependence. The work women do is often invisible and takes many forms. One of these is that of maintaining a female gender role despite inner conflicts. This role, as I have learned it, does not offend and keeps much internal. In part for that reason, it is important, I think, to speak about the difficulties of female experience with as much candor as possible. It is important to make public more of what is usually hidden in individual female worlds.


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