Are you a Girl?

Today I found myself grading exams for my fifth grade classes. The students gathered around me, each begging me to grade their exam first, grabbing a fold of skin from the front of their necks in the Georgian gesture for “please” and trying to ply me in English and Georgian. I graded the tests in the order that my pile was in, for fairness.

One of the students then made a startling discovery. She was only the second of my students to ever notice this about me – the first was, I think, an eighth or ninth grader who I don’t teach but who I was talking to after school, probably about Lady Gaga or whether or not I like khinkali, the former being my favorite topic of conversation with my students and the latter being their apparent favorite topic of conversation with me – and in both cases, the student immediately spilled the beans to all assembled.

You see, my left earlobe contains a feature common throughout the world – a small hole through which a piece of jewelry might be fitted – because I have in fact had my ears pierced. I started out with two studs in my left cartilage, then changed those to captured balls (silver, with blue stones); later I got my right cartilage and left lobe done.

My cartilage has closed up, although the shape of my cartilage in that area is now different and you can see where the piercings were if you look carefully. However, due to their placement, you kind of have to be looking for them to notice them. The earlobe, on the other hand, is right out there – those never really close up all the way and I have a very obvious dimple there, although I suspect it no longer goes all the way through to the other side. Sometimes it itches a little, and I sometimes tug on it unconsciously as a result of said itch.

I took my earrings out after a few years – basically I was tired of the maintenance required to keep them clean and disinfected during the summer months when I was constantly sweating, because I used to work outdoors over a charcoal grill in the summer – and have never seriously considered putting them back in. Overall I can’t be bothered to add to my daily routine just for decorative purposes (which is also why I often choose to opt for low-maintenance hair and facial hair styles).

So anyway, this girl made kind of a big deal over the unexpected hole in my earlobe.

“You have your ear…(Georgian word),” she said, and pointed.

“Pierced,” I supplied, as the general ruckus in the class increased somewhat in pitch.

“Why? Are you a girl?” she asked. I slowly turned my head and tried to look some sense into her. “Are you a girl?” she repeated.

“Yes,” I replied. Sensing that I wasn’t going to play along with her attempt to pigeonhole me into one set of gendered ornamentation and behavior, the girl smiled and let the matter drop. I went back to grading tests without incident.

*************************************************************

Now, I know this girl is in fifth grade, and thus is probably ten or eleven, and so maybe you’ll think that I’m overthinking this whole thing, but it’s representative. There’s a certain “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspect to what children say – children say what others might be thinking but are afraid to say because of social constraints. In many ways, children speak with the voice of Society – that is to say, we are all socialized as children, by children, and the social norms that we carry into adulthood are formed through exposure to other children’s uncensored censure.

One of the perks of being me is that I am completely immune to gender, sex, and sexuality based shaming. Since I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being gay, female, feminine, or any other stigmatized variant of sex or sexuality, when people try to use these things as insults, all it actually does is make me think less of them.

People have said things to me like, “How can you like Fiona Apple/Kelly Clarkson/Lady Gaga this much? Are you sure you aren’t gay?” (Strangely I usually get a pass on Ani…) Assuming that the person isn’t just joking around – and it can be hard to tell – I just translate this as “My experience is currently too limited to conceive of a person like you, and my mind is too closed to accept things that are new.” My experience was once limited regarding gender issues – and it still is limited regarding other issues. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But mocking someone from a place of ignorance is a pitiable position to be in especially when the alternative is gaining a new understanding of the world.

So yeah, I often fail to correctly perform the gender role that society has set out for me. In fact, I generally try to ignore it, and when people accuse me of failing to perform the gender role that they expect of me, I tend to acknowledge that I am the way I am and suggest that it is their expectations, rather than my personality, that ought to be changed. Even if it were true that only girls get ear piercings, that only gay men listen to Fiona Apple, or any of the other absurd assumptions people have attempted to foist upon me over the years, it doesn’t really make a difference to me.

When my parents got divorced, my father stuck with my sister and I and raised us. Even though it was hard, even though it was non-traditional, even though his friends called him “Mr. Mom,” even though he had never even heard of any other single fathers, there was not a single cell in his body that could conceive of not raising his children. I don’t think anyone would call him less of a man for that.

And to me, something like an ear piercing or a musical preference is tiny and insignificant compared to what counts in life, like being there for the people who need you, and being kind and loving and compassionate and making the world a better place. So that’s what I strive for, and that’s what’s important to me, and to hell with any arbitrary social restrictions about what goes into my ears along the way.

*******************************************************

Video: Dar Williams – When I Was A Boy

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20 Responses to Are you a Girl?

  1. Eric says:

    Reading about this made me chuckle…
    At least you weren’t asked this question without having any piercings! Lol.

    It’s happened to me several times.

  2. D says:

    I noticed that ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ is on your blogroll.

    She’s been kidnapped:

    http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/06/2011671229558865.html

  3. Dato says:

    ) why did she ask you this question? How do you look like?
    Maybe she just want to know who you are?
    Best wishes. Dato

    • panoptical says:

      She asked me because Georgians are raised to believe ridiculous things about gender, such as “only girls wear earrings.” I look like a 30 year old American guy with a beard, which is sad because I’m only 29.

  4. --> says:

    > “only girls wear earrings.”
    Which is the case. In Georgia. Is not it?

    • panoptical says:

      I’m sorry, I don’t understand what it is that you’re trying to imply with this comment. If you have a point, could you state it explicitly?

      Also, “*Is not it?” is ungrammatical. You should say “Isn’t it?” or “Is it not?”

  5. --> says:

    > If you have a point, could you state it explicitly?
    It is what was said – _in_Georgia_ only girls/women are wearing earnings. Obviously you will argue that it is not the case worldwide. And you will be right.

    However, again – when these kids/someone else are asking you this question they do not relay on the experience of living in Upper Manhattan, Sunset Beach or Bolder, Colorado. Their world is limited what they see in their everyday life and in their everyday life men do not wear earnings.

    Yes, every generalization is false, including this one, but this is the way we humans live – we stereotype, it is easier.

    • panoptical says:

      When you see a foreigner behaving in a way that people in your own country don’t generally behave, the reasonable path is to leave open the possibility that the behavior in question can be explained by the person’s foreignness rather than by some sort of defect specific to that person.

      In other words, when a person sees that I have my ear pierced, they might ask “is it normal where you come from for men to have their ears pierced” – a reasonable question – or they might ask “are you in fact a girl with a goatee” – a much less reasonable question.

      The fact that gender conformity is so ingrained in Georgians, and at such a young age, that they will jump to the least likely conclusion rather than a much more plausible and pedestrian explanation points to a serious flaw in the Georgian worldview, which is that in the Georgian mentality, adherence to gender roles actually inhibits critical thinking in very obvious ways and prevents Georgians from having an accurate and realistic view of the world in which they live.

      And of course the more reasonable explanation of my student’s question is not that she actually thought that I was a girl, but rather that she was policing my gender in the way that has been taught to her by society. What I mean by “policing” is that when you see someone behaving in a way that does not suit the role that you were taught they should play, you point out that they are failing to conform in a way meant to publicly shame them. Children pick up on this very early in life because their parents police their gender. At some point this girl learned the lesson that it was appropriate to try to discipline other members of her society into conformity with prescriptive ideas of gender like “only girls wear earrings.” “Are you a girl” was, in my opinion, meant more as a taunt than an honest question; without really meaning anything malicious the girl was actually saying “shame on you for not behaving the way I’ve been taught you should behave.”

      It’s not the descriptive statement “in Georgia, men don’t usually wear earrings” that I think is ridiculous – that is an observable fact about the world – rather it’s the prescriptive statement “only girls wear earrings,” which carries the meaning “if you have your ears pierced, you are not behaving like a proper man, and that is shameful” that is ridiculous and harmful and damaging to the intelligence of young minds.

      • D says:

        You know what’s far more “ridiculous and harmful and damaging to the intelligence of young minds”?

        Teaching them that gender is a ‘social construct’. Only a small minority of people in the world actually believe that garbage (usually people with an Arts degree from a Western university).

        • panoptical says:

          Truth is not determined democratically based on what the largest number of people believe. Truth is discovered through careful study, observation, experimentation, and critical thinking, and then spread through discussion, debate, argumentation, and education.

          What a person with no education or background in gender studies believes about gender has no more relevance to the truth of the matter than what a person with no education or background in biology believes about the cause of the common cold.

          That’s why I feel confident in making the following two statements:

          1. A person who tells me that taking showers in the morning will cause you to “catch cold” has no idea what they are talking about.
          2. A person who tells me that there is a biological, rather than a social, reason for women to wear earrings and men not to – in other words, that females are genetically predisposed to wear earrings and males are genetically predisposed not to – has no idea what they are talking about.

          In both cases, the truth has been amply demonstrated and scientific evidence is widely available, and yet in both cases, the false beliefs persist in places like Georgia due to lack of education. The only difference between germ theory and gender theory is that fifty percent of the population of the world has a large stake in discrediting gender theory because it threatens the privileged status they have gained by perpetuating lies about sex and gender; whereas with germ theory the only social changes that would be implied in Georgia would be that maybe people would cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough on the bus, or stand farther away from others during conversations when they have a contagious illness. And maybe they’d be less afraid to shower.

          So yes, you’re correct in pointing out that usually the people who are educated about gender are those with a decent, modern education. Just like the people who believe in evolution, global warming, and all of the other “garbage” that you learn about in Western universities.

          But I guess if you think that education is harmful, and that people are better off being ignorant, you’re entitled to your opinion. In fact, there’s a whole political party in the United States that agrees with you completely and has dedicated itself to mocking people with educations, firing teachers, cutting funding for education, and denying as many people as possible the opportunity to go to college. They’re called “Republicans” – check them out, I’m sure you’d get along.

        • --> says:

          > believe in evolution, global warming

          Last Saturday both I-80 and US-50 were closed in California/Nevada crossings due to… SNOW. On June 6th. Whole month of May I was running heater at night in Bay Area because temperature was in mid-40ies at night….

          I think Al Gore got it wrong – the TRUTH was revealed to him about climate change but somehow he interpreted this as global warming. In reality it is other way around.

        • panoptical says:

          Just to make sure – you’re kidding, right?

        • --> says:

          Nobody knows my friend….

  6. --> says:

    > they will jump to the least likely conclusion
    You are right that people will by nature make the assumptions, however I wonder why you think that the assumption which is based on a familiarity/daily life is the least likely. What that 5th grader girl does perfectly fits into Occam’s razor principle, let me explain:

    Occam’s razor says that one should make fewest _NEW_ (my underlining here) assumptions when formulating an explanation of an event. And if you analyze humans behavior you’d see that they subconsciously follow that principle. And as I said – humans stereotype and when trying to explain events they select the theory which is most familiar/easy for them.

    Your suggestion what would be reasonable explanation (from _your_ point of view) of unfamiliar events requires from an person to be _already_ educated and/or being exposed to different cultures and to be aware of different types of human behaviors. This is considerable more difficult and requires much more effort than selecting a theory which one is already familiar with. I’m little bit surprised why you can’t see it.

    The same way would be if you end up in Classical Greece 2500 years ago and try to explain locals that lightning is caused by electric discharges and not by anger of Zeus. And you got angry/surprised when you see a behavior which does not fit your expectations. But you are a person WHO HAVE SEEN/KNOW MORE THAN THEY DID. Sorry for shouting, but had to emphasize this.

    But point of my posting here is to have an agreement with you in one very good and accurate statement:

    > Georgian mentality, adherence to gender roles actually inhibits
    > critical thinking in very obvious ways and prevents Georgians from
    > having an accurate and realistic view of the world in which they live

    • panoptical says:

      Wait, are you really arguing for the existence of a worldview in which boys cannot have ear piercings but girls can have facial hair, dress like men, and be referred to for several months using masculine pronouns?

      • --> says:

        >Wait, are you really arguing for the existence of a worldview
        Does it surprise you? The whole history of humanity proves that cognitive dissonance causes uncomfortable feelings on an individual level, but not on society level.

        P.S. You really need to talk to Bruna about this and similar subjects, she can tell a lot.

  7. Wait, there’s nothing wrong with being a woman? What strange culture did you come from?!

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