I was shopping at a mall this weekend in New York and happened upon a clothing store that I hadn't seen before. They had cute clothes so I went in to look around. The salespeople were extremely friendly, asking if I needed help with genuine smiles and eager tones.
I had several items in my arms and was looking at a pair of shorts when a retail associate approached. "Who are you shopping for?" she asked.
"Myself," I answered.
"In the men's section?" she asked, incredulously.
Based on her earlier good-natured rapport, I could only assume she was completely unaware of how invasive and judgmental her question was. It was the opposite of the good customer service she had provided not ten minutes earlier.
I was insulted and hurt, which turned swiftly into indignation. I thought for a split second about schooling her in the lie of the binary gender system in which she had been fooled into believing, and in which we’d all been indoctrinated into since the moment we emerged from the womb. I thought about tell her how, despite any strongly held convictions she might hold, as a retail associate she isn't supposed to impose her personal judgement onto customers lest they lose a sale. But instead, I bit my lip and asked where the dressing room was, and then silently followed her there, avoiding eye contact.
Notions of maleness and femaleness as fixed biological or cultural absolutes are the root of many evils. It starts with the seemingly innocuous comments of a retail associate and ends with the murder of black transgender women. And there’s plenty in-between that many people who don’t fit clearly into the norm, or those who dare to challenge the status quo face daily, from girls being told they can't compete with the boys, to trans students forced to use the bathroom and locker rooms that don’t align with their gender identity.
Was my life in danger in that clothing store? No, but I was a victim of gender policing. However unintended, that sales associate had singlehandedly reinforced the same notions of right and wrong around gender that legislators do when they vote on laws that further marginalize transgender people, that parents employ when they attach pink bows to their babies’ hair and allow their kids to bully the feminine boy that wants to dress as Superwoman for Halloween. It’s the same mindset that causes parents to kick their kids out, that makes teens suicidal, and that has forced people to live miserably in closets not filled with the clothes of their choosing.
I have a vagina and breasts and use female pronouns, but I don't feel strongly female or at all feminine. I am a lesbian who rides the line between transmasculinity and androgyny. I am generally, though not always, perceived as female and check off the “female” box on forms without much distress. If there were more options than the rigid two, I’d probably choose something else.
I usually shop in the men's clothing sections, mostly because I prefer the styles. I also sometimes, though with less frequency, shop in the women's section. In particular, when I need a suit or dress pants, women's sizes just fit my body better.
I've always been shamed in subtle ways for gravitating towards the men's section. It started when I was a kid and my mom took me shopping. I would always go to the boy's clothing section and she would try as politely as she could to steer me towards the girl's clothes.
"Why don't you just look," she'd say, as if coaxing me would somehow change my taste.
It made me feel like an outlaw.
And yet, at the same time I knew it was ridiculous to create these false divisions between dresses and cargo shorts, between frilly and collared shirts. It was all a social creation based on outdated science and yet we still take gender really seriously.
I refused to go shopping for my Bat Mitzvah dress. My mom went shopping without me and bought something (an awful peach colored dress with bedazzled jewels). I wore it begrudgingly. I would have been all smiles with a pair of slacks and a button down shirt, but that was unheard of at the time at our conservative temple. I once got lectured by the rabbi’s wife for wearing a skirt that ended above my knees (ankle length skirts were considered appropriate).
With time, my mom learned not to say anything and to let me lead the way to the men's section to shop (and I learned that organized religion wasn’t for me), but her silent disapproval always weighed down on me, as I'm sure it does many others. Something as inane and insignificant as gendered attire shouldn't be the building blocks of disappointment.
There is hope. Parents are getting better. More kids are coming out as gay and bi and trans and gender non-conforming and their adults are taking the time to learn and respect them, and to let their kids be themselves. Target and other major brands have taken a leap and a risk on the right side of history by removing gender signs in toy sections of their stores. But, as we're seeing with the bathroom wars and the more subtle continued persistence of gender policing in our everyday lives, we are not even close to getting to the truth of our spectral existences.
That sales associate thought she was well-intentioned. She didn't realize she was overstepping her boundaries at best and policing my gender at worst. That lack of awareness is precisely what makes this whole lesson much harder for people to learn. They aren't open to solving the problem because most don't even know it exists to begin with.
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Allison Hope is a writer, PR specialist and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep. Follow her on Twitter @bubballie.