VIOLA - Skimming over an enrollment form for an upcoming writing workshop, I confused the word genrewith gender. An easy mistake, but a thought-provoking one. I was intrigued to see the categories I’d be able to choose from. My imagination was miles ahead of me.
Instantly I was taken back to my childhood, where I felt lucky to have parents who agreed to let me play the part of a boy in a local Native American culture group my siblings and I participated in. Despite photos in the local paper of me looking like a boy and identified as Janie Schmidt, never once did I feel judged or ostracized. Nor did I feel an ounce of shame parading around bare-chested in a loincloth.
My claim to fame locally in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve came from paddling around a bend in the river too quickly to get my top back on when I startled a group of men who were working on a logjam.
Being opposed to wearing a top shouldn’t have much to do with gender, but in our society it does. Girls must wear tops, but boys don’t have to?
Not long ago, while getting my hair cut, I noticed that a child was intently watching me. I could see her in the mirror but couldn’t turn to say hello, fearing my hairdresser might snip my ear. I had requested my typical summertime short buzz.
When the cape came off and my neck had been dusted, I was able to turn and look at my young admirer. As I smiled, she asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked that question, nor did I find it offensive.
Girls have long hair, boys short?
When I was married and working at a club in the Milwaukee area, I played a wicked game of racquetball. Well, wickedmay be a stretch. The club was well known for its exceptional players, and I wasn’t one of them, but nonetheless I played hard.
It was a tournament weekend and I was playing on a back court, my then-husband watching me from up top. Unable to return my opponent’s fast and low serve out of the corner, I was getting a beating. Finally, in an amazing full-out dive, I killed her serve and the crowd roared.
Later, I learned that a man watching up there had clapped and cheered as loudly as anyone else, turning to ask my then-husband, “Is that your boy down there?”
In fairness, I was known for my baggy shorts and T-shirts and had short hair that stuck straight up.
Girls don’t play sports aggressively and they wear tight clothes?
As the story goes, I moved to this area in 2000 with my yellow lab and yellow Swifty kayak. When I started to work at the Wellness Center and serve coffee at the local café, people became curious—especially when they discovered I was single.
It seems everyone I met had someone—a cousin, a friend, a brother, or a sister—for me to date. I found this charming, and I learned quickly not to voice my opinions out loud in my exercise class about how my dates went. Someone in class was always related to whomever I’d gone out with!
Sometimes on these dates, assumptions about my gender expression led to questions about my sexual orientation: “Are you bisexual?” When I’d question why they wanted to know, whether it mattered, or why they thought I was, they’d recite a list of what they saw in me: a single woman, short hair, lives alone, has animals, lives in the country, doesn’t wear make-up, plays racquetball, spends a lot of time in the woods, has been known to paddle topless, and teaches ‘phy ed.’
Not until I’d listened to this litany of characteristics, which my date felt marked me as bisexual, did I realize how much we stereotype gender roles. It’s confusing.
I don’t feel any need to choose a label for myself other than Plain Jane, who happens to have short hair, lives with animals in the country, loves hiking in the woods and reading, no longer plays a wicked game of racquetball, and resorts to a touch of mascara on special occasions. In my view, labels are for bottles and packages, not people.And for the record, my preferred genre is nonfiction.