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Notes from the Field (An Archeology of Gender), by Jaclyn Foster


Whenever Chris Pine comes up in conversation, I can barely breathe. Breathlessly, I talk, and talk, and talk about him to people, as if I’m begging. “Please, hear what I’m telling you about me.” But they don’t, of course. How could they? I don’t even know what I’m telling them about myself. “I want you to see me exactly as Chris Pine, but not at all as a man?” Even typing this now, I don’t know.

If I let my hair grow until it curls around my chin, will you remember its default state is short?

If anything, my urge to babble about Pine seems to function as more of a red herring. “Wait…I thought you were a lesbian?” my classmate frowns. “No, I’m in love with Chris Pine because I’m a lesbian,” I begin, launching into an extended explanation of the “Chris Pine dresses like a non-binary lesbian” niche TikTok series. Like Cady Heron, I can hear people getting bored with me, but I can’t stop. The cardiology professor calls our class to attention, and I trail off, grateful. I open up Twitter. Chris Pine has short hair and a grey beard now – the fans are hyping up his new look. I feel an aching sense of loss. I feel faintly ridiculous.

*

When I was 12, my mom came home from Old Navy with two pairs of shorts. One grey, one olive green. In my memory, they look like cargo shorts without the puffy pockets. My mom had scoured the malls and the outlet stores far and wide for “modest” shorts – I was adamantly opposed to short shorts, going so far as to draw a full-sized copy of For the Strength of Youth out of my bright yellow purse in the Hollister dressing room, where my mom had tried to convince me to settle for some mid-thigh lime green sweatpant-style loungewear. Finally, my mom thought, she had struck gold at Old Navy.

Instead, to both her and my surprise, I burst into sobs. Not the usual emotional tears of a preteen girl, but deep, shuddering, gut-wrenching sobs, coming from a place I didn’t know existed. “But what don’t you like about them?” my mom asked. “Is there anything in particular? Could you maybe make them work with a different shirt?”

I couldn’t explain it. She returned the shorts.

*

“Sorry, this smells a little bit like cologne, is that all right?” my barber asked, sounding concerned.

“Oh yeah, sure, no worries,” I replied nonchalantly. She worked the product into my hair. This was my third haircut with her, and the best so far. My horrendous luck with short haircuts had turned into a bit of a joke – the lesbian cursed with hair that defied clippers. Something about giving birth to my son had changed its texture to a mirror image of my dad’s. (“They keep trying to blend it and saying, oh no, there’s a line, right? And then they keep clipping and clipping?” he commiserated.) I had grown my hair out for eight months after my first haircut with this barber, then at the return appointment, brought a careful selection of photos. Cameron Esposito, a young man who looked like an extra on a 90’s television show, a person turned to the side so you couldn’t see their face well enough to gender them either way.

Most people wouldn’t have returned for a second appointment, but this barber was the first I’d found who was willing to accidentally cut my hair too short, instead of giving me what turned into a bob within a week. My trust had paid off, the second haircut had gone fine, so I returned for a third, this time only bringing the young man’s picture, dropping the carefully curated gender spectrum. “It’s sort of like, uh, Dean from Gilmore Girls?” I offered. My barber’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I love Gilmore Girls! Don’t you think Missoula is like Star’s Hollow?” The ensuing conversation stretched my hazy memories of watching A Year in the Life during 3 am breastfeeding sessions to their limits, but at the end, I had the best short haircut I’d ever had. I watched myself in the mirror as she worked the cologne-scented product into the roots, suddenly seized with a conviction that I needed to smell this intoxicating all the time.

“I love this product! Where did you get it?” I almost ask. The words die on my lips. I remember that smelling like this is an inconvenience, something I need an apology for. I tip 30%. I hurry out to my car.

But the idea of smelling like that again won’t leave my mind, like the stray hair in your mouth you can’t seem to fish out. One day at Target, I venture into the men’s grooming section. Sweat trickles down the back of my calf despite the aggressive air conditioning, and I try to select a scent while a black KN94 covers my face, obscuring my jawline (weak even for a woman’s). This is impossible. It doesn’t help that all the products scream “FOR MEN” in large, reassuring letters – I picture them like an incongruous beacon on my bathroom counter at home.

Whenever I do find a product I like, I’m sure I will be almost annoyingly blasé about it. Someone will catch a whiff on a sweaty summer’s day, or my mom will notice when she comes for a visit. “Is that…men’s deodorant?” they’ll ask, and I’ll reply with a condescending eye roll, “Isn’t it silly that we gender scents?” It is, very silly, of course, they will agree – I can be exhausting to argue with. But their agreement will irritate me too. I need a devil’s advocate for my gender.

“Can you believe the women’s product is $6.99 and this is $3.99? Imagine paying almost twice as much because we’ve decided ‘burnt amber’ is carried on the Y chromosome,” I’ll steamroll on. And they’ll agree, of course, that my enlightened view of sex and gender has met my pioneer thriftiness (in a spectacularly casual manner). The scene plays in my mind as I finally hurry away from the men’s aisle, the sweat now trickling down my back and pooling under my armpits. The scent of Secret Powder Fresh wafts up through my fit-tested mask.

*

“I just like winter so much better,” I complained to a classmate from small-town Montana. “I don’t know how to dress in the summer. I need layers!”

“Oh right, because you have all your uhhh flannels and stuff,” my classmate said. I blinked. We’d known each other for three weeks, none of them colder than a high of 85º.

“Right,” I replied.

A few months later, I realize I am wearing a flannel shirt under a flannel jacket. “Slowly removing my flannel to reveal a second, smaller flannel underneath,” I tweet. How did he know? I wonder.

*

When I was a child, I loved bowling shoes. I fantasized about stealing the gaudy, uncomfortable shoes from the alley, fuzzy failing Velcro and slippery soles worth suffering for in the Calgary winter. In retrospect, I think, I wanted leather wingtips, or the type of wardrobe where I might conceivably pair an outfit with playful men’s dress shoes.

I didn’t realize that’s what I wanted, though. As a child, butch wasn’t a gender expression I had heard of – the two options were “tomboy” (basketball shorts, actual basketball) and “normal” (femme). I had horrible hand-eye coordination: therefore, femme. I studied femininity like it was an extra credit class, practiced it like an instrument. I’m going to get a good grade in femme, something that is both normal to want and possible to achieve, jokes the snarky, self-assured version of myself that exists only when I get to retell my stories. In reality, though, I was just 12, and lonely, and wanted to be good. I wanted so badly to be good.

When my sister got married, I planned my outfit meticulously. A trendy silhouette, that I might wear in the broader non-Mormon world, but from DownEast Basic, appropriate for standing demurely outside the temple (covid regulations rendering the question of my non-entry slightly moot). A neutral palette, but saturated enough to avoid washing me out. Layers adaptable to the vagaries of Calgary in May. Heels I could stand in for hours. Softly curled hair. Makeup that my sister approvingly pronounced “very good – but nobody does that much eyeshadow anymore.” The only ding on my A- final exam in Femme.

And it was a final exam. I had spent the pandemic watching my wife discover femininity, the joy and euphoria radiating from her in ways they never had for me. I don’t like this outfit, I realized as I tried to document it in my selfies. I like that everyone else will like this outfit. When my brother-in-law got married the next February, I wore a suit.

*

A few years ago, I floated the idea to a few friends that I might be non-binary. They were immediately supportive. “Jaclyn is so handsome!” “Yasss, my liege!” Ugh, never mind.

*

My sister bombarded me with outfit inspo for the Taylor Swift Eras concert. “Does she know I’m in my 50s,” my mom complained, scrolling with me through pages and pages of nightclub outfits. That afternoon, I went to Goodwill and found a rainbow sequin mini skirt. I had never worn a skirt that short. Over the months, an outfit came together – snake patterned fishnet tights, the bandeau mini skirt, a black crop top, a black choker, a red lip. Distinctly femme, but not a flavor I’d ever tried before. As I did my makeup in my sister-in-law’s living room, shower mirror suction cupped to a window, I had the fleeting sense that I was participating in some form of drag. I chuckled to myself, diligently blending and tracing. Like riding a bike.

“Something smells good,” my sister-in-law remarked. “You smell good.”

“Oh uh, I might have used Isaiah’s stuff in the shower. Also his cologne. Sorry if that’s weird, I needed to balance out the outfit.” Sydney rolled her eyes a little and laughed. I had arrived last night in a muscle tank and 5’ gym shorts, and before the evening was through I had insisted on making a quick trip to Home Depot to install their pantry shelves. (“Wanna see a dyke tweet,” my friend had jokingly quoted when I live-tweeted the process.)

And now I was wearing, I realized, what was essentially a very enjoyable costume. With every step closer to Lumen Field, the crowd became more concentrated with superbly happy women. We all looked each other up and down, beaming, thrilled. I noted the butches, the mascs, and the men in the crowd. I’d wear that shirt. I’d also wear that shirt. Oh, I NEED to find a shirt like that. But I found I didn’t regret my femme-flavored Reputation outfit, either. It was a special occasion.

We filed into the stadium, watching behind-the-scenes commentary on music videos I’d failed to bone up on. (“This concert has too much homework,” I had complained to my coworker. “When I saw Muse, there wasn’t ANY homework.”) One video in particular confused me. “What is Jake Gyllenhaal doing in this video?” I asked my wife. She looked at me strangely. The scene cut away to Taylor in the makeup chair, becoming a man. Taylor discussing the process of employing a movement coach, Taylor cracking up laughing the first time she tried to adjust her crotch while manspreading.

I grinned. “This is great. There is truly no other way I would choose to be introduced to this one.” Later, my wife and I scream-sung The Man at each other, both effulgent for completely different reasons.

*

I bought an “any pronouns” pin to wear on my white coat at the pharmacy. Well, I actually bought three “any pronouns” pins – they each had different genders, and it was too difficult to decide which I liked best. (Once they arrived I realized the “barbed wire heart” was probably too edgy for work, and the art deco pin had a white background that would fade into the coat, leaving the green enamel leaf as the designated Undefined Work Gender).

I added it quietly, under my “I love vaccines” syringe and opposite my “you are safe with me” pride flag. I found I didn’t feel nervous, or even expectant. I was just curious. Would anyone notice? Would they say anything? What would they say? It would almost be funnier if they didn’t. Every day that passed without comment, my amusement deepened.

One morning, I opened the pharmacy with our manager. The first hour at the pharmacy is always quiet, and after filling a few prescriptions, she turned to me. “The other day, I said ‘thank you ma’am’,” she began nonchalantly, “And I’m worried I might have misgendered you.” She didn’t sound particularly worried, which was how I liked it. Clearly, she’d had versions of this conversation before.

“It is actually incredibly difficult to misgender me,” I chuckled. “I just want people to use whatever rolls off the tongue, but I don’t really care what rolls off the tongue. I don’t like it when adults call me ‘mama’ at my kids appointments, and I don’t like it when gay men call me ‘girlfriend.’” She nodded, and I returned to counting pills by fives.


Later, I showed my coworker photos of the Taylor Swift concert, then for good measure, old photos of the Muse concert. “It was during my goth phase,” I noted, smiling at my black lipstick and fake orbital piercing.


“Your hair was so long!” she exclaimed, sounding genuinely surprised. As though she’d never imagined me wearing anything but my thrifted men’s chinos and button-down Hawaiian shirts. As though its default state had always been short.


*

No matter how long the list of checkboxed genders stretches on an online survey form, I want to scroll down to the bottom and click “other.” But then the little box pops up – “(explain) ______.”

Explain?


My gender is like the double slit experiment. It changes based on whether you are observing it, and any explanation I give will immediately become incorrect upon you reading it.

This feels like gender homework, and I am playing gender hooky.

I am non-binary in a statistical sense but not in the sense of a coherent, androgynous individualized gender identity, which is how you’ll most likely read that particular checked box.

My gender is whatever Chris Pine had going on at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Most people’s genders are diastereomers, cis and trans, but mine is an enantiomer. I’m actually terrible at recognizing chiral centers, but sometimes the light shines through at an odd angle.

My gender is whatever answer is funniest in the moment.

I identify as Heisenberg’s uncertainty gender. By filling out this box and collapsing the wave function, I may know the speed of the gender, but I can no longer tell you its location.

None gender, left lesbian.

My gender is non-Newtonian. Under non-stressful conditions it behaves as a fluid, but under rigid, stressful conditions (society) it acts like a solid. No, not “genderfluid,” it’s the same gender the entire time.

I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of.

Have you read The Technology of Gender? The author posits gender as a web of social connections, with individuals as the nodes. Thus, gender is both produced by society and produced within the individual – and these two processes of co-production are inextricable from one [character limit exceeded]

My pronouns are “I” and “me” – the rest of this sounds like a you problem.


Explain.

If the form is going to be analyzed in aggregate, I scroll back up and check “non-binary,” like a little confessional booth embedded in Qualtrics. If it’s going to be read by an authority figure, I check “woman.” Sometimes I decide it’s worth it to risk answering the form with one of the many “not quite wrong” boxes, to plant my inconvenient flag and deal with a well-intentioned hassle.

The best, though, is when they forget to make it a required question, and I leave it blank.







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