I got a haircut the other day at a student salon because I am a poor midwifery student. I went in with the intention of getting a stylish, short hair cut a la Natalie Portman. Instead, I got a very very very short haircut that looks like someone gave me a buzz cut. I look very much like the hair I had after I was growing out my shaved head in high school. I’m getting used to it. It’s not so much that I don’t like my new hair as much as it’s not at all what I asked for. I also find myself almost unconsciously preparing myself for unfriendly remarks – probably because that was my experience when I last had hair like this.
What is it about a haircut that gives people permission to violate your sense of self and safety? Today I was called a dyke for the first time since high school. I could see it coming a mile away. Parking our car outside of our tiny apartment, I could see the two guys across the street staring at me. They were about my age and lounging against the side of their car, enjoying the rare Maine sunshine like any sensible person would be doing today. I glanced over, they were still staring. I got out of my car to their laughter, and then one of them calls out, “Dyke.” I ignore them and keep walking.
On the scale of harassment, this is a pretty minor offense. I’ve had people do things that actually scared me and made me worried about my safety – I’ve had people follow me for blocks at midnight in a neighborhood where it was commonplace to beat up queers, I’ve had people corner me on public transportation and say things to me that were so dirty and disgusting I would never repeat it to anyone else. All in all, I count myself extremely lucky. No one has ever hurt me physically, and what queer person hasn’t these things or much much worse done to them? Still, I say to myself, this should not be a commonplace experience. It should not be my experience. I should not have to steel myself against these sorts of intrusions when I am in public spaces.
There’s something about the word dyke, though, that I can’t let go. It ricochets me right back into high school and a whole separate world of rules. I have since worked hard to reclaim that word for myself – preferring it as a term to describe myself over all others, even enjoying at times the momentary looks of shock when I describe myself as a dyke to people who never hear that term used in polite company. But in high school, it cut deep. It immobilized me. Unlike now when I hear that word verbally hurled at me and I keep walking, more aware of my surroundings perhaps, but essentially unfazed. In high school, though, I couldn’t. Senior year I had a girlfriend and I couldn’t be anywhere on campus without being called a dyke and being told that I was going to hell (oh the creativity of high schoolers). At that time, I was a loud vocal opponent against anything I perceived to be racist or sexist (I have since learned the subtle art of nuance and a whole lot more about the actual manifestations of racism and sexism in our daily lives), but when it came to standing up for myself or other queers I was paralyzed. It cut too deep to the bone, I couldn’t say or do anything. Plus, there was the phenomenon of the power of anonymity where the only people who said nasty things to me were nameless people I didn’t know and couldn’t track down again. In my small high school, no one I knew ever said anything derogatory to me (even those I knew did not approve of my queerness), only folks from other classes who didn’t know me.
So I’ll keep trucking, but I can’t say I’m thrilled about this latest development. But I am pleased that I don’t feel as powerless and paralyzed as I used to. And looking on the bright side, I can always channel that anger into something positive – like continuing to queer up midwifery. Because what else is a dyke to do?