Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Castro

The last time I’d visited the Castro area of San Francisco in 2002 I sang “Sing" by Travis in a gay Karaoke bar. I have no idea if the clientele automatically supposed I was gay. I’m not sure how many straight men tend to go, alone, to gay bars of an afternoon and behave in this way.

It must have been off one of the side streets, up the hill. I had no idea where it was when I walked along the main road, half-heartedly trying to remember.

With an irony that makes one choke, the Castro is often called the ‘Mecca’ of the gay community. Rainbow flags, tactile male couples, gay sex shops, including one boasting a six foot phallus, clearly mark out the area as a unique part of the city.

I sat down at an outside café and opened a conversation with a middle aged woman. Well, I say woman but I wasn’t really sure. Nevertheless, there was something definitive about the hairstyle and lips, and the hat she wore, as well as the boots, that left me feeling that even if she wasn’t a woman, she wanted to be taken as one. Such suspicions were confirmed when I saw her chest protruding beneath her shirt.

I wanted to know if she lived in the Castro (she did) and, as one does, asked her what she ‘did’. She told me she bought and restored old vehicles and pointed proudly to the 1972 BMW parked nearby. I mentioned my mother’s Morris Minor, which is slightly older than I am, and we moved onto the subject of driving in the States. Yes, I should definitely hire a car if I want to see Yosemite as the buses don’t go to enough places there. There is far more to it than the valley, after all.

Unlike herself, who liked to drive manually operated vehicles, I told her I preferred automatics and that I was, yes, confident driving on the wrong side of the road.

It seems she has lived in the area for decades; has seen the house prices rocket, as elsewhere, and along with the gentrification, witnessed a far more mixed and heterosexual, even family based, demographic moving in. She spoke with a certain nostalgia, a sense of loss, as if the best days had gone.

I asked about the hippy era and learnt she’d been in the thick of it, a genuine 17 year old flower child. That made me think of one of those cute little maidens swaying in the breeze, smoking pot and staring into space that one can see on old footage, but all the while I continued to be unsure about her gender. It wasn’t just the things she said. It was something about the way she held her head and spoke, how she moved her hands, and later how she walked, as well as some unidentifiable quality in the face that intimated male with more than mild conviction. My uncertainty then became whether she’d had a sex change, and if so with what degree and kind of surgery or hormone therapy. Or was she a true born hermaphrodite, a type of individual which, apparently, is far more numerous than one might suppose. Or was she a he and dressing up?

I’ve read somewhere how young babies can instinctively determine, long before they can speak or even see properly and simply from the outline of the human body, whether adults or even other children are male or female. I forget how the scientists established this but I certainly remember always being aware of this reputedly crucial divide. When we meet people, long before we decide if we like them or not - though perhaps not before we decide they’re a threat or not- we categorise them as male or female, a designation centrally influencing how we relate to them.

Maybe that was why I felt so weird talking to her. Something basic in my mind’s orientation hadn’t been configured. I felt lightheaded and giddy, uncertain of my stance. Evidently, in some fundamental way, I do not talk to women as I do to men. So how should I talk if I don’t know who I’m talking to?

If you’re a prickly, politically correct sort of person whose habit is to get offended on other people’s behalf, you may want to suppose it's insulting of me to question a woman’s gender just because she seems a bit male.

Thing is, while we were discussing the evolving indeterminacy of sexual orientation and identity (again, as one does), it was she herself who declared that I had probably noticed something uncertain about her gender. To which I, sensing her kindness and strength, replied, yes, and that I still wasn’t sure if she was a man or a woman, a frankness that didn’t throw her at all.

Apparently, so she told me, I have to learn not to care about such things.

1 comment:

Selena Dreamy said...

Apparently, so she told me, I have to learn not to care about such things.

A forlorn advice - definitely sprung from the closet of political correctness. She merely succeeded in swapping one prejudice for another. For the gender difference is at the very heart of human curiosity, and knowing is not judging.