Growing up, I spent my time between a number of small, poor rural towns in Russia and Poland. Although I only lived there until I was 8 years old, the politics of those locations rooted themselves in a developing paradigm I would later spend years undoing. The areas where I lived in either country were firmly rooted in religion, tradition, and stringent expectations for what is “proper.” I grew up with a very rigid, formalized understanding of gender roles. Girls wore dresses, had long hair, wanted babies, and participated in acts of domesticity. Boys wore pants, had short hair, played with guns and trucks, and participated in acts of aggression and dominance. Behavior outside of these predetermined norms was not a quirk or phase. It was a defect. It was a fundamental shortcoming that not only reflected your personal failure, but also the inadequacy of your family in rearing a subordinate, normative child. The politics of those locations also dictated the gendered division of labor to which I exposed. Men did jobs that required physical strength, social prestige, or intellectual facility. Women, then, were relegated to domestic tasks. For the first few years of my life, I grew up believing these things as absolute truths because I never saw anything to the contrary.
Then we moved the United States.
I spent the next five years living in an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois. While the demographics of that neighborhood tended toward the old cultural patterns I previously experienced, new, fascinating ideas and behaviors emerged. I saw women who wore baseball jerseys and caps, and I saw teenage girls with green hair and pierced noses. Almost every depiction of women I saw challenged what I was taught to be proper.
I attended a small, traditional Catholic school whose population mostly consisted of white, lower-middle class immigrants. The school reinforced many of the strict gender roles I grew up with as a child. Boys’ uniforms consisted of slacks and a dress shirt, and girls’ uniforms consisted of a jumper or dress and a dress shirt. One day, for reasons I’m still not sure of, I thought it would be fun to switch uniforms with one of my male classmates. We snuck into the same bathroom, exchanged uniforms by throwing them over the stall, and came back out in each other’s clothes. The switch lasted for all of 15 minutes until we were caught by a teacher, asked to change, and sent to speak with the principal. I remember enough of the lecture to know the principle harangued ad nauseam about properness and decorum and what it means to be a “well behaved young man or lady.”
After elementary school, I attended a fairly homogenous high school in a wealthy white suburb of Chicago. Gender roles were substantially more flexible here than in my previous school, but there was still a lot be desired. Normal high school ridicule coupled with GLBT invisibility to form a rough, sometimes humiliating climate for anyone who identified outside of what was considered normal. I will continue with the politics of location in my adult life in Part 2.