Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Genderless Silence

smalina's picture

I am on a date with my girlfriend at Mamma Maria, one of the best restaurants in the North End of Boston. We have been saving up for this date for weeks, excited to get all “dolled up” and take the train into the city. I don my blazer, my “nice” skinny jeans, and a tie, and she wears her favorite black dress.

It’s one of those restaurants that has rules, and isn’t afraid to post them because the food is so good and the atmosphere so nice that no one would think twice about following them. PLEASE AVOID CELLPHONE USE—I can spot it in three different places along the wall from where I am sitting. The waiter approaches. “Good evening. What can I get for you, ma’am?” I begin to respond, but he is talking to my girlfriend. She orders. “And for you, sir?” 

The word is always spoken like a punch in the gut, like extra effort has been made to make sure I really hear it, like the speaker can make the word truer for himself if he just speaks it a little louder and with more articulation.  

I raise my voice and respond, hoping he’ll recognize his mistake and correct himself. “I’ll have the seafood special,” I say. “Very good, sir, coming right up.” My heart pounds a little faster. My girlfriend and I joke about it, but it happens four more times that night. I begin to lower my voice, because being on different pages is uncomfortable, even/especially when it is about my identity. “Why is he trying to so hard?” I ask her. Thinking it is because it matters to him quite a bit that we are a heterosexual couple so he knows which one of us to pamper and which to respect in this transaction, I stop responding. I think the stakes for him are high, and I don’t want to know what he would have to say if I destroyed his expectations, embarrassing him in this restaurant where he seems to have worked for years. On the way home that night I cry in the car; I don’t know why.

* * * * * 

What does a gender neutral body look like? What does it sound like? Vocal pitch is determined by a combination of hormones and the length, size, and tension of your vocal cords, vibrating to create sound waves. In a body unmarked by a tipped hormonal seesaw, we imagine a voice that is somewhere in the middle, not very high and not very low—and perhaps we could not even apply those words here, except in comparison to other voices. And yet, there is another kind of voice that is always gender neutral, and it can be produced by any one of us: silence. As Peter Elbow writes in his piece entitled “Silence: A Collage,” “Post-structuralists like to emphasize the division here . . . but I want to say that silence can be as present as voice, that silence is a part of voice, or even maybe has voice. The resonance of silence” (Elbow 179).

* * * * *

It is a Friday night and my friends and I are going ice skating in a town thirty minutes away from home. Though I have made trips into the area frequently, it is always jarring to see the collection of Uggs and North Face jackets covering every body, and I find myself conforming to the image taken on by the teenage boys in the area, fitting neatly into a binary with my sweatpants and hoodie. I approach the counter to rent skates.

I stop myself. Men’s and women’s skates are thrown together behind the counter, for the attendant to pick through based on her understanding of the customer’s sex. I don’t care which I receive—but I do care that they fit, and a men’s size 11 is not going to cut it. I take it upon myself to signal my gender to the attendant. I do not expect her, living in a place with all this homogeneity, to understand. But in that moment, I don’t want the burden of identifying myself to fall on me. For once, I want to pass. I raise my voice and speak extensively, so she gets the message: “Hmm…well, do you carry half-sizes? I’d probably be between a 10 and an 11, so if you had a 10 ½ that would be great, but if not, that’s fine.” 

She turns around and comes back. The test is over, I’ve passed. I slide my genderless feet into the boots.

* * * * *

For many feminists, the key to asserting the power of ones gender is through the voice—being vocal actively breaks down walls established by the patriarchy, and grants women access to spaces previously reserved for those whose voices the world cared to hear. Sometimes, a woman speaking is, in itself, a revolutionary act precisely because it reveals her identity through its pitch and intonation. Speech offers this power to many other identity groups as well, whether through the quality of what is said or through the act of taking up space. As Heejung S. Kim and Hazel Rose Marcus write in their analysis of the cultural practice of talking, “In many middle-class cultural contexts, talking is an act that defines and affirms the American self because it is one of the ways in which internal attributes can be most directly and clearly expressed” (Kim and Marcus, 184). As a citizen of the United States, my voice should be the key to my citizenship, the ticket to my belonging even in the most conservative parts of the country. But what happens when those internal attributes and aspects of the self come into conflict with the listener’s values and sense of who lives in “his America?” When the quality of the voice itself comes in conflict with the listener’s presumptions about the speaker, does he even listen at all?

* * * * *

We walk into the prison for the first time and set down our things to roll through the metal detector, as we step through one ourselves. After the beeping subsides, the pat down. Hyper-aware of the clothing guidelines, I worry at the last moment that my binder could be a problem. I am relieved when she the guard is done and turns toward her desk. I step away. “Excuse me, sir, I need to stamp your hand.” I turn back and drop my head down, unintentionally hiding my more feminine features. “Sorry—thank you,” I say quickly, in a deeper voice. You don’t want to let a prison guard know you have something to hide.

* * * * *

Transgender and gender-nonconforming bodies are vulnerable. Those that do not “pass” as either end of the binary are at a constant risk of violence, exacted by those who simply cannot cope with the confusion. Those that do walk a tightrope, constantly concerned about being “outed” in spaces where trans bodies are unwelcome. Over 20 trans people have been murdered in 2015 alone. For many, transphobia is fueled by personal insecurities and feelings of deception—a man may feel cheated when he discovers that the woman he has gotten to know so well is “really a man, too,” and in the midst of his questioning his own sexuality, may feel rage toward the trans woman—taken out in a way that destroys her body and any corporeal “proof” of the mismatch.

* * * * *

For many trans people, to pass is to survive. So the question becomes: To pass as what? Answering this question for me requires a complex algorithm involving the individual with whom I am interacting, the background I assume they have, the environment (socially and politically), and how generally uncomfortable I am already feeling. I must feel very safe in my environment to locate myself proudly as non-binary. In her essay entitled “The Aesthetics of Silence,” referenced within Peter Elbows’ piece, Susan Sontag writes of silence’s many uses. As she explains, “Silence keeps things ‘open’” (Sontag 19-20). 

A waiter repeatedly calls me “sir” at a fancy, traditional Italian restaurant. I do not fear physical harm, but I do not like to break the rules, of which he has many. I think: “If he has said it so many times and with such emphasis, he must really care.” So I lower my voice for as long as I can, passing as male until the lie hurts too much and I fall silent. I always pass in my silence. It is a complicated silence—one that is imposed technically by myself, though I am forced to do so because of others around me. Perhaps I choose this silencing to avoid more forceful, violent silencing in the hands of the listener.

But when I break the silence—when I speak—I choose to locate myself proudly as non-binary. This is unavoidable, whether the listener knows what it means or not. The femininity of my voice will always appear in stark contrast to the masculinity of my presentation, making passing at the very least complicated, if not altogether impossible. Silence asks nothing of me, and very often in these transactional instances, nothing more is asked of me than silence. Beautiful, genderless silence.



Works Cited

Elbow, Peter. “Silence: A Collage.” Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford UP, 2000. 173-82. Print.

Markus, Hazel Rose. “Speech and Silence: An Analysis of the Cultural Practice of Talking.” Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race, and Gender in United States Schools. By Heejung S. Kim. Revised ed. Albany: SUNY, 2005. 181-96. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

You decided that you need to extend the personal part of this.
Figure out what passing means to me (does it only refer to binary identities)?
Push back on the notion that silence always keeps things open: might it sometimes (when you are with others, who have binary assumptions) allow for passive acceptance of what is assumed?
Is the difference here about choosing and being imposed upon?
There is the question of surgery...what does it mean to take such a drastic action to further presentation, in a way that pushes toward passing in a binary? Might that change silence with others? Will it push more vocalization, more explanation?