Y’know what’s weird? Being flattered by a compliment you don’t particularly want.
There’s a story behind this (there always is), but this one’s short and sweet. I was at work on Friday, doing a round with new clients, and getting ‘sirred’* left and right, which is always a little awkward on the job. I love the gender-assignment, but I’m less happy with accidentally frightening old ladies in their own homes, which happens a lot. Elderly, vulnerable woman tend not to be delighted with apparent young men falling through their doors, no matter how blue-eyed and smiley that apparent young man may be.
And you try explaining “Yes, I am a technically ovaries-based creature, but I’m actually experimenting with male pronouns and transgender identities right now, Mabel, but don’t be alarmed, I promise I’m not about to do anything illegal. Or immoral. Or look at you in a funny way. Though I should probably mention I’m gay, too, but you’re still safe to take your knickers off” to someone who’s eighty-nine and profoundly deaf and may or may not be armed with a ballistic walking stick.
Yeeeeah. What usually falls out of my mouth is some variant of “Ah, yes. Actually I’m a woman”, said awkwardly and bracketed by an internal wince.
So, cutting back to short-and-sweet, I had this same back and forth with a lady on Friday. (“Gosh, a man!” “Well, actually…”) But instead of the usual flustered embarrassment, this particular lady just tipped her head to one side and gave me a slow, thoughtful look.
“Yes,” she said finally, “I can see you’re pretty.”
Deer-in-headlights is not my best impression, but I pulled off a cracker this time.
“Uh,” I said. “Um — right. Thank you.”
But then, weirdly, I started to get that ridiculous, belly-warm glow of Someone Thinks I Look Nice. You know the one: it makes you smile at random moments all day, tickled and pleased, and you have to write it up online four days later because People Must Know.
It’s just — it’s a funny thing, this attractiveness business. Especially when you’re butch. Other people have said it before, have said it better, but Western social standards are not exactly forgiving of masculine women. (Or masculine transthings, depending on how you feel.) And once you hit that masculinity skid of short hair and guy’s clothes and cocky swagger, assuming that’s what you’ve embraced, then ‘pretty’ is definitely not going to be a future compliment.
Except when it is.
It’s jarring, I guess. Especially if you’re anything like me and you’ve folded up the battered remains of your femininity somewhere for some young glittery-boy to find and cherish, only to have a feminine-associated compliment smack you in the newfound masculinity like an eighteen-wheeler. Except it’s a nice eighteen-wheeler, possibly the one you always wanted for Christmas back when you were a kidlet, and the driver is grinning at you.
It’s a strange feeling. Back when JB and I were first dating, on the very first day, I think, we were sprawled out in bed together, most of our clothes still on, and doing the new-couple thing. Talking quietly, laughing, getting to know each other close up — that warm little moment when your fingers always end up laced. I pushed myself up on one elbow, looking down at her, and she smiled at me, all thoughtful.
“I just noticed,” she said, “you have this really delicate jawline.” She traced two fingers down either side of my jaw, ending at my chin. “And a great smile.”
I laughed, because no one had ever complimented my smile before, and thanked her and complimented her back, but that stuck with me. Delicate jawline. I’m 5’10, broad-shouldered, heavy-boned, strong. I haven’t been called delicate since I was a reedy kid, and even then I was a tomboy. And I certainly didn’t feel delicate, not compared to JB’s slender wrists and slimline throat; she was all softened angles and gracefulness. I was an ox.
And this was back in the pre-butch-identified days, so I didn’t even know I wanted to be handsome. I just knew I wasn’t beautiful.
But still, delicate. It was weird. Not exactly what I’d wanted, definitely not what I’d expected, but flattering. Sweet. Genuine. I think about it now and it makes me grin to myself, still pleased. Except now the compliment’s queered itself around in my head. I don’t think feminine anymore. I think dandy. Faggot. And that ‘pretty’ compliment at work, that becomes the same thing. I feel stylish instead, blue-eyed and hot. Not lady-like, not beautiful. Handsome in a more vulnerable way — young, open, easily injured. A good-looking lad.
I couldn’t have done that a year ago.
* Okay, I work in Yorkshire, so I get “‘ey-up, lad” and “Cheers, mate” and “Hiya, young fella!” much more than I get “Sir”, but same difference.