The Power of Politeness

Being gender ambiguous means that I don’t get the opportunity to interact with people the way most people do. Nothing is a given. In every (however minimal) social interaction – from ordering in a restaurant to asking for directions – I’m clocked as abnormal. Androgynous, queer, trans, a gender pirate: people decide whether that’s ok or not, and treat me accordingly: well or ill. It’s a subtle kind of mistreatment, but a constant one. With each polite or kind interaction (of which there are many), I’m relieved. But the relief never lasts.
Feminist sexual politics demands a certain nonchalance in regards to “female masculinity“. Hence, I can’t mind if people think I’m a boy or a girl so much (though I clearly have a preference). Mostly I’m seen as genderqueer “first.” And it is this gender ambiguity that precipitates the unkindness of strangers. This is a form of social sanctioning that acts to preserve the boundaries of gender; individuals are punished or rewarded according to our adhesion to social expectations (especially of gender). We’re taught early and persistently that transgressing these stipulations is punishable by humiliation, violence (including sexual violence) and death.
I don’t think it’s ok that women and people with female bodies are forced to look a certain way in order to get by; that it’s not ok to look queer. I also don’t think it’s ok that maleness and (for the most part) masculinity are reserved for people with certain body types and/or assigned “male” at birth. Men should be able to be as femme as me; I should be able to be read as male. But feminist movement has shifted gendered expectations (rightly) so that women, too, should be able to look like me (and they do). So, really, what’s a boi (like me) to do?
All those dirty looks, short replies and general rudeness hints at the possibility of more severe mistreatment, suggesting that such mistreatment is justified; that the violation of gender deserves punishment. In order to resist these stringent concepts of binary gender (and a gender hierarchy), all you need to do is stop playing a part in policing it; be a little kind, considerate, polite.

Historically, manners evolved as a way to make social interactions less awkward. Everyone knew what to do: shake a man’s hand, kiss a lady on the cheek. Things are certainly different now, and there have been important critiques of the cultural and gendered privileges and problems that come with this type of  “appropriate-behaviour” manners. But politeness in a more general sense remains a valuable, and too often overlooked, way of communicating.

Politeness can also act to disseminate power. Rather than one party taking control of a situation (with rudeness) to put down someone else, politeness given and politeness returned can level a playing field of power. This doesn’t mean people should get away with behaving badly, not at all. There can (and must) remain space to call people out. But being critical doesn’t need to be rude, and being rude is a pretty poor way to be critical.

Kindness and politeness can pad over more than just social awkwardness and anxiety. As I’ve been arguing, greeting gender ambiguous people with politeness (and respect) actively resists the social regulation of gender (stability and “coherence”); allowing a space for gender (and social) transformation.


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3 Comments

Filed under "Queer Culture", Max Attitude, What's Queer Here?

3 responses to “The Power of Politeness

  1. Loki

    Yes. Yes yes.

    And more. I mean, you hinted at this. That modicum of generosity, that basic humanity which really should be a bare minimum does a couple things flags to others the expectation of kindness.

  2. Pingback: The Twenty-Eight Down Under Feminists Carnival « The Dawn Chorus

  3. Pingback: Dudes and sexual violence, Part 2 « The Filing Cabinet

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