One day last spring I arrived at my gym to find that the owner had bought a new set of laundry hampers for the locker rooms—a blue one for the men’s locker room and, you guessed it, a pink one for the women’s locker room. Really? I thought. In 2011?
After my workout, I stopped by the front desk to speak to the owner. “Dave*,” I said, “I noticed we got new hampers.”
“Yes, aren’t they nice? They were on sale.”
“Yeah. But really, did you have to get blue and pink? C’mon.”
“The only other color they had was beige,” he said.
“Beige is nice,” I opined. He assured me that it didn’t mean anything that the blue one was outside the men’s locker room and the pink one outside the women’s.
Well, if it doesn’t mean anything, I figured, then it won’t mean anything if the pink hamper is outside the men’s locker room and the blue hamper outside the women’s.
So the next day after my workout, I checked to see if the coast was clear and then I switched the hampers. It was a Friday, and I wasn’t back in the gym until the following Monday. When I walked in Monday morning, the hampers had been moved back.
Doesn’t mean anything, eh? I moved them again. They remained in place for a day or two, but by midweek, someone had restored the expected pink-and-blue gender norms.
I persisted. I moved them again. Again, a day or two went by but once again, “order” was restored.
This went on for several months. I would “genderqueer” the color assignments and someone (who was it?) would restore gender conformity. Sometimes the very next day, sometimes a few days later, occasionally a week. The first time my genderqueer rearrangement stayed in place for a week I felt triumphant—finally, I thought, whoever it was had gotten the message. But then, no! Soon I came in and blue was for boys and pink for girls once again.
Unbowed, I continued my campaign. I lost track of how many times I moved them, or how long it had been going on. I only knew I had a mission: to show once and for all that pink and blue hampers didn’t mean anything, just like Dave had said.
One day at the beginning of August, I moved the hampers for the umpteenth time before taking a month off. I returned after Labor Day, fully prepared to face a renewed counter-offensive. But lo and behold, the blue hamper was still outside the women’s locker room and the pink outside the men’s.
Wow, I thought. But chastened by my previous premature elation, I didn’t assume this was a final victory. I steeled myself for the inevitable backlash.
Another month went by. Blue for girls and pink for boys stayed in place. And a third month, then a fourth! Now, I thought, now it’s really over, the genderqueer campaign is victorious at last.
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Then, the week before Christmas, I walked in to find pink had been reassigned to the women’s locker room and blue to the men’s. Stunned, I quickly moved the hampers. I returned the next morning and the gender enforcer had moved them back—not even a full day had gone by. I moved them again. Again, the following morning they were reassigned to expected norms. This went on all week, and continued the week after Christmas. Just before New Year’s a new red heart-shaped mirror appeared in the women’s locker room. A serious gender conformity crackdown underway.
* * *
Why did I stick with it so long? Why did I care so much? What had begun as a mischievous lark had become guerilla activism fueled by the relentless demand for compliance. What pissed me off was that I am already reminded dozens of times a week that I am violating gender expectations. I log onto Facebook, where my status is listed as “engaged,” and I am courted with ads for wedding dresses. I plan on wearing a suit. I try to order a black watch flannel shirt from L.L. Bean in November as a present for my partner and the customer service rep on the phone explains that they are out of the size I’m looking for because they are such popular Christmas gifts. “Oh, the menfolk do love their black watch shirts,” she says sweetly. Way not worth it to explain that the “man” in question here is my hot butch lover.
I’m a tall butch lesbian with short hair. Hardly a day goes by without someone in some retail establishment calling me “sir.” South of the Mason-Dixon Line it is impossible for me to enter a women’s restroom without encountering the objection “This is the ladies’ room!”
“Yes, I know,” I usually reply. “I can read.”
Generally speaking, the first thing I do in a gym locker room is take off my shirt. I figure the sight of a pair of breasts helps people adjust their gender expectations and realize that I am indeed in the right locker room. For the most part, it works, which means I get a fair amount of uncomfortable looks but rarely an admonishing comment that I’m in the women’s locker room.
I train as a bodybuilder, old school; I prefer free weights to machines. I grunt when I lift heavy weights and I am often the only woman in the leg room. Most men react to my presence and behavior with some mix of bewilderment and discomfort.
When I am touring a new gym, after the requisite conversation about my “fitness goals” and experience, more often than not I am shown the cardio equipment and the butt-blaster, even though I always explain that my training focuses on building strength and mass and concentrates on free weights.
Is it really so hard to wrap your brain around the idea of a woman who likes to lift weights and doesn’t like pink?
This is a rhetorical question, of course. There’s simply no place in the dominant cultural landscape for people like me. Homophobia and gender conformity are used to reinforce each other in a society that isn’t willing to grant women or queer folks real equality. This is the reason, for instance, that so many women athletes are at pains to demonstrate their heterosexual bona fides through gender expression: being athletic, competitive, tough and muscular violates gender norms and makes them vulnerable to the homophobic accusation that they are dykes, not real women. Look in any bodybuilding magazine and you’ll see the equally homophobic response: female lifters are presented with exaggerated markers of femininity: long hair, heavy makeup, painted nails. The beautiful exceptions to this heteronormative landscape—the Martina Navratilovas and Sheryl Swoopeses of this world—only underscore this reality with their rarity.
* * *
As the weeks stretched into months, with no end in sight to our contest, I became deeply curious about who exactly was re-gendering the gym’s laundry hamper assignments. Was it a staff member? Which one could it be? Not Joe, I thought, a gentle giant of a man who customarily greeted me with the phrase “Benz, it’s 2011, it’s time to get large”—just what one bodybuilder would say to another.
Was it another gym member, someone who felt as strongly about preserving traditional gender roles as I felt that traditional gender roles should be challenged? In Park Slope, Brooklyn, are there even such people left? If this is the state of gender conformism in one of the country’s supposedly most liberal, progressive, gay-friendly neighborhoods, what hope is there for the rest of America?
Maybe it wasn’t just one person! Maybe there was a whole group of gym members who feel threatened or offended by the sight of a pink hamper in a men’s locker room. And I wondered, was it more likely to be a man? Assigning pink to guys is more gender-transgressive than blue to women, as the preponderance of anti-LGBT violence directed at “effeminate” men and trans women attests.
I was puzzled by the unevenness of the gender enforcement. Steady but not regular for months, followed by four months of non-interference, and then the crackdown, a seemingly frantic effort to correct each instance of my reassignment immediately. Was it holiday stress, thinking about family expectations and needing to impose some kind of standards somewhere?
Or maybe it was more complicated. Maybe, in addition to there being several gender enforcers, there were also several gender liberators. Maybe there were other people whose response to the pink-and-blue assignments was the same as mine. Or, perhaps others saw my reassignments and were inspired to join in the project so that when the enforcer(s) moved the hampers back they took action. Maybe the four-month stretch of genderqueer hamper assignments was really someone else moving the hampers every day, someone who worked out earlier than me, and then they stopped coming to the gym because, who knows, they lost their job, or just fell off the exercise wagon.
* * *
Shortly after Christmas, just as the gender enforcement reached its zenith at the gym with the introduction of the red heart-shaped mirror, a video of a 4-year-old girl complaining about how boys are only supposed to play with superheroes and girls with princesses went viral on Facebook. “Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?” she asked on camera.
The unfairness caused by gendered norms and restrictions was obvious to a 4-year-old, but continues to elude many adults. As 2012 unfolded, I lost heart in my genderqueer project. I continued to move the hampers… they continued to be moved back. But it was a weary obligation by this point.
I watched as the latest reality show, a k a the Republican presidential primary, turned the clock back fifty years on the discussion of women’s rights. Not just abortion rights, but the most fundamental reproductive right, the right to birth control, was under attack in the name of religious “freedom.” And then Rush Limbaugh redefined the word “slut” to mean an educated, responsible woman who speaks her mind. Acceptable behavior for women includes holding aspirin between their knees but not, apparently, expressing an opinion. It’s OK for a guy to carry a condom in his wallet, but when a woman carries a diaphragm in her purse, it’s morally suspect.
There is a serious gender conformity crackdown underway seeking to constrict the boundaries of permissible behavior for women. It starts with the “pink stuff” we “girls” are supposed to play with, and not the superheroes or the free weights, and it ends with barefoot and pregnant.
But in the middle of this incredibly regressive political moment there has also been a fierce and wonderful feminist backlash. The uproar caused by the Komen Foundation’s attempt to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and the successful campaign to get advertisers to drop Rush Limbaugh are testament to the fact that women are not taking the attack on our rights lying down.
It’s been a year since the pink and blue hampers were introduced at my gym. In the meantime, my membership expired and I joined a different gym, as I’ll be moving soon. But I like to think that amidst the millions of women and men who have protested this year’s attacks on women, there are one or two at my old gym who will continue to move the hampers until that day comes when pink and blue really don’t “mean anything” and women like me can pump iron and get large without having to flash our way into the locker room.
*Names in this piece have been changed.