Sometime in the last six months or so, I started wearing neckties on a pretty regular basis. While I’d worn them a time or two before, I’d always borrowed them from friends; I didn’t own any ties, or ever think to buy one for myself. Last summer, though, just after my dad passed away, I took home some of his ties, as kind of a way I could remember him. My dad was pretty notorious for wearing his ties too short, so they kind of hit him in the middle of his belly, which was funny on his 6’4″ frame. So, I had a couple of his ties hanging in my closet, and at some point early in the fall I wore one of the ties and found that I really liked wearing a tie. Part of it was feeling a connection to my dad, and part of it was that I just found that I liked wearing ties.
One of the interesting things about being in relationship with someone of the same gender is that straight people don’t always seem to know how to make sense of us. Many gay or lesbian people have had people ask, very sincerely, “so, which one of you is the man, and which one is the woman?” This question is confusing to me because, well, we’re both women. Or, I’ve heard things along the lines of, “but…women don’t wear ties, so that must make you the ‘man,’ right?” Nope, sorry – we’re still both women.
One of the things that is nice about gender norms is that they give you a clear outline of what is “masculine” and what is “feminine.” Those norms are helpful in a way because they define what is….well, normative. However, the challenge with gender norms, especially as they become more and more narrowly defined, is that they often allow people to live unexamined lives, to accept the status quo – the outward markers begin to define the inward character of a person. Those who don’t fit into what is defined as normative are seen as trouble-makers, or dangerous, a threat to the stability of the family, the institution, the nation, even the natural order of things; that which is different is perceived as wrong. To protect this stability, then, it is deemed necessary to do what can be done to prevent “them” from getting out of line – it becomes a moral issue, a faith issue, a God issue.
I should be clear that I am not saying that women who dress in a manner that is typically “feminine,” or men who do so in a way that is typically “masculine” are living unexamined lives. I am saying that it is important that we allow ourselves to ask questions about how or why we make the decisions we make, and to recognize that there is a tremendous amount of fluidity in gender expression. If we allow rigid definitions of what is ‘normal’ to define our existence, how are we to make sense of it when something completely ‘abnormal’ happens?
This comes in on issues of faith as well. My ethics professor, Dr. Cannon talks about one of the reasons for doing theological ethics is to clarify norms, particularly in contentious issues. In the process of norm-clarification, and in understanding what others deem as normative, people are empowered to stretch beyond their individual selves by seeing that there is a myriad of experiences within any group of people. In understanding the experiences and faith of other people, I am encouraged to understand my experience, my faith. “The only thing that gets rid of fear,” she says, “is faith….What is there to be afraid of if you know what you believe?”
Basically, in my shortest answer, I wear neckties because I like to wear them. I wear them also because I know that when I go into a seminary classroom in a tie, or into a church in a tie, I am helping to norm something, to show that women do indeed wear ties.