Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Popping Ollies and the Problem of Passing

By Malic Moxie

I firmly believe that a good, hard skate can cure just about anything. It can soothe an aching heart or rip your most miserable thoughts to shreds. Or it can drive you into the middle of an unexpected gender game.

I’ve never been any good at tricks, but give me a smooth strip of asphalt and I can tear it up. That’s what I did most evenings when I was sixteen and freaking out. With my board firmly planted under my feet, I knowingly passed as a guy for the first time and rolled into boyhood on wheels.

A group of gawky cisboys gathered in the park, swapping stories and cigarettes with slack jaws and chapped knuckles. They hunched over their smuggled smokes with their fists shoved in their pockets, assuming the awkward teenage boy stance of overstated masculinity. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I moved like those kids when I was on my board, knees and chest swaying with the semi-circles I carved into the pavement. I was dressed like them, too—baggy jeans and a hoodie protecting my ears from the wind. Not feminine, but functional.

I was swerving my way around the corner when the kids looked in my direction. Teenage boys have ears for skateboard wheels like nothing else. “Damn, he’s fast,” I heard one of them say.

He? Stunned by the slip of an unfamiliar pronoun, I skidded to a stop. A kid with a crooked baseball cap jerked his chin in my direction, the skaterboy nod of solidarity. “Dude, how’d you get so fast on that piece of shit?” He gestured to my $20 board with a righteous feminist fist stenciled on the grip tape.

“I dunno. I never had a good board—I got used to it.” I consciously lowered my voice and slurred the syllables together, totally unaware of why I was playing along.

“Impressive. Wanna smoke?”

“Uh. No thanks. I gotta go.”

I propelled myself away as quickly as possibly, wobbling a bit beneath my shaking legs. Every time I had ever seen someone “accidentally” pass as another gender, the situation was always soaked with embarrassment and apologies. So why did I feel so elated?

I started skating more often after that and went out of my way to perform whatever it was that those boys had seen before. I bound my chest under bulky sweatshirts and molded my too-long hair into a skaterboy shag. I encountered those same kids every so often on my nightly escapes. I would ollie off the curb and they would nod with approval, but I never spoke to them again—I was too afraid of what might happen if they knew that there were breasts underneath all the bravado.

Now that I “pass” more frequently, I’ve found the word itself to be problematic. “Passing” sounds like I’m getting away with something, deceiving innocent strangers who might accidentally read my clothing instead of my chromosomes (“Excuse me, young man. I mean lady. I’m so sorry…”). When I was skating I performed masculinity with anxious precision, terrified that my self-proclaimed comrades would realize that I was an intruder in their rituals, but now things are different. Unless I feel like I have to pass as the standard “boy” or “girl” for my personal safety in a particular situation, I’m not consciously trying to pass as anything other than myself.

Rather than using the word “passing,” I prefer to talk about how I’m “read” by the people I encounter based on visual cues like clothes, hair, gestures, the presence or absence of breasts. I can talk about how others read my gender without sounding like chromosome con artist.

My secret skateboarding adventures ended just a few months after they began, and I never spoke openly about them until now. The questions that surfaced regarding these interactions were too much for me to handle at the time, so I slipped gender into my back pocket and waited for the right time and place to explore my identity.

Even though my language has changed, the feeling that I get from being read as a boy is just as exhilarating as before. Skaterboys, if you’re out there, thanks for affirming the 14-year-old boy trapped in my lazy, loping strides. He isn’t so shy anymore.

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