Wide Stance- Boy on a Bench
Nonfiction Piece Written By: Nat Naylor
About the Author: Nat Naylor is a queer parent and working labor leader in San Francisco.
I looked across the gym during my daughter’s Catholic Youth Organization basketball game in April. She was sitting on the bench laughing with her friends. Their legs were crossed like little ladies in a pew at Mass. Nobody asked them nor reminded them to sit like that, not that anyone would in San Francisco in 2018.
I thought I clearly remembered all of the times I was reminded to “sit like a lady” as a child. Parenthood is funny like that: your own childhood memories sometimes encroach upon your attempts at being present in the moment when you least expect it. I also played CYO girls’ basketball.
At age 38, I sat in the brightly lit echoey gym at my daughter’s school recalling my 6th grade playoff game in our local high school gymnasium. We had terrible polyester basketball uniform shorts that were inches shorter than the boys’ teams and not at all like the real basketball shorts of the 1990’s. One year our shorts were white. I was horrified. In 6th grade, I believe our entire uniform was red, like our school colors. I’m not sure I trust my memory entirely on that detail. I do have a keen recollection of the ill-fitting uniform on my changing body as I constantly fidgeted with it trying to achieve some level of comfort; it was illusive. The shorts always felt too short and the shirt too tight in the wrong places. My body was quickly betraying me and the uniform highlighted this. There was no place to hide in it.
The year prior I was chronically and famously admonished in cotillion, a “finishing” type class for young ladies and gentlemen to learn manners and basic couples dancing, like the Foxtrot. I got in trouble every class for not sitting properly, like a lady, while waiting for the boys to ask me to dance; I wasn’t a popular choice on the dance floor. The boys who always picked me first for my wall-like stature in Red Rover avoided me at cotillion.
Several of the girls in my grade and a few older siblings attended these classes; it was expensive and a privilege in our middle-class community. I was frequently reminded that my participation was my choice and a gift. I think I was already keenly aware of what would become my lifelong battle to be the best and most feminine girl I could possibly muster. In short, I likely already suspected something different in me and accepted the social pressure to participate with a hope it might normalize me. One of my friend’s mothers sat across the dance floor in the small audience of folding chairs. She would engage me in purposeful eye contact while putting her hands on her spread knees and then jam them together as a not so subtle reminder to sit like a lady with my legs closed. The cotillion teacher kicked my foot in to close my legs. She would loudly whisper, “This is not a sports bench.” I always found it hard to cross my athletically thick and muscular thighs. I never could remember how girls are supposed to sit. One of the boys complained that I wasn’t letting him lead and that I kept trying to control him as he led. I find that amusing now but was mortified at the time. I did not cut it in cotillion. I wasn’t a little lady.
Certainly a basketball court and later a science class were far more appropriate places for me to sit. The cotillion teacher had said so herself; it wouldn’t prove to be true.
My face grew hot as my daughter’s team played and I remembered watching an adult rush over from the stands during my own playoff CYO basketball game and whisper in my ear: “You aren’t a boy sitting on this bench. Back straight, ankles crossed.” I’m sure I made it into a joke as I often did/ do. I was a funny kid and am still a funny adult. You cannot be bullied if you are the joke of your creation. Cultivating humor from shame gives you control of a situation in which you ostensibly have none. I spent the rest of the series trying to remember how to sit like a lady while waiting for my turn to play. I hadn’t thought about that experience in over 25 years.
I’ve always precisely recalled the times my 7th grade science teacher frequently commented on my gender performance failures. Boxer shorts and V-neck t-shirts weren’t supposed to be clothing; they were men’s underwear. I tried to explain that my shorts were actually shorts, but she never believed me. On days when I wore something different, she would proactively remark that it was nice to see me in real clothing. The “lady-like” monitoring began when she handed me a small note during a rock dissection lab. “Please sit with your legs closed. You are sitting in a way that is vulgar and not lady-like.” I snapped up. I remembered cotillion. It was hard for me to be a lady and focus on the rocks, but I tried. My beautiful lithe friend who sat next to me did it all with ease. I tried to be like her when all I wanted was to be her boyfriend. The teacher mentioned my lack of sitting like a lady to my mother; I’m sure she was mortified. I promised to try to remember to not sit like a guy. But I often forgot. The science teacher took to calling me out from the front of the classroom. She disturbed a test once. I rarely, if never, wore dresses or skirts. My pre-teen mind could understand that you shouldn’t show off your underwear, but I wasn’t and it felt unfair. Despite her treatment of me, I craved the teacher’s positive attention and wanted to please her. I really did try. After each embarrassing class-wide reprimand, I looked around to notice most of the guys were sitting like me. I once attempted to argue this point in order to highlight the inequity of her attention on me. Her reply: “well, are you a boy?” I sat in silence as my friend tried to shrink away from me. It ingrained a certain shame that despite my best efforts, femininity just naturally did not exist within me. By 7th grade I knew there was undeniably something wrong with me.
It is only after parenting for over a decade, and watching with great shock how and when natural “femininity” occurs that I hold any understanding or emotion other than shame for the little version of me who fruitlessly and painfully tried so hard and eventually grew into a big person who spent far too many years continuing that effort. I’m so grateful to finally be an adult who can sit like a boy on a bench and comfortably watch my daughter play basketball. Parenthood is funny like that.
Visual Art By: Chiara Di Martino
About the Artist: Chiara Di Martino was born on January 17 1987 in Rome, Italy, where she spent also most of her life. Her passions have always been Poetry, Literature and Art. Growing up, she put her dream to be an artist or writer on hold, choosing instead to become a Psychologist. In 2015, she moved to San Francisco to study English. Along the way, she decided to open herself-up to follow her old dream, joining City College’s Design Department.