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Gender Diaries: Kyle McCoy

As the world continues to push against gender constructs, the conversation around how people are identifying themselves is constantly evolving. Each week, MILK.XYZ will feature a guest editor writing about their specific relationship with gender and, often, where it intersects with fashion. This week, we feature queer creative Kyle McCoy

Being openly queer in New York City, I’ve learned a lot about how people interpret me and what I look like. Strangers have identified me as a lesbian, a straight or bisexual woman, the gay man I’ve only dreamt of being, and rather often, I get mistaken for a straight guy.

“You look like you should be getting ready for the prom.”

It was a Spring Monday near noon when an older gentleman at the sports bar I worked for laughed his way through telling me I looked too young to be his bartender.  He then threw back the rest of an Absolut citron, his third since we opened at eleven. I had actually just graduated college.

Before I worked for a sports bar in Brooklyn, I started my short lived bartending career at a not-so classy establishment in downtown Manhattan. It was a two floor dive bar where the employee wardrobe policy was “less makes more” and about two hundred forsaken bras, some dating back to the 80’s, hung from ceiling fixtures and dead animals on the wall. The only music we played was from an old juke box. My tasks consisted of serving fast drinks to a high volume of predominantly male customers, while taking shots with them until four in the morning. Sometimes, when it was late and we were drunk, the bartenders would hop up on the bar, which was met with better tips and tipsy whistles.  

On the night before my first shift, I had asked the owner what I should know going into the gig.  

“Dress sexy, ya know? Show some skin. That’s how we make our money.”  

At the time, I’d only lived in New York City for about a week. I’d never been a bartender before, and I saw it as my foot in the door. I also needed a job, and this one was a walk from my apartment.

“It’s not rocket science…” said the manager when I showed up half-naked and nervous.

So the big smile I wore while cracking $2.50 cans of PBR and pouring cheap liquor, as exacerbated by the unnumbered amount of shots we took, won fast favor in the eyes of our male regulars. In fact, I wore the costume and played the part well enough that straight men didn’t always notice my queerness, as they hit on me from across the bar.

It didn’t seem to make much of a difference how I cut my hair, or what I had tattooed in intentionally plain sight (there’s an androgyny symbol on my left wrist). Those guys only saw the crop tops and booty shorts I worked in. When my lesbianism did come up, they’d ask if I’d ever slept with men. How many? When was the last time? Why not anymore? And, was I sure?

After three months of half-naked bartending, I found myself a less polarizing gig.

The sports bar in Brooklyn was better, most of all, because I wasn’t obligated by any set dress code. In fact, I was quite comfortable on that Monday near noon; I had worn a black, oversized sweater with ripped jeans and combat boots.  

Maybe my casual outfit factored into why the vodka guy thought I looked so young. But I didn’t appreciate his prom joke, on top of the fact that my last job had left me a bit exhausted by older men commenting on how I look. As I poured him his fourth drink, he struck more of the same conversation.

“What are you doing behind this bar? When I was your age… I was chasing after girls… Gettin’ into trouble! That’s where you should be.”

I laughed, because it’s polite to.

“Well, this is what I’ve done to pay me way since moving here after college.”

“Oh, you went to college? Good! What’d we study?”

“Mostly art and English.”

I let the conversation die by moving on to serve another customer. Later I overheard the other bartender ask him if he needed something else. His response included a nod in my direction.

“No, thanks—he’s already helped me.”

I was initially too surprised to react, but I heard the pronoun. Other customers looked up at me, expectant. The second bartender busied herself. Silence dragged on as my cheeks got hot. Someone wanted me to say something, but no one wanted to ask.

In the afternoon, I had a different customer drinking patron—neat. After I handed him his receipt to sign, he pushed it back to me and said:  

“Thanks, brother.”

It hung in the air like that as I waved a smiling goodbye.  

Thanks, brother? It merits mentioning how I hadn’t met this guy before serving him two tequilas on a short lunch break.

So it was upon that spring Monday that I determined just how male passing I can be. Getting gendered back to back like that felt like a message. I knew how I felt about myself as genderqueer, but the realization was about how I actually look to people. As my thoughts and feelings spiraled, I found myself asking, why does gender make me this anxious?

I thought harder about how many other times I had been identified male over recent years. There was the seemingly senile older woman in my college apartment building that asked in an elevator ride if I was the one she yelled at on Saturday night. Since I wasn’t, I told her no.

“No? I already asked all the other boys…” she’d said with mutual confusion.  

There was the cute gay man on the train two summers back who offered to help with my suitcase before sitting down beside me and, eventually, asking if I too were a cute gay man.

“I thought we were on our way to Fire Island together!” he explained. I told him no on both accounts, but was flattered all the same.

There are the consistent gender specific faux pas’ by off strangers that I mostly acquit to my hairstyle and choice of baggy clothing.

“Thank you, sir,” said the Uber driver.

“Excuse me, young man?” said the elderly tourist needing directions.

“Appreciate it, bro,” said the skater who bummed a cigarette.

And even, “Is this your boyfriend?” when standing in contrast with feminine friends.

I was walking away from dinner in Manhattan one night with three very feminine friends when an eccentric New Yorker interrupted us to tell me I “better be taking good care of all these ladies.” I was wearing a backwards hat with an unassuming hoodie.

There was a woman seated alone at the lounge I worked for in Chelsea who called me handsome after her second round of cocktails. I had said my name is Kyle, and she said a “handsome guy like you” must have Instagram, right?  I was in a black v-neck with no bra.

On a summer night at a hazy EDM venue, I was pointed in the direction of the men’s bathroom when I had to pee. After walking in, I walked back out and let the attendant know that was not the bathroom I had been looking for.

She was, of course, embarrassed and began to overly apologize. I only let her know because I’d rather pee in the women’s room, not because I was offended, nor misunderstood.

In a society that builds itself on social hierarchy, and the power associated with who and what you are, I find it kind of validating how inconsistently strangers poll on what I look like. Because in terms of my own concept of gender identity, that’s most honestly how I come down on myself: pretty inconsistently.  

I ultimately believe that gender’s more of a Venn diagram than a binary, and I exist somewhere in the middle. I actually think the outer sections are where stereotypes and expectations mostly dwell, while real life plays out in the overlap.

When it comes to gender and sexuality in our society, I think we award a noxious power over ourselves to stuff we have mostly made up, yet hardly agree upon. After caring way too much for far too long, I’ve lost the will to worry about how other people see me. I don’t see myself as male or female, and I don’t think it makes a difference to me. So long as what you call me isn’t mean, you can just call me what you see.

Images courtesy of Kyle McCoy

Stay tuned to Milk for more Gender Diaries and see our previous installments here.

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