July 20, 2007
V 35 Issue 29

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Cost of the
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Not Thinking Straight by Madelyn Arnold
On reflection
by Madelyn Arnold - SGN Contributing Writer

A few minutes ago I smiled at this guy who smiled back like the sun coming out. He seemed genuinely pleased, and I know that I was. It's something I've been doing recently, smiling at people. That is, consciously smiling at people... I think I'd started this smiling some months ago. Maybe he was being kind - I'm at least the age of his mother [or grandmother]; and wouldn't it move any warmable spirits if some hunk beamed at her? Of course, that may not be at all what was happening, but I can pretend.

I guess I should add that I learned at a rather late age not to smile at strange men, although a girl doesn't even have to have particularly good breeding to learn that lesson. Likewise, a sensible girl doesn't smile directly at other women, at least within a certain age -- meaning the one she happens to be at that time; about smiling at ears, more later.

Like most matters cultural, the nominally simple act of smiling is governed by more than a few un-simple rules. Lucky for me, I'm now exempt from almost all of them. I can now smile at almost all the people I want to smile at, even children.

One of the hardest things about being Queer has been that I couldn't make what felt like an honest smile at many kinds of women. At my age and station of life, wasn't any smile supposed to be a come-on?

I can't remember what it was like to smile at women with the confidence they'd (only) smile back. It was far too long ago. As I matured, I learned to either smile past that oncoming face (as I did with men) or to make my smile insolent. Make it into a come-on, insulting.

But of course, as I've gotten sicker that come-on is less and less frequently sincere. Except in certain venues where it's possible to feel very pleasantly evil....

Back then, other women often thought we were competing when we weren't. Women at a certain age don't smile at women of that same age, not if both are dressed well, but they will smile at the air next to the (usually left) lobe of the approaching ear. Or rather, simper.

This takes its weirdest form in the "air kiss" one sees among models. The more in direct competition these models are, the more air is consumed.... As for ordinary woman, it's like they say: you can't win for losing. Women are supposed to be in competition for the best men - or, hell, for any man - so two sets of all the foolery and gewgaws of feminine wiles will be passing each other in the street, aiming at air with real ferocity. I never had any stomach for it myself - added to the fact that I didn't have my eyes on the prize in the first place. And if a straight woman somehow guessed I was interested in her - not a very good ending, I'm afraid.

My father taught us to look frankly into an adult's face and, if it were a man, to shake his hand firmly; if a woman, in addition to the eye contact, we were supposed to arrest the motion of the hand she extended [you don't have to pretend between US, dear - we know you're not a man]. Depending on the age, race, and heritage of the person greeted, this could have the most marvelous effects.

For example, for elderly persons of color to have a white child stare them in the face like that could make them extremely jumpy. And furious.

My father, however, didn't seem to notice; nor did he bother with the fact that the further from Appalachia we went, the more confused his children were... and so were the people we met along the way.

We noticed that, increasingly, adults were uneasy at our staring in their faces - a man or woman snatching a glance away, or showing an occasional snap of aggression - as we tried to be polite. At the best of times it was hard for people to be around my father; we his children strove to soften the ground a little. But it was his boys, of course, who were perceived to be outright aggressive.

Taught this way, it was some time before we girls understood that men were taking our "frankness" as other than polite. When we were small it was considered, well, cute; and it got cuter and cuter until we were having a hard time scraping off all comers. I who had no interest in dating, early decided this need to scrape was proof that men were scum - one couldn't be polite to them.

But now it's spring (although I am not) and the streets are full of smiles, especially mine. Now men smile with what looks like affection and women glance at my eyes with smiles that very often last; and it pleases me so much that I sometimes fail to ask myself how sincere that smile would be if they knew I was Gay?

But things are so much better these days, and now that I'm fat and older, and in a wheelchair, people smile at me - no matter their race, no matter anything. And frankly, that makes me pretty happy.


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