A few weeks ago I received a compliment at work that set me to thinking. The specific circumstances were that I was at On Point, checking in a young, Asian couple for their Genius Bar appointment. As I finished up with them the woman turned to me and said, “I like your skirt!” What I replied, in that moment was, “thank you!”, but like I said, it set me to thinking.
There have been plenty of similar situations in the past where I didn’t thank the person for the compliment, but instead corrected them: “it’s not a skirt, it’s a kilt.” At varying times I’ve made that reply with varying degrees of kindness. There have been other times when I’ve been asked things like, “is that a skirt?”, or, “why are you wearing a skirt?” In those times I’ve also corrected the person, with my tone of voice and Intended Insult Quotient™ matching their Perceived Insult Quotient™. Why did I provide correction? Because they were uninformed and needing education, right? Or maybe it was that they were trying to insult me and needed to be checked. I want to look at those two reasons, poke at them a bit, and maybe pull them apart.
Sure, there’s plenty of people out there who simply don’t know what a kilt is. Maybe they’ve never seen Rob Roy or Braveheart. Maybe they come from a different part of the world and a whole different culture. Maybe they just don’t have the words to differentiate between a skirt and a kilt. Whatever the reason, them complimenting me with the “wrong” word or using the “wrong” word doesn’t mean that they’re asking to be stopped and educated. Or maybe they’re asking a simple question but not looking for a speech or lesson.
In any and all of those situations I’m coming to the conclusion that being an educator about kilts and kilt culture is not always required, much less appreciated. If someone wants to tell me that they like my skirt I don’t need to do anything other than thank them. And if they do ask me if what I’m wearing is a skirt the first thing out of my mouth should not be, “NO!” ‘Cause you know what? It is a skirt. Hold on to your sporrans, boys—a kilt is a skirt. It’s a skirt which is traditionally made for and worn by men, originated in Scotland and/or Ireland, and is built in a very specific fashion. But it’s still a kind of skirt. So where does that emphatic denial come from?
Homophobia & Transphobia
Looking inward, as well as at the kilting community, I believe that there is a certain amount of homophobia and transphobia inherent in getting up in arms when someone mistakes your very manly kilt for a womanly skirt. After all, if you’re wearing a kilt then you are reinforcing your masculinity, but if you’re wearing a skirt then you’re less masculine, and if someone thinks you’re wearing a skirt then they’re doubting your masculinity. Wrapped up in this is the idea that gay men and trans men are less masculine than straight cis men.
The thing is, making the correction we’re talking about is something that every kilted man does. It’s been drilled into us that what we’re wearing is a kilt, not a skirt, and if anyone gets that wrong we need to educate them. It’s our responsibility as Ambassadors of Kilting. But why? Why is it so important that no one think we’re wearing skirts? If it’s just a matter of accuracy we’re also going to be just as specific about correcting people who mistake a chiton for a toga, right? No, of course not, because who cares that much about historical accuracy? (Ok, yes, I know some people who do but they’re weirdoes and not germane to this topic.)
No, I think the issue goes back to not having anyone doubt or mistake our masculinity, and the only reason for this is that being seen as less masculine means that we’re less good. Ooh! I didn’t realize I was going to end up at patriarchy as well, but there we go. (This is just how I write—I often don’t know where I’m going to end up until I do. I’m like a Jimmy Buffett song that way.) Men who wear kilts often do so because the garment represents an element of their heritage of which they are particularly proud. Those men are drawn to the tradition of it all. I recently heard ‘tradition’ defined as “peer pressure from dead people”, which is both hilarious and totally accurate. Unfortunately the tradition, and the living keepers of the tradition, are not automatically “woke”, in the modern parlance. Just because they like the thing we like doesn’t mean that everything they do and say is right. Unfortunately many of the tradition keepers—alive and dead—are/were just as patriarchal, homophobic, and transphobic as the larger cultural framework in which they exist(ed).
And, by the way, no one ever explicitly said to me, “if someone calls it a skirt you need to immediately correct them because if it’s a skirt then you’re a homo and less than a real man.” But that’s the thing: cultural indoctrination is seldom that explicit. No, it creeps in at the margins, in the things that are implied but not said.
Being a good kilted ambassador
So how do we, the unbifurcated population, be good ambassadors to kilting?
It starts with acknowledging that it is nearly impossible for any of us to say—truthfully—that we haven’t felt the prod of homophobic or transphobic thoughts, or benefited from the privilege of patriarchy. If you are an American male over the age of two or three something in the larger culture has said to you that it’s better to be a boy than not. Maybe it was someone in your family. Maybe it was a friend. Maybe it was a stranger. Maybe it was something in the wide array of media with which we are surrounded. Whatever it was, we have all been taught it in a variety of ways. So start there. Start by acknowledging that you learned some things, internalized some things, that aren’t true and that you are working on purging.
At the same time that you’re doing that self-work you need to commit to acting and speaking in a way that neither reinforces nor spreads homophobia and transphobia. You can’t wait until you no longer feel those things, because they will likely always be with you, even if only as a shadow of a thought or feeling. From this moment forward you need to no longer act in ways that say wearing a skirt makes you somehow less than a man, or that a kilt can’t be a skirt because that would make you less than a man. Concurrently you need to be modeling these good behaviors out into the rest of the kilting community, especially to those who are newly arriving. Education starts at home, and it is within our own community that the change needs to begin. Stop telling the joke about it being called a kilt because, “that’s what I did to the last man who called it a skirt.” Yes, it’s funny. No, it’s not that funny. While we’re at it, no, women who wear kilts aren’t cross-dressers (that one was never funny). And to those who like to correct a common kilting “mistake”, yes, it’s still a kilt even if it is a little too long or a little too short.
Beyond being good, kilted ambassadors to the non-kilting world, all of this also comes back to simply being good people. And who doesn’t want to be a good person?
You can start by taking the compliment in the spirit in which it was offered.