Depending on how I present myself, and who is perceiving my gender, and how important my gender is to them, my gender is interpreted variably through the eyes of the person gazing upon me. I have gotten the Question Mark look and sometimes an associated but perplexed query. I have been mistaken for a man. I have been mistaken for a woman. I have been mistaken for a trans woman. I have been mistaken for a trans man. And once in a really great while, I am perceived accurately: as Genderqueer. It’s like engaging a role-playing game in which the goal is to determine my gender by rolling a six-sided die every time I interact with someone. I quietly ask myself, “What are the chances?”
This type of interaction first started when I shaved my head and changed my name. I started frequently wearing a scarf around my neck and dressed simultaneously in women’s and men’s apparel as a matter of habit. I began to gain weight for the first time in my life as well (a result of a medication to regulate my metabolism), and I started letting everything else get unkempt while I kept up a daily regimen of head-shaving. Once in a while, when I’d pull off my leather jacket, someone’s Gendar™ would go off (it’s like gaydar but for detecting gender variants), and they’d say to me “I can’t tell which way you’re transitioning.” It caught me off guard the first time I heard this. I cackled uncontrollably for a full ten minutes the second time I heard this — it was a little girl no more than about 8 years old, who literally shouted at her mortified father, “Daddy, is that a boy or a girl?” — and the third time, I took it as a compliment. But then the novelty wore off. I started to realize that the reason I am being asked about “which way” I’m transitioning, or whether I identify as a man or a woman, is because someone is convinced that they are entitled to know this about me. It was almost always completely irrelevant, and it was often very early on in my interactions with different people, yet they wanted to turn my gender into a talking point for the entire room to hear (or at least for anyone within earshot). It was also consistently rooted in the assumption that people are obligated to sort themselves into compartments marked “Man” and “Woman”, the way public bathrooms and change rooms are marked. Is it possible that I could answer this query wrong, and be policed for my Trans*gression™? (That’s how I’m going to write it now, so live with it.)
Mistaken for a Man
I first heard the words “Thank you Sir” directed at me within a month of shaving my head. My heart went all a-flutter, I will not deny. I remember the moment, too. And it was someone who had interacted with me for the greater part of three years while I was presenting as female. I didn’t want her to say “Omigosh, I’m so sorry, Ma’am,” so I didn’t speak. I just cracked a slight smile, gave her a nod, and went about the rest of my day. As time went on, and I began to notice more people independently concluding that I was a man, I began to convince myself that declaring a pronoun preference might not grate against me where my politics and my personal life intersect with the privileged assumption of cisgendered-ness that is projected onto me every day. I even began to consider changing my gender designation once I finally gained access to testosterone. And within a month of my first injection, I decided it was time to let my hair grow back. With every physiological change I experience from my weekly injections, I come closer to being mistaken consistently for a man, and I’ve decided I can live with that — except that there are some side effects I didn’t expect. When I call up student loans, my bank, or my cell phone provider, I’ve actually been asked if I’m phoning on behalf of… well? Myself. And if I haven’t phoned someone in at least a few months, they aren’t even sure they know who I am until it occurs to them that I still inflect the same ways when I speak, even though my voice is at least an octave deeper (if not two). But I’ve also begun to experience hostility and aggression from strange men who would have never subjected me to threats before. And when my friends were being beaten by police, I suddenly stopped and thought to myself that if I change my gender designation to male, I’d be handled by male police officers if I’m ever arrested. My safety has become radically compromised, simply because I am now sometimes perceived as a man, and that makes me a potential punching bag.
Mistaken for a Woman
You would think that, after living for my first 25 years as a woman, I’d have no real concerns about being mistaken for one now. Well, you might think that, or you might think, like I do, that it’s a privileged assumption. There is nothing comfortable about having my gender erroneously pin-pointed on the basis of my body’s shape, and there never really was. I am and always have been uncomfortable with the way my body is shaped, with the way my gender was policed by my family and peers on that very basis, and with living as though I didn’t need any other options for presenting and embodying my gender (which has truly never been congruent with my body’s shape). Living as a woman was a lot of work, and finding a new way to live was even more work. While the former was often a very difficult process that left me feeling unhappy, angry, frustrated, depressed, and anxious; and the latter has left me feeling much happier overall (but with the not-so-distant-memory of cycling through these very intense emotions); I am also very uncertain of myself, under-confident, and still vulnerable to feeling extremely insecure — especially when I am mistaken for a woman. I have become more acutely conscious of how sexist dynamics play out in mixed company, than I feel I ever could have been while I was being perpetually targeted by it into silence. As a result, I feel an onus (a compulsion, even) to stand up and speak out against it. An especially difficult side effect of this new-found courage is that standing up against sexism often invites particularly harsh criticism and personal attacks upon me. But when I am misgendered as a woman while doing it, the criticisms and personal attacks are significantly harsher than would be directed at men who said the same thing. By multiple orders of magnitude. I’m talking about the difference between simply being ridiculed and actually losing some of my best friends for it (this has happened, sadly, many times now).
Mistaken for a Trans Woman
I suppose I should have anticipated, from the time I was first told that my transition goals were ambiguous to the person gazing upon me at the time, that I could be mistaken for a trans woman, by virtue of my body’s shape. And in truth, I have been mistaken for a trans woman multiple times prior to the event that forced me to stop and think about it for the first time. But those incidents were all online. I wasn’t being forced to choose between trying to explain what gender-binarism is to the person looking me straight in the face, or to play along so that I don’t potentially compromise my safety. Correcting someone in an online interaction is safe — I can do it immediately, effectively, and efficiently, without any lasting concerns. Like peeling a bandage off. But when a man was staring me straight in the face, literally trying to convince me that in my underwear, I’m secretly packing a fully intact male reproductive organ, I didn’t have the safety of a mouse click that takes me away from a potentially hostile environment. When I finally did win the argument about what’s in my underwear, the goalposts shifted to an argument about my chromosomal sex. All of this, of course, came about as a result of the mismatch between my body’s shape and the sound of my voice. And I sincerely don’t know whether to expect that this will stay the same or change (and in which direction) as my facial and body hair continues to multiply and become coarser and darker. It caught me totally off guard, and left me with two options: play along or don’t. Give into social expectations projected onto women that are rooted in sexism, or open myself up to a significantly more aggressive attack than I would have provoked when I was steeped in this experience daily and couldn’t bring myself to stand up against it (not to mention, when I wasn’t perceived as committing a Trans*gression™). The cost of not playing along when the controversy has walked up to your face is just too high.
Mistaken for a Trans Man
Ever hear of penis envy? Because just about every cisgendered man on the face of the planet thinks I have a complex over it as soon as they hear (or see) the words “I’m trans”, and a lot of them want me to know that’s exactly what they think. That is, once they figure out I’m not a trans woman. And then they just wouldn’t be satisfied without being as condescending as possible because I caught them off guard twice in a row, and to them, that’s the same as challenging them to a dick-measuring contest. Next thing I know, every possible stereotype of a trans man comes out of this person all at once, and I’m being accused of having a chip on my shoulder over it. And before I can say anything to stop this flaming pile of patronizing horse shit, I get lines thrown at me about how I can’t expect everyone in the world to read my mind about my pronoun preference (which I haven’t even declared), and how they have an uncle who used to be their aunt, and he was never such a whiny fucking asshole over it. I was completely tired of this by half-way through the first time it happened, though thankfully, it doesn’t occur at the same frequency as any other typical interaction I’ve already described above. However, when it does happen — when the words “I’m trans” are received as though they were a glove across the face — it always goes down the same way. However, when I am not treated with hostility for the Trans*gression™ of being perceived as a trans man, I at least feel respected as the person I am becoming. Even if it is inaccurate, speaking exclusively for myself, at least it’s a little more precise than being mistaken either for a woman or trans woman in my case. And yet, the skeptic in me wonders how much worse it’s going to get from both men and women, as I become more and more easily mistaken for a trans man. For example, will women assume I’m mansplaining if I assert myself?
I often say my pronoun preference is anything but she. Call me he, they, ze, or even it if the shoe fits. My gender identity is (and in a sense, always has been) an ongoing process, not a set of concrete attributes carved in stone tablets. Once in a really, truly great while, I meet someone who just gets this. More often, though, I meet someone who finds it agreeable but spends much of their time casually letting people read them as cisgendered and/or binary, and thus, demonstrates in their day-to-day life that they don’t really understand where I’m coming from even though they want to believe they do. And I understand it. Really, I do. It’s hard to challenge people on gender-binarism and the assumption that everyone is cisgendered until they declare otherwise, and it’s especially difficult to challenge oneself and interrogate gender and sexuality on a perpetual basis. But if the language I needed to begin that process was more widely known about, maybe it would have been easier for me to find my way here. It is, after all, scientifically proven that language shapes our cognitive processes. I certainly felt the constraint without the language, myself. And now? I feel free and empowered to do the work I’ve been aching to do for half my life. Such as this relatively brief journal entry on awakening to the different ways my gender is perceived by virtue of how my body, my voice, and my speech are read. The gamble I make — the roll of the die — every time I interact with someone for the first time (or for the first time since I started my social and/or hormonal transition) is now inextricably linked to my subjective experience of gender. This is part of what being genderqueer has come to mean for me: a six-sided die.
What are the chances, the next time I face you, you’ll understand who I am (or understand that you don’t)?