I had a really uncomfortable experience yesterday.
I went to a community event. Prior to that I’d liaised with one of the organisers by email. Because we’d only communicated that way, he had correctly assumed my gender as male.
So far so good.
But when I arrived and found the person I needed to speak to, I introduced myself, and his immediate reaction was: “Oh. I’m sorry. I thought you were a man.”
This was in a crowded place surrounded by other people, so naturally I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
My (incredibly awkward) response was. “I am a man…. It’s complicated.”
Note to self: Drop the ‘it’s complicated’ in future when asserting my gender. It doesn’t help.
We moved on swiftly, and pretended that whole exchange had never happened for the rest of the event. But it left me feeling like utter shite.
I want to be very clear that I don’t blame him for being confused. I’m a realist. I’ve been on testosterone for less than a year. My voice is androgynous. I met him in the dark so he couldn’t see my stubble. I was wearing a hat so he had no hairstyle to go on. I was wearing a thick coat so he couldn’t see the shape of my torso. I’m 5’ 3” and pretty damn cute for a guy (if I say so myself), so when I am read as male people usually assume I’m about 20 years younger than my age… So I’m never surprised, or offended when people aren’t sure about my gender.
Furthermore this man was of the generation who has usually had very little experience of dealing with transgender people. Chances are he’s never knowingly met another trans person (he’s probably met several but didn’t realise it). So when he met me and got things so badly wrong, he wasn’t deliberately being transphobic or mean. It was an honest mistake.
But just because it was an honest mistake on his part, didn’t make the whole experience any less painful and humiliating for me. In some ways it’s almost worse actually, because it reinforces something that I know, but normally try to forget about—and that’s the cold, hard truth that despite nearly a year on T and undergoing chest surgery, I still don’t get read reliably as male. Some people still look at me and see something I’m not, and it’s probably impossible to imagine how horrible that feels unless you’re transgender.
I’m not asking you to understand, and I’m not asking for your sympathy.
What I am asking you to do, is this: Next time you meet someone whose gender is ambiguous. Stop and think, and if you’re unsure, then please:
- Don’t assume someone’s gender based on physical characteristics
- Don’t challenge them if they don’t fit your idea of gender norms.
- Judge people on how they present.
- If in doubt, avoid explicitly gendering someone
If someone is presenting in a clearly masculine/feminine way, or if they introduce themselves with an obviously gendered name, then that’s a good clue as to how they identify. But remember that some people are nonbinary and don’t want to be gendered at all. If you’re not sure and there is a reason you actually need to know (spoiler: usually you don’t need to know someone’s gender anyway), then either ask someone what their pronouns are, or simply avoid using pronouns if you’re not comfortable doing that.