Public misgendering, and how to avoid being the person who ruins someone’s day…

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.

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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.

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Are you a girl or a boy?

I haven’t been asked that question since I was about twelve years old, and although I realise my appearance is confusing to some people I was honestly never expecting to be asked those exact words at the age of forty-six.

The whole conversation was a shitshow. So I will do my best to recreate it here.

Setting: The local pub – in a small village where LGBTQ+ people are either absent or invisible for the most part.

Cast of characters: Me, one of my cisgender female friends, and a very drunk cis/straight bloke (who was at the bar with a group of other drunk blokes).

My friend and I are sitting at a table having a drink and a chat. Drunk bloke swaggers over and sits in the extra chair at our table, manspreading as if his balls are the size of a small country. He hugs and kisses my friend, then turns to me and sizes me up (as much as he can given that he probably can’t focus properly).

Drunk bloke: She’s fucking great isn’t she? I love her.
Adds meaningfully: And her husband’s fucking great too. He’s one of my best mates.

Me: Yeah, I know man. They’re both great. I was at their wedding recently.

Drunk bloke: Stares and looks confused after hearing me speak…. Are you a girl or a boy?

Me: rolling my eyes. I’m a boy.

Drunk bloke: Turns to speak to my friend rather than me. But she sounds like a girl.

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Accurate gif is accurate

My friend: He’s a boy. This is my mate. We’ve known each other for years. He knows Andy too.

Me: rolling my eyes more and getting impatient for him to fuck off. Look. I’m a man, but I’m transgender. I was born a girl, and now I’m man. My voice isn’t that low yet because I’ve only been on testosterone for six months.

Drunk bloke: Looks slightly bewildered but spreads his hands placatingly. Oh, fair play. Fair play. Well, you take care of her. She’s great, and her husband’s a top bloke.

Me: Sighs. Look mate, I’m not into women anyway. I’m gay. So her virtue is safe with me.

Drunk bloke: Stares.

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I can practically hear the gears churning in his alcohol addled brain at this point while he tries to wrap his brain around the intersection of gender and sexuality, and probably fails.

I decide that challenging his views about treating women as possessions who need to be claimed, owned, and defended by men would be too much for one evening. I think his head might explode if I introduce another new concept.

At that point he clearly decides I’m not a threat, and buggers off back to his cronies at the bar.

I wonder whether he’ll remember this conversation this morning?