‘Hello ma’am,’ the charity woman called out to me, but then her face clouded. ‘I mean sir.’ Another flustered pause before she reversed again: ‘I mean ma’am.’ Years of practice enabled me to politely decline making a donation without laughing.
I may be a typical cisgendered woman in most respects but this kind of confusion happens to me regularly. I didn’t handle it with much grace when it first began.
I had moved to Japan after college for work, and while there I saw the film V for Vendetta. Natalie Portman plays the young protagonist living in a dystopian London, and at a dramatic point in the film someone shaves off all of her long feminine locks. I decided that if Natalie could look that good with a shaved head, then so could I. I even shaved it myself. And then regretted it almost immediately. I thought it made me look harsh and post-apocalyptic. It was a cute look on Natalie, but on me it just looked frightening. There’s really no mystery as to why; compared to Natalie I’m enormous. According to the internet, she is 160 cm tall. I’m 180 cm and almost 20 kilos heavier.
So in a country where Natalie was bigger than the average female, gender confusion went from occasional to incessant. One of my coworkers said I looked like a Japanese school boy, the only Japanese demographic who routinely have shaved heads. And if I hadn’t already known the kanji for ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ I would have walked into a lot of men’s restrooms under the guidance of well-meaning strangers. The most extreme case was the Japanese woman who refused to believe I was a woman even when I told her in Japanese ‘Watashi wa onna no hito desu.’ I am a woman.
It made me angry, or at the very least irritated, and people rarely apologized for the mistake, something that drove me crazy. It was just my cisgendered privilege making me feel entitled, but I didn’t see it that way at the time.
When I returned to the United States for graduate school, the gender confusion followed me home. Short haired and wearing a baggy sweatshirt on an unusually cool Florida night, I went to Target to buy some slippers. Thanks to my paternal genetics I have gigantic feet to go with my abnormal height, so I picked something out from the men’s section.
‘Did you find everything you were looking for, sir? asked the cashier as she rang me up. It had never happened to me in the United States before and I was so shocked that I didn’t answer; I just stared back at her with a blank look on my face. She looked back at me wondering at my silence. There we sat, eyeing each other in awkward sitcom-style confusion for what seemed like ages, until I saw recognition spark across her features. ‘Oh, sorry, ma’am.’
I spent the next few years growing my hair out long again, past my shoulders, and somewhere along the way the confusion evaporated. I got married to a classmate, and when we graduated we moved away from Florida. It was my first real winter in years and I quickly grew weary of blow drying my long hair for the cold weather. So I had it cut to a more manageable length, and then the next cut was shorter, as was the one after that, and finally I settled on something ear-length and asymmetric.
And when my hair got short enough, like an old ghost, the gender confusion returned.
‘What can I get you, sir?’ asked the deli guy as he was labelling packaged meats.
‘I’ll take a pound of the maplewood bacon, please,’ I replied, not bothering to correct him.
When he heard my voice his head snapped around in surprise. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I mean, you’re obviously a woman, I just, I didn’t look at you before. Really, I’m sorry, ma’am.’
It made me wonder, what bearing did my gender have on a deli purchase? Why should it matter to anyone beyond my doctor, my spouse, or a marketer trying to hawk gender-specific products? Yet we stubbornly cling to the illusion of the gender binary, getting disoriented when we can’t immediately put someone into one of two boxes, and then stumbling through burdensome apologies when we get it wrong. English doesn’t even have a commonly used gender-neutral form of address. It’s ‘Dear Sir or Madam,’ and no space in between.
When I began thinking like this, the confusion felt less like an insult and more like a commentary on other people. It wasn’t about me, it was about them and how society teaches us to relate to one another. It allowed me to respond with levity and to see all the doubletakes, the backpedaling, and the over-explaining as comical and diverting.
Then I had a big life change. My spouse and I quit our jobs, took only what we could carry on our backs, and left to travel the world for a year and a half. We spent the first six months of our trip in Latin America, beginning with Mexico and working our way southwards to Chile. Naturally, the gender confusion came along for the ride.
We were inquiring after a room in a Cusco hostel. The old Peruvian man staffing the front desk apologized to us, saying he didn’t have any private rooms with two beds. There was one final room available, but it had a matrimonial bed which we wouldn’t want. My spouse and I exchanged a confused glance.
‘Una cama esta’ bien,’ I said. One bed is fine.
‘Ah, eres una mujer!’ Ah, you’re a woman! said the clerk. ‘Pareces varon!’ You look like a man.
Suddenly it made sense. He hadn’t seen a married couple, he’d seen two male travellers and assumed we wouldn’t want to share a bed. I almost wished he hadn’t realized that I was female so that we could have scandalized him.
It was around that time that I began to embrace and even engineer the gender confusion. It started to seem like a special ability, a binary-defying super power. A way to cheat the system and use male privilege to my advantage when I wanted it. And when I stopped caring about being accurately identified, I began to enjoy more androgynous gender expression. It was freedom from the boxes.
I found it easy to generate the confusion in Latin America. I would purposefully avoid cosmetics or jewellery, put on my baseball hat, and see how many times I could get called ‘señor’ or ‘amigo’. The highlight was the pair of airline employees who assumed at check-in that I spoke no Spanish, and openly argued about my gender in front of me. It took all of my strength to maintain a straight face.
But it all changed when we left the Americas. I didn’t get one ‘sir’ in six weeks in India, and I have no idea why. Same haircut, same hat, same baggy clothes, and I only ever got ‘madam’ or ‘lady’. I was still tall by comparison, but none of my usual tricks worked. Then in South East Asia I can’t be sure, since English is less common and I didn’t speak much of the various local languages. Whether it was Vietnam, Laos, Thailand or Cambodia, gender neutral ‘friend’ or just a simple ‘hello’ was what people used if they wanted my attention.
‘Are you a tomboy?’ a Thai woman asked me. I was in Bangkok, and I was still wearing my workout clothes from exercising in the park.
‘I guess so?’ I replied, confused by the non-sequitur and not sure if tomboy meant the same thing to her as it did to me. She didn’t seem to be questioning my gender, but maybe my sexual orientation?
An exception in many ways, Bangkok was a fascinating kaleidoscope of gender expression. The city is home to a high density of trans men and women, and a lot of the apparently cisgendered folks didn’t seem confined to using the traditional forms of gender expression. Against that colorful backdrop my androgynous presentation was simply unremarkable.
After a year of travel, we arrived for three weeks each in Australia and New Zealand. In comparison to some of our previous destinations it almost feels like home, only with more pies and Weet-bix. No sirs yet though, and I’m almost disappointed. But coming up in the next few months are China, Korea and Japan, where I fully expect to enter the maximum confusion vortex again.
This time though, I’m ready for it. I like to think that the gender confusion might encourage people to think outside the two boxes and about the way they look at gender. At the very least, getting called ‘sir’ doesn’t bother me anymore. Now if I need to say ‘Onna no hito desu,’ it will be with a laugh.
Christina Wott is a laser scientist who decided to take a break from the laboratory to write and travel the world. She is currently working on her first novel. You can read about her travels at wottcouldgowrong.com or follow her on Twitter or Instagram @christinawott