Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cases of Mistaken Identity

Any gender non-conforming person has experienced instances of what I like to call "mistaken identity." For me, this usually occurs when I get "sirred." Usually being "sirred" is followed by that awkward moment when people hear me speak and then waiver back and forth between wanting to call me ma'am or sir. Their anxiety over the situation is so great that they keep apologizing, fishing for my forgiveness for their astonishing faux pas. At times I find their horror rather amusing. They act as if I should be just as shocked and horrified as they are that they thought I was a sir when in fact I have ma'am parts. They don't seem to consider that perhaps I am dressed the way I am and have my haircut the way it is because I don't mind being a sir sometimes. At a minimum, given the preponderance of mirrors in American society and that it is usually apparent to these folks that I don't suffer from blindness, you'd think the assumption would be that I've seen myself and understand that yeah, I look kind of like a dude, and thus am not shocked when other people think so too. At any rate, as part and parcel of their apology, they press for the correct answer with an increasing urgency ("Is it 'sir' or 'ma'am'? Is it 'sir' or 'ma'am'!?") that is totally unsatisfied by my insistence that either is fine. The frantic questions turn into probes for explanation, either for my appearance or their reaction to it - usually centered around the fact that people seem to think I look young ("Are you in high school?" "No." "College?" "No."). By this time, the conversation has usually gone on too long and I'm getting annoyed. It seems that my outward appearance is at times so confusing to others that they insist on inviting themselves into a conversation with me about my life without realizing that their insistence on continuing the conversation is far more rude than their initial "mistake," which I already informed them did not offend me. I'm a friendly person. I like people. I like to tell stories. I like connecting to things that are going on in other people's lives. But I don't like doing those things to make strangers feel better about their own discomfort with gender ambiguity. Still, these situations seem unavoidable. Sometimes they're funny, sometimes awkward, sometimes scary, and sometimes downright confusing for everybody involved.

Some notable moments from the archive of my own experiences:

The Funny: "Honey, how old are you?"

About five years back, I was standing in the snack aisle at the grocery store when a woman passed by, eyeing me carefully. She finally exclaimed, "That's a little girl! That's a little girl!" With a slight drawl, she asked me, "Honey, how old are you?" Now, during this time in my life, I was in fact having some difficulty remembering how old I was. I was past 21 but nowhere near 30, and all those years in between just seemed all mushed together in my brain. I thought for a moment and then said, "Twenty-two - no - twenty-three... Uh, no, twenty-two..." The lady was now staring at me as though I were completely insane. I trailed off and looked up and she looked me in the eye for a long moment and then said, slowly, "You don't know. You can't remember." Then she turned and walked away.

The Awkward: "Is this your son?"

This happens to me ALL. THE. TIME. Most recently, it happened at a conference I was at for work. Between workshops, some colleagues and I were sitting around, getting ready to debrief the day. While one co-worker and I were sitting at a table chatting, someone who knew her came up to us and loudly asked, "Is this your son?" which then necessitated the familiarly awkward explanation. I would also like to point out the fact that I had just met this same lady the day before.

No less awkward was the woman in the hotel elevator at the same conference who asked me if I was Justin Bieber. I need a haircut STAT.

The Scary: "Son, you've got to learn to read better"

I love road trips. I love road trips that involve rest stops with family/unisex bathrooms even more. It may be stereotyping on my part, but I think that my heightened anxiety over gender-segregated public restrooms in places like rural Indiana is not without cause. On a road trip two summers ago, my partner and I stopped to use the bathroom somewhere in the rural Midwest. As I was walking towards the women's room, two burly-looking middle-aged guys standing outside the bathrooms started calling after me, "Hey, that's the women's bathroom." I ignored them and kept walking, assuming that once I walked into my selected bathroom and didn't come running right back out embarrassed, they'd realize they were mistaken and shut up about it. Wrong. I used the toilet, washed my hands and headed back outside and those guys were still standing there. As I was walking past them back to my car, they took a few steps towards me and said, "Son, you've got to learn to read better - that was the ladies' room." I could have just kept walking to the car, but I was really annoyed and despite my gay-bashdar rapidly escalating to high alert, I felt strangely bold. I turned around and said firmly, "I don't actually think it's any of your business which bathroom I use." To the dudes' credit, they were sorry - though not very gracefully - and we were on our way, but it's made me nervous about rest stop bathrooms ever since.

The Confusing: "Where's the rink!?"

This story isn't first-hand. It happened to a friend of mine, and it's pretty illustrative of what happens when people are so sure of what they're seeing and trying so hard to be helpful that they aren't actually listening to anything you're saying. I play on a women's ice hockey team and every winter we have the opportunity to play a fun game with a group of "mighty moms" at an outdoor rink nearby. The rink is a little hard to find and one of my teammates got lost on the way to our match last year. When she finally arrived at the right location, she couldn't find the rink itself, so she asked a lady in the parking lot for directions.

The lady told her, "Oh, the men's locker room is just over there," to which my friend responded, "Thanks, but where's the rink?"

The lady pointed and said, "Well, the men's locker room is right there."

My friend said "But where's the rink?"

The lady said, "You can see the men's locker room right there."

"That's nice," my friend said, "But where is the RINK?"


1 comment:

  1. I feel like sometimes people are being willful about missing other cues if someone doesn't nail particular parts of their checklist- when my sister was about six weeks old, my mother was out with her, dressed pretty much head to toe in frilly pink whatsits, and someone stops to coo at the baby. "How old is your son?" "Oh, she's my daughter, and she's about six weeks." "It's a girl? Why haven't you had her ears pierced?"
    Seriously. And that's with a baby, who so far as we know, aren't really capable of being offended or annoyed by being misidentified, and for whom clothing manufacturers have made it fairly difficult to NOT trumpet gender identity.

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