Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Invisible Queers: Age and ambiguity in the gender binary

I've mentioned before that I'm often mistaken for younger than I am.  Just a few years ago, being mistaken for a teenage boy was a common - sometimes near daily - experience for me.  More recently, that's lessened a bit, which has been a relief.  Still, it happens often enough to be frustrating, and the ways in which it happens lead to further frustration, since people's assumptions often come across as awkward at best and rude or insensitive at worst.

Just the other night, I was out with my partner and a friend of ours and our friend ordered a bottle of wine for the table.  The waiter said nothing to any of us about our ages when we ordered the wine, but when she was bringing us glasses, she hesitated to give me one.  As she was putting the glasses down, she looked at me and said, "Um, do you get one, too?"  Exasperated and totally out of patience for this kind of bullshit, I provided a rather curt response (which I later felt bad about - the result of my Midwestern upbringing and my sympathy for the fact that food service is hard, hard work...).  The waiter fumbled for words and ended up telling me I look young in an attempt to turn her faux pas into a compliment.  After my table-mates and I got over the awkwardness of the moment, my partner pointed out that her approach to the situation was not only awkward and offensive to me, but also had the backhanded effect of implying that my partner and our friend looked old (or at least too old to be carded).  All bad.  The unfortunate waiter could have easily solved any doubts she had from the get-go by asking everyone at the table to show ID when we had first ordered the wine.  Perhaps it's not common practice for her to do so, but given our waiter's confusion about me, doing so in that case seems like an obvious solution.

In other posts I've expressed frustration about this same sort of "mistaken identity" that I'm often the victim of.  I've been mistaken for my younger brother by friends of my parents, mistaken as the son of more than one co-worker by others, and mistaken for a "kid" in all manner of places.  I've come to realize that aside from the fact that there are usually simple solutions folks could employ to determine my status as an adult before inserting both feet directly into their mouths, the real reason I get angry when this happens is that people might more readily see an adult when they look at me were they expecting to see queer bodies in their midst.  When people look at me and see a boy or a "kid" it's not just because I look young or chose to wear a baseball cap or a t-shirt that day (plenty of other adults look youngish and wear hats and short sleeves everyday), but because they aren't looking for genderqueer folk.  It's almost hard to get mad at the individual people who do this because their brains are on autopilot.  They are looking for adult masculine (enough) men and adult feminine (enough) women.  Anyone who does not fit obviously into either category must be a child or youth.  Even people who know and love LGBT people don't always seem to have interrogated their assumptions on this.  People just aren't looking for gender non-conformity.  So where does that leave us gender ambiguous folk - especially those of us who have yet to earn the wrinkles and gray hair that come with age?  For the time being, it seems to leave us relegated to the margins of adulthood.  I used to largely ignore people who mistook me for a teenager or kid, but I've resolved to stop doing that in an effort to signal that not only do I exist, but that they should be on the look out for me and others like me.

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