My Experience of “Awkward Gender Moments” Should Matter to People Other Than Me

The seemingly benign moments do in fact matter.
Publish date:
April 17, 2015
stereotypes, gender, lesbian, queer, Glbtq

My 27 birthday dinner was an awkward occasion, at least for me. My then girlfriend and now spouse and I were at an Italian place on the Upper West Side with my parents, my half brother, his wife, their two kids, and my brother’s mother-in-law. My dad had called ahead to say that we’d be celebrating the birthdays of his son and daughter since my brother and I were born 3 days (and 18 years) apart, and mid-October often finds us clinking glasses over a shared birthday meal out with family.

Wine was ordered for the table, and the server, a young guy in slacks, a white shirt, and a black tie, filled up glasses for everyone except my niece and nephew (who were 7 at the time) and me.

Now, you might think I should have felt flattered that at 27 someone assumed I was under 21, yet I wasn’t. In fact, this alcohol denial immediately made me uncomfortable. I knew that what was at work here didn’t prove that the anti-wrinkle cream I’d been using on and off for the last couple of years was working. Instead, I realized this was just another instance of gender confusion and that the server thought I was a teenage boy rather than a late-20s queer woman.

See, my girlfriend and I had recently relocated to NYC, where I’m from and she’d never lived, after 4 years of early to mid-twenties living in San Francisco. If you’ve never had the pleasure of San Francisco’s company, it’s small (relative to New York City or just about any other major metropolis), the food is delicious, and it’s a queer utopia (albeit largely white) of sorts. This is a place, at least between 2006 and 2010, before the Google buses were out in full gentrifying force, where it was impossible to walk a few blocks in the Mission, Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, SOMA, or the Castro (or possibly any part of the city) without seeing some variety of queer: trans, genderqueer, butch dyke, high femme lesbian, gay man, hipster gay man, drag queen, faux queen, and on and on. In fact, San Francisco got us so inundated with The Queer that New York City, northern Brooklyn to be precise, was something of a culture shock, where mainly straight-appearing people in dark clothes predominate. Where were the tattoos, the female-bodied people with hairy armpits and legs, the male-bodied people in skirts, the colorful costumes worn on the daily? They were back in San Francisco it seemed.

And ever since the move back east I’d found myself frequently entangled in what I like to call “awkward gender moments.” It might be the woman at the pizza shop who said, “Here’s your change, sir” and then blushed when I said “Thanks” and stuttered out “I mean, ma’am.” The surgeon at a hospital who assumed I was my aunt’s nephew instead of niece and then grew flustered and even indignant when she corrected him. (How could someone try to tell him that his assumptions about my gender had been “wrong”?) The bus driver who said, “Ma’am . . . Sir . . . Ma’am . . . Sir . . . Ma’am?” The guy at the airport who hollered, really beseeched me, that I was in danger of walking into the wrong (women’s) bathroom, as though there were something truly life and death at stake. (I just flat out ignored him.)

None of this is to say that my experience of the reactions of others to my gender has caused me serious harm. I’ve never been the victim (thankfully) of gender-incited physical violence. I’ve never been denied work (to my knowledge) because of what I look like. I’m white, educated, with money to burn—that helps.

What I have experienced, though, is a social investment in gender categorization and an interest and/or discomfort with gender non-conforming bodies that continues to astound and bewilder me. This gender categorization, which in my experience varies from bizarrely funny to anxiety inducing to outright infuriating, seems to fall into three scenarios:

1. When gender is “misunderstood” and the misunderstood (me) is waiting for the other shoe to drop (e.g. 27 birthday party at Italian restaurant). Note: Misunderstanding can be especially anxiety-inducing in front of relatives, at least if you’re me.

2. When you’ve been called out as one gender (interpellated in the parlance of Louis Althusser), but then the person who has gendered you becomes unsure and this uncertainty gets played out in public (Ma’am . . . Sir . . .Ma’am?).

3. When gender confusion gets antagonistic (see example below).

Now would probably be a good time to tell you what I look like. I’m 5’6’’, sometimes thin, sometimes less thin; my hair varies from short to grown-out-short; I wear men’s clothing and as tight a sports bra as I can handle (capacity for tightness depends on the day); and at age 27, at that birthday party on the Upper West, I was sporting the Justin Bieber hair swoop over the forehead that I was often attempting to get out of my eyes with a toss of the head (yes, friends made fun of me about this head toss and you can too).

All said, wasn’t I perhaps inviting these moments of gender confusion with my gender non-conforming appearance? To that I say, sure. Well, maybe. But then I’m also just being me. For anyone who knows me (probably even just a little) knows that, for better or worse, I don’t usually invite social unease. I’m that uptight person who gets anxious if I think my friends are talking too loudly at a restaurant. I’d sooner pretend (or pretend by remaining silent about my own queerness) that I’m straight than admit to being gay to conservative evangelical Christians.

Yes, I’m conflict averse. So, if I knew of a way to be (while still feeling that I looked good and was myself) that didn’t require awkward gender moments with strangers, I’d probably do it.

Beyond the socially awkward examples of gender confusion listed above, gender confusion in the year 2015 can also get downright aggressive. There was the time when a man (albeit probably drunk) complimented me on my shoes on the subway and after I said, “Thanks,” said, “You’re a sweetheart? I thought you were a guy.” He then continued to talk, while edging towards me across the two vacant seats that separated us, about his confusion about my body until I finally got up and switched cars. Or, more dramatically, there was the man who asked me the time in midtown, and then, looking too deeply into my face for comfort, started shouting, “Are you a boy or a girl? Just tell me!” and proceeded to follow me down the street with his questions about my gender (read: my body).

While admittedly there’s a range, and being shyly confused about someone’s gender isn’t the same thing as shouting at them on the street, the seemingly benign moments, along with the more obvious ones, do in fact matter. They are all anxiety inducing, for one. I’ve gone through phases where I attempted (rather unconvincingly, I’m told) to appear more feminine in order to avoid these awkward gender moments. I’ve also experimented with looking intently at servers, when out to dinner with family, with the idea that, if I force someone to really see me and move beyond obvious oversimplifications of gender (short hair=boy), then they will be made aware of the larger landscape of gender (including me) and either avoid gendering me or refer to me as female.

A friend of mine, a self-identified butch lesbian, finds the bathroom to be especially tricky, as many queers do. In order to avoid the discomfort and potential hostility of women thinking she’s in the wrong bathroom, she’s taken to announcing herself on visits to the public facilities by speaking (in her identifiably “woman’s” voice) as quickly as possible: “Looks like we’re out of paper towels!,” “Let me get this [the door],” or just a simple “Excuse me.” All this before her appearance—short hair, light mustache, men’s clothing, exquisitely androgynous face—becomes unsettling, as it has on many occasions.

But beyond the anxiety caused for the gender non-conforming by awkward gender moments, these instances of conscious or unconscious policing have the pernicious effect of creating a smaller gendered space for everyone to stand on. When “man” and “woman” are so defined that a dyke, trans person, genderqueer, etc. can’t go into a public bathroom without getting called out (or just getting The Look), then these categories are simply too limiting and EVERYONE becomes hemmed in to a socially-recognized version of “man” or “woman.” Judith Butler said it. Numerous other writers and scholars have said it.

Yet, what interests me particularly about these small and seemingly innocuous awkward gender moments (getting Sir Ma’am-ed), beyond their daily proof of the continued presence of restrictive gender categories, is the possibility they open up for change. Imagine if the excessively gendered language that happens in a restaurant or on a subway got omitted or at least decreased. Instead of saying “Excuse me, Ma’am” or “Sir” it could just be “Excuse me.” A friend who originally hails from Croatia tells me that English’s lack of non-gendered pronouns by which to address people is to blame. (In Croatian there is a well-integrated option of using a gender-neutral pronoun.) And many English-speaking writers, scholars, and activists have taken up this problem by creating new or altered language to refer to gender.

While I heartily support this project, I guess I’m also a small-minded realist because I’d personally just settle for omission. If you’re uncertain about a stranger’s gender, why go down the path of gendered language? It’s just awkward for everyone.

Back at the Italian place on my 27th birthday, the other gender shoe never dropped and I managed to pull off (a rare thing) my unintended performance of teenage boy for the entire evening. Our server indulged in highly gendered language throughout our long meal—“More water, sir?” “Would you like dessert, young man?” I remember that my brother was particularly amused and my mother either pretended not to notice or really didn’t notice. Yes, of course, the server was just trying to be polite—there’s a culture, particularly in restaurants, of using highly gendered speak. But, must we really be reminded of our perceived gender in every sentence?

Finally, two slices of cake were brought out and put before my girlfriend (the obvious choice for young woman) and my brother. Another honest mistake, I’m sure. My dad smiled. My brother giggled. I turned red, or even redder. My girlfriend slid the cake over towards me. Everyone sang. My brother and I blew out our candles and the evening was at last over.

When I think back now, four years later, to that 27 birthday, I’m left with the smallness of the gendered world of that restaurant that allowed the server to assume with such confidence and frequency that I was a boy. What a confining space it is to have just two options—man or woman—with each being so defined and oversimplified.

And then I consider all the times where the other shoe did in fact drop, which is most of the time, and someone else’s confusion about my gender got played out, in public. I’d like to think that those instances, while uncomfortable for me, push the envelope just a bit further by expanding our cultural understanding of “woman” and thus widening our gendered landscape. With greater understanding, maybe next time the person who “sir-ed” or “ma’am-ed” me with such authority will take the gender on that assumption down a notch.