Since sometime in high school, maybe junior high, I have been mistaken for being male on a regular basis. This has resulted in some episodes that range from frightening to gut-bustingly funny. Generally, the funny episodes have been much funnier in retrospect than they have been at the time. Although that day when I was noticeably pregnant and wearing a maternity dress, and I passed an elderly couple on the street and heard the old man point exclaim to his female companion, “That man over there was wearing a DRESS!!”, well, that was every bit as hilarious at the time as it continues to be in retrospect.As an adolescent, other people’s confusion about my gender usually felt heavy and traumatic to me. One advantage of being in my 50s is that I just don’t care that much anymore. I don’t care that some women get freaked out when I walk into the women’s bathroom at the rest stops on the Jersey Turnpike. I don’t care that some women think I’ve entered the wrong dressing room when I go to try on clothes. Somewhere along the way I stopped feeling crushed by the burden of other people’s mistakes around assessing my gender, maybe because I have never been able to accurately predict when it would happen. Or maybe 50 is simply the threshold for not caring when people can’t figure out my gender.
This same gender confusion gets projected onto GForce, too, and has since her infancy. When she was a baby, I always assumed that the mistake was because we didn’t put bows in her hair, or dress her in pink all the time. We mostly dressed her in bold colors — reds, blues, blacks and greens — and once, when she was 2 months old, a woman in a checkout line turned to see her and exclaimed, “Why you go puttin’ lipstick on that boy???”
I assured the woman that 1) GForce was a girl and 2) she was NOT wearing lipstick. Undeterred, the woman turned back to her stuff on the conveyor belt and muttered, “Never seen nothin’ like this! Lipstick! On a BOY!”
About six years ago, all of us except Sheerah (who was away at college) were out for an Easter dinner together, near Lulu’s high school in central Massachusetts. The restaurant was fairly fancy, so we were all dressed up, and the waiter was trying extra hard to be fancy-restaurant-waiter. As he was taking our orders, he got to GForce and said, “And what would you like, young man?” GForce looked at me, wide-eyed and flushed with embarrassment and panic. I touched the waiter on the arm and said, “She’s a GIRL.” The waiter blushed and apologized to GForce, to me, and to everyone at the table. GForce gave him her order, and he sort of bowed to her and said, “Thank you MA’AM!”
Fancy-restaurant-waiter then turned to me and said, “And you, sir, what would you like to order?”
We all cracked up, and I took great delight in seeing GForce’s discomfort transformed into laughter, with the relief of not being the only person dealing with other people’s confusion about her gender.
A couple of days ago I was visiting some long-time friends and former neighbors in Northern Virginia. They have a 10-year-old son who is delightfully direct, ebullient, and utterly charming. Let’s call him Joe. Joe and I began the evening by meeting out on the sidewalk in front of his house. It was dusk, and we were under a canopy of trees, so the light was muddled and dim. Joe ran up to me.
Joe: Hi! I’m Joe, who are you?
Me: My name’s Joy. Nice to meet you, Joe!
Joe: [Furrowed brow. Frowned.] Well Joy, I was sure you were a MAN! You LOOK [he looked me up and down] like a MAN!
Me: Yeah, lots of people say that. But I really am a woman.
Joe: I think you look like a MAN!
Me: I assure you, I am a woman.
Joe: Well, Joy, if you wore more LADYlike clothes and if your hair was [paused and assessed my hair] a lot less SPIKY, maybe then I wouldn’t be so confused.
Me: Well, Joe, these are actually women’s clothes. And my hair just spikes all on its own. That’s just how it goes.
After we went into the house, Joe continued, “Now that the light is better, and I can see you clearer, you look EVEN MORE like a MAN to me!”
I had not seen this coming, so I guffawed. Silly me — I had been expecting the light to HELP his discernment of my womanly figure! But, as I said before, I have never been able to predict the circumstances under which people will discern my gender correctly. So I just said through my chuckling, “Well, I’m STILL a woman.”Joe chirped, with an enthusiastic shrug, “And I’M still CONFUSED!” And that was that. Confusion named and brushed aside. We enjoyed a fun evening together, with Joe proudly showing off his prodigious skills at some incomprehensible (to me) video game. The subject of my gender never came up the rest of the time. I haven’t enjoyed someone’s confusion over my gender this much since that man saw me pregnantly waddling down the street in a tent-sized maternity dress and mistook me for a cross-dresser.
Here’s to burdens that fall more like feathers and less like anvils: they’re easily shrugged off and nobody gets flattened.