Anvils or feathers – you decide

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.

Beware falling anvils

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.”

Tra la la

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.

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19 responses to “Anvils or feathers – you decide

  1. If its any consolation I always knew you were a girl :)

  2. I love your story, again. How’s your book coming along???

  3. Susie Martin-Wilson

    Joy, I never thought in all the years we grew up together, that you reminded me of a boy! You were a tomboy. I liked that in you. Could I ask, at what age that you felt you were different? I love you for who you are. When I saw you at your mom and dad’s birthday party, I thought you looked great. I didn’t see a man. I saw a woman. I wouldn’t care what people think. Your beautiful inside and out. Love Ya, Susie (Your old time friend)

    • Susie, you are so sweet. Since I was the only girl child in our family, I always felt different! It was a real whiplash kind of experience to go from being different because I WASN’T a boy (within our family) to being different because people thought I WAS a boy. Or at least teased me for looking “like a boy.” I think that adolescence in general is, for a lot of people, a struggle to find a place to fit in, and my struggle was kind of summed up by people either not liking me because I was a non-traditional girl, or not believing that I was a girl to begin with.

      Thank you for being such a steadfast friend for so many years.

  4. I love the Cowboy Junkies, and that song especially. They were in Houston this summer and drew an appreciative crowd.
    I am often confused with someone who must have played basketball in college. Perhaps it is a polite way for people to say “my but you are freakishly tall”. Not to equate that with gender confusion, but snap judgements are all around us. I make a few myself.

    • You mean you DIDN’T play basketball in college? (:

      And of course, you’re spot on about the snap judgments. To paraphrase my dad, I made a snap judgment once, back in 1971…

      It’s always a pleasure to read your comments, Steve. Thanks for chiming in.

  5. When your mom strode from the hospital delivery room carrying you, she presented you to me, and smilingly said, “We finally got our little girl!”
    On hearing this, I intuitively knew that you were female. I’ve never wavered in that conviction even to this day; I still make snap judgments all the time.

  6. Dick – Let me get this straight. Barb popped out a baby, jumped up, grabbed the baby, STRODE out of the delivery room and presented the baby to you. I knew she was tough, but….

  7. “Tough” is mild. I forgot to mention that with her free hand she was wheeling a gurney on which lay the exhausted ob-gyn who had delivered Joy. And here we are some 51+ years later, and Barbara’s getting tougher by the hour.
    (Seriously, she did exactly as I said in my first comment.)

  8. Oops! Forgot another detail. The hospital administrator, Mr. Deaver, happened by just as Barb came bounding out of the delivery room, and immediately passed out. His fall shook the gurney, the ob-gyn rolled off onto the floor, striking a stack of bedpans awaiting cleaning. Barb had violated hospital rules, for sure, and was oblivious to all the commotion she’d caused.

  9. I have never seen you except in photos, but I daresay I don’t think I’d mistake you for a man.
    As a kid, I wasn’t ever mistaken for a boy but I never, ever wore “girl” clothes unless I absolutely had to, which seemed to peeve some of my aunts. In fact, for Christmas one year, my dad’s sister made a big deal of sending me a “party dress”. I remember my parents laughing over that one…

  10. You were the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen, which is often the case with a newborn whose mother doesn’t have anesthesia. You remain beautiful through and through. I am so grateful for you,my poet daughter. You lift my heart on a day when we are grieving at the death of a young man who could no longer want to live. Thank you for your honesty, your gifts, your beauty, your love.

  11. I hadn’t heard this whole story before…the best part of course is your response and the way you laugh at the ridiculousness of it all..as if it matters really what gender we are anyway. I think being confused is good for Joe, confusion will lead to curiosity perhaps…. Once my son said to me..you are a lawyer? ..girls can’t be lawyers! I was of course astonished and laughed and said but they can, and both of his moms are lawyers, and his doctor is a woman, and grandma is a lawyer. Anyone can be anything they want and gender makes no difference. And so I think he gets it and then he goes to school or watches somethign on tv and learns a lot of crap..he hugged one of his boy best friends and this other boy called him gay….so needless to say it takes a village..sometimes its a great village and some mes it’s not so great. You are the other hand are always great. As is your blog. xx

  12. That same year I came in third in the county meet in butterfly, at 14, I was co-swimmer-of-the-year with the teammate I edged out. Guess who got the boy figurine on top of the trophy, (complete with cheesy remark from the coach.) Oh well. (True, I was rocking the chop-it-all-off hairdo, when all around me raged the Farrah Faucett thing.)
    You are, by the way, a striking woman.

  13. that waiter story is too funny. you’re a good mom. and a good guest. i gathered all that from this one little post. of course, i had a hunch.

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