I realized last week that I’d gone an entire day in which I was not gendered as female in any interaction (out loud anyway).
Once I noticed that, I realized that I can’t exactly remember the last time I was.**
While I can’t pinpoint when, I do know that there was a stretch where I was only perceived as female when I was with my kids. When you are out and about with kids, especially kids on strange cargo bicycles (which we are a lot), people talk to you. They also talk to your kids. They say things like “Wow, aren’t you lucky your mom has such a cool bike!”
One time Leigh was with me during such an interaction. I just smiled and didn’t say anything, but as we left, she said something like “Well, she didn’t know you were my dad, but we’re probably not going to see her again so I don’t think we need to explain.” Smart kid. Way to pick your battles.
But even that has faded. I won’t be surprised if it still happens sometimes, but I don’t think most people see a mom when they see me with my kids. I’m not sure who they see. I look way too young to have kids the ages my kids are, at least if I’m read as male (I’m consistently carded, still pretty low on facial hair, and you have to look awfully closely at my face to see that I have wrinkles no 18 y.o. would ever have). Maybe they see a babysitter, or a big brother or a cousin. I have no idea.
I feel a lot more confidence in those one-off interactions now — buying the coffee, handing over my ticket on the train. I didn’t realize until now that I had been approaching these interactions defensively — wondering whether this stranger will say “maam,” feeling like every simple interaction had an extra layer of complexity. It’s only now I can see that this comfort has grown incrementally, almost imperceptably, so that I don’t know when it actually started, when I stopped wondering what the train conductor or barista was thinking.
But those interactions don’t form the core of my life. The interactions that matter so much more are those with my family, with our friends, people in our schools and neighborhood, my work colleagues. In those interactions there is so much more variation. How people know and see me is so heavily weighted by history. I’ve not experienced any overt hostility, and by now, even the few folks who struggled on pronouns are pretty much on board. But there is also a big variation in how thoroughly people seem to have made the shift. I can’t always put a finger on it, but there are some people I can tell truly get it, that they have shifted how they understand me as a person, and truly see me as a guy, at least much of the time.
This has been true in my own immediate family for a long time (though with changes over time), but how can I really tell with everyone else? Well. Most of the time I can’t, or only have my gut sense, my ease in any interaction, to go by. But every now and then I have interactions that give hints. A work friend and I were talking about future plans, and he said “remind me how old you are again?” I told him and then he laughed to himself, “Oh, that’s kind of funny, I can ask how old you are now. You can’t really ask women that.” Whether or not you agree it’s appropriate or inappropriate to ask a woman’s age, it was a moment where he noticed in retrospect that he saw me differently, that our interactions had shifted in a small but perceptible way.
Overall, I’ve started to notice a few friend and colleague relationships that have “clicked,” that don’t carry a constant background calculation regarding what gender someone perceives when they interact with me. When that background calculation is present, it’s not something I can turn off (or at least I haven’t figured out how, perhaps that will also come with time). Many relationships still have a ways to go, but I didn’t anticipate that this particular “arrival,” however slight, was possible. I truly needed to transition in place. We weren’t going to pick up and move, and I was going to continue at the same job, so I thought I was going to be stuck with my gender hanging over every interaction from here on out. There are still many times it does, enough that I truly understand why some people move or change jobs, but for now, I’m appreciating the shift that has come.
** Well, that was true when I wrote this, but then Gail I hung out with a big group of queers we didn’t know over the weekend, and they clearly read me (at first) as a lesbian. To their credit, they got it right a couple beats later.