I've had transgender issues on the brain lately because my girlfriend B and I were recently traveling through southern California, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. B is tall, broad-shouldered, wears Carhartts and either "nice" tee-shirts or hiking/soil sampling/exercise tee-shirts. When she cut off her ponytail a year ago to allow her curls to breathe freely in a short haircut, her position in our gendered world shifted.
Even in San Francisco, the city that embraces the alternative, that doesn't make assumptions, people still call her Sir, or politely direct her to the male bathroom. In the Southwest, land of small towns, Mormons and ATV-riders, her gender was mistaken many more times. Restaurant waitstaff would come to our table and not know how to proceed; calling us "folks" or "you two" until finally getting enough time to analyze B to say "girls" or "ladies." It became a joke to see how many gender-neutral references it would take for them to figure it out. People stared at B wherever we went (usually with curiosity, not malice).
There were two bathroom incidents; one in Bakersfield, CA where a drunk woman yelled at B, "you're in the wrong place, fool!" B continued walking into the stall that was rightfully hers. In Denver, CO, a woman was flabbergasted to see B exit the women's room, saying, "Oh I must have the wrong one!" then quickly realized her mistake and bashfully tried to explain.
Luckily, this all does not perturb B enough to want to change anything about herself. But it is amazing to think about all the little shortcuts of identifying gender that we use and that we cling to. For example, I would posit that B would almost never get Sir-ed if she: wore a headband, wore tighter shirts, wore deep-cut v-necks, plucked her eyebrows, wore skinny jeans, wore ballet flats, or didn't wear baseball caps. Each of these things is a minor change of appearance, yet they each act as signifiers of gender in our culture, signifiers that our waiters and waitresses were seeking and could not find.
I love that B confuses the general public. I love that she could do any one of those tiny feminizing things, but she doesn't, because it's not her. I love that she challenges assumptions. I also love that she will think this blog post is over-analytical: to her it's simply what she likes to wear and how she likes to look. Period.
(Photo from the restaurant Glo in Seattle, I love it.)