With my hair piled high in a bun, manicured nails and a penchant for walking down the pavement as though I were on Tyra’s runway on America’s Next Top Model, many aren’t surprised when I say I’m often mistaken for a woman – they are, however, surprised that I’m not insulted by this. Grab a drink and read along, as I take a few (long) posts to explore my relationship with this increasingly frequent phenomenon in my life.
One day, not too long ago at the day job, I went to the toilet. After I’d finished my business, I stood at the sink washing my hands. I was looking down at them, making sure I wasn’t slopping soapy water all over myself when I heard the doors open behind me. As the person opening them stepped through, I heard his terrified cries: “Oh! Oh, sorry! Sorry! I’m so sorry!” Turning on a sixpence, he scrambled to leave the toilets, quickly pulling the doors closed behind him.
As I heard him enter the adjacent toilets, I realised that he wasn’t intimidated by my natural beauty, grace and style, but had thought he’d walked into the female toilets – something he had in fact done after running away from me. I dried my hands for much longer than usual that day, hoping someone would walk in on him next door and start a Carry On-style scene. When my fingernails were red hot from the dryer and I’d not yet heard anything, I returned to my desk disappointed.
Chalking up yet another unintentional gender-bend, I realised that if I’d had a pound for every time I’ve been believed to be a woman over the last 10 years, I could put down the deposit for someone’s reassignment surgery.
It easily happens once a week, and often more. Guards hold trains for ‘the young lady running down the platform’; elderly gentlemen hold doors open for me and give me a cheeky wink as I skip through; charity fundraisers shout ‘Hey, miss! Miss’ as they rush towards me in the street, and when I’m out with my mother, people remark that her daughter looks so much like her. Oh, and I was once accosted by a drunk lesbian in a club who initially refused to believe I was male, and then spent the next 20 minutes telling me how ‘fucking unfair’ it was that she couldn’t find a woman who looked like me. She seemed really nice, and I ended up feeling so bad for having a penis, I bought her a Smirnoff Ice by way of an apology.
It doesn’t matter what I look like, before you ask me how often I step outside the flat in my pink cardigan, floral neckerchief and coral lipstick combo – some years ago, a sales assistant had a conversation with me as I bought a can of anti-perspirant, calling me ‘madam’ and telling me all about their new make-up and skincare range… All the time, I stood in front of her in jeans and a t-shirt with a week’s worth of stubble on my face. I can only presume that her cataracts surgery had been scheduled for the following day.
Being confused for a woman has never bothered me; however, others’ reactions to my experiences have. Many appear as though they’re on course for a good old-fashioned fit of the vapours. ‘How terrible for you!’ they gasp – ‘How embarrassing for you!’ They tell me how offended I should have been, and exactly how big a piece of my mind I should have given to the person who dared presume I was a woman. They tell me how sorry they are that I should have to suffer this indignity, and then wait patiently for me to thank them for their support and to express my dismay and disgust at my cruel treatment by the World.
Others congratulate me on being thought a woman. ‘Ah, well done!’ they say, ‘you must be quite proud!’ These are amongst the people who believe the essence of being gay is a desire to be closer to being a woman than a man, and that being mistaken for a woman means I must be doing it right. A few take it a step further, encouraging me to seek out further situations in which I might be believed to be a woman, as they believe that I would, in fact, like to be a woman, and that I am intentionally trying to pass for one as a first step on a lengthy transition.
I’m pretty ambivalent to being thought a woman. It’s become an expected, routine and typical part of my existence and my experiences. I must admit, however, to feeling satisfied that my physical presence, for whatever reason, challenges people’s perceptions of sex and gender based on physical presence. I’m also quite amused by the obvious discomfort many feel if and when they realise I’m not a woman, but I’m sure such wickedness comes from my British sense of humour rather than a derangement or demonic possession.
However, my schadenfreude is short-lived, as I quickly realise, every time I hear the word ‘sorry’ in this context, that that person saying it is apologising because they think they’ve called me ‘a bad thing’. And I don’t consider ‘woman’ to be ‘a bad thing’, which is why I don’t care if I’m confused for one. ‘Woman’ is not an insult. You don’t whisper ‘woman’ about work colleagues at the water cooler. You don’t see ‘woman’ splashed across the pages of gossip magazines. You don’t hear ‘woman’ screamed across kebab shops at half-past kicking-out time. When I explain this to people, and that I genuinely don’t care about being confused for a woman, the reactions vary from audible sighs of annoyance and frustration that my reaction doesn’t meet their expectations to declarations laden with pity and sadness for my ‘internalised homophobia’ – although I must confess to not understanding how they can come to that conclusion in this context.
Typically, I exit those conversations raising the possibility of their ‘internalised misogyny’. Do they believe ‘woman’ to be an insult because it denotes emotional, intellectual and physical weakness in others? Do they believe that to be ‘woman’ is to characterise anger, betrayal, greed, impatience, irrationality, jealousy and mistrust? ‘Of course not’, they cry, for it’s a wonderful thing for a woman to be a woman. But, for a man to be a woman… Well, this remains an abomination.
To be continued…