Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011


by Natalie Wendt

On my first day alone in India, a man mistook me for a boy. I was twenty-three and had never before faced any confusion about my preferred pronoun. I was trying to look modest and semi-monastic on my Buddhist pilgrimage. The man took in my buzzed haircut, loose trousers and union-made button-down shirt, the absence of make up or jewelry along with my skinny arms and short stature, and saw a boy of eleven or twelve. He believed this for only a few minutes before something gave me away, and he said, with a bit of surprise and scolding, “I thought you were a boy!” I was unsure what to make of his misunderstanding or his need to tell me. Two days later I bought a demure salwar kameez and my womanhood has never again been questioned.

It’s strange to me that in twenty-eight years, I’ve been read as anything but female exactly once. I’ve worn boys’ clothes, shaved my head repeatedly, and for a brief time, actively strived for butchness and androgyny. I was a late bloomer, knob-kneed and almost breast-less until high school. As a young woman, I devoted myself to trapeze for a year, flaunting defined biceps and rope burns. No matter what I wear or what I do, though, my femininity is obvious to the world.

This is not true of other aspects of my identity. People regularly mistake or wonder intrusively about my age, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, nationality, and even race. Perceptions of these vary by context and the person who is looking. Traveling on four continents and living in five states, I have been seen as Persian, Turkish, Chicana, half-Indian, Spanish, French, Native American, Jewish, Eurasian, and generically white American. People have assumed I’m a straight girl, a dyke, queer, bi in mostly straight way, bi in a mostly gay way, and bi in a mostly bi way. In high school people sometimes thought I was in college, and teaching elementary school right out college, people thought I was a sixth grader. Yet save the once, my gender has always been easily and correctly understood.

This is not a complaint. Other than my awkward coming out, I have consistently leaned heavily toward the stereotypically feminine. I loved princess dresses and pink as a child, and as an adult I claim my femme identity with relish and pride. Facing so many questions about who and what I am, it is a relief to never need to correct the pronouns someone applies to me. I value my gender visibility and recognize my cisgender privilege. I particularly appreciate when I am quickly read as femme in queer community. Being female is my constant place, my permanent and solid identity, no matter where I am or in what other ways I am seen and not seen.

But why is this so clear the world over for me, when it is decidedly not for many people I know? My straight younger sister’s pixie cut in junior high had people calling her “he” for over a year. My female friends with height and broad shoulders have all experienced at least a mistaken “sir” or two. Skinny male friends fond of tight jeans and shaggy haircuts have stories of drive-by sexual harassment from men who believed them to be teenage girls. This doesn’t even touch all the people I know who gender outside the lines, who are trans or genderqueer or in anyway beyond the images assigned to the gender they were raised. They are misnamed and misplaced as frequently as I am called “Miss.” What is it about my gender that makes it easier for everyone to locate than other genders? What makes this part of me obvious everywhere when much of identity shifts depending on the situation, without my control?

For me, traveling alone meant taking advantage of this flexible self and figuring out how to be an “appropriate” woman in different communities. I learned how to get the information and assistance I needed, and I learned to do this as a woman. In some places batting my eyelashes implied sexual interest that I did not have, while in Italy it was difficult to discover the bus schedule without meaningless flirting. In some cultures people came to the aid of a pretty young female crying and acting helpless, while in others such a sight was not met with patience or sympathy. Many parts of myself could be finessed to blend in, and it was easier to allow strangers to see what they wanted. I tried not to dress like a tourist, to learn basic words and phrases to avoid forcing everyone to speak English with me, and went along as best I could. But I was also, except for that single encounter in Bangalore, always seen as female. Unable to disguise this or move outside of gender, I studied what local women did, how they dressed and spoke and placed themselves in their environment, and worked with these rules as I understood them.

My adolescence, on the other hand, was a long rebellion against these kinds of rules. Traveling, I passed through, adopting and dropping habits and customs and identities as a performance separate from my true self. My first eighteen years were spent stuck in a town with more cows than people, where every phase and experiment was remembered and attached to you for life. I could not pretend and understand myself to be pretending there, even if it was safer or less complicated, because doing so seemed to be nodding in agreement. I could not subvert or play the rules I was given, at least not as a teenager. So I pushed and fought and left, and increasingly did not come back.

I am about to visit my Idaho hometown for the first time in five years, and I am bringing my gender variant girlfriend with me. It is not a completely safe thing to do. Racist and anti-Semitic violence thrives, and homophobic harassment is probable bordering on certain. That is, if we are seen as queer. “Dyke” in Lewiston, Idaho, means not truly female, not conforming to visible femininity. If I walk through my hometown alone and say nothing, the dangers I face are about being seen as Jewish or foreign or possibly a person of color. I will probably receive unwanted and potentially aggressive male sexual attention if I go without a man. But with my long hair and skirts and globally agreed upon femaleness, I won’t be seen as a lesbian, and by myself most likely won’t be harassed as one.

I experienced homophobia in high school, mostly when I cut my hair off to come out. It wasn’t my actual same-sex desire, though, that people seemed to have a problem with. It was my feminism, my politics, my insistence that I was smart, my refusal to fawn over boys as they stared at my legs but ignored my words. When I was loud or opinionated, when I didn’t yield the floor to males, I was called a dyke or a bitch. When I simply kissed a pretty girl, no one seemed to mind as long as I was pretty too. An effeminate gay male friend received death threats at our school, and eventually a brutal beating by our peers. I was kicked and shoved in the hallways in eighth grade too, but not when I came out. The violence against me occurred only when a Christian fundamentalist teacher asked me my religion and then announced it to several classes where I was not present, without my knowledge or consent. My queer identity didn’t spark this kind of response, especially after I grew my hair into a bob and started wearing earrings again.

My girlfriend, though, has a gender that’s harder to place. She is mistaken for a boy more than I would expect, her short hair and preference for men’s clothes overriding her generous breasts or less than generous height. In Idaho, she will either be perceived as a dyke or as a boy. The latter is undoubtedly safer for us, and she has said that during our visit, she hopes to pass as male while I hope to pass as straight, both of us disconnected from our identities during our stay.

She says it doesn’t bother her if others stumble over her pronouns. She likes her gender ambiguity, that people don’t automatically place her as female. But being placed as male is not what she wants either, and this can challenge even the sympathetic. Well-meaning people have offered their support for her masculinity without affirming her identification as female. She once dated a woman who told her that if she were a guy, she’d be perfect. Sometimes when she is mistaken for male, people seem pleased with her gender. It is when she corrects them, when she does not hunch her shoulders so her heart and breasts collapse into her chest, that people get less comfortable.

I love her femininity, so private and so tender, and I love that it is not for public consumption. I love that she can embody aspects stereotypically masculinity without being male or embodying all of it. There is little space for all this in the world. She cannot perform as an “appropriate” straight woman in Lewiston, so the closest safe gender is male. It is not only small-town Idaho where this occurs, where people misplace her gender and by extension, her. The place where I am forever located is the place she is most commonly dislocated.

I don’t know what it is about me that makes me notably female in dozens of different cultures, or how much of this was that I do not know how to ape maleness the way I imitated a language or local style of dress. Perhaps I could have gone through India playing a young boy if I had studied maleness and hadn’t bought culturally appropriate women’s clothing. Maybe being female is too central to how I had already learned to be seen or to see myself, and I could not relinquish this even in playful exploration. I know, though, that even I when I was not trying to present as a particular gender, I was placed as female. It is where I fall by habit and by natural inclination both. The small box of what women are told to be is uneasy and unfair, and I also look like I fit there even if I have chafed against it. I did not play by the rules for girls in my hometown, and I also did not try to be a boy. I presented in the ways that appealed to be, followed my interests, and so I was understood as a strange girl, a bitch, a dyke, incorrectly female, but female still. Despite my efforts, I can’t parse out why gender is a constant location for me but not for others. I don’t how much of this is my willingness or ability to adjust other aspects of my identity for the situation but not to adjust my gender. I only know that this is what I have to work with, a fact everyone can readily agree upon about me, when other things about me are not revealed so easily.

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