Let me tell you a brief story: On Friday, I got paid for the month and was finally able to treat myself to something special - new hair! I’d been eyeing this particular wig for about a month - a short wavy look in the most gorgeous cool-blonde tones, just like every dream I’ve ever had of myself - and once I saw it had gone on sale for £20 off, I knew it was time to go for it. So I buy it and practically skip home to marvel at myself in the mirror. Trying it on for the first time at home, I almost cried with joy at how much like myself I looked, how beautiful and natural the lace front appeared. I couldn’t wait to wear it the next morning to my therapy appointment and then the riverfront festival in my city! So Saturday morning comes around - I pick out a nice outfit, spend some quality time in front of my mirror perfecting my make-up, pop my new hair on and style it just right, and head out the door to my appointment...
...And the very first thing, literally five feet from my front door, is this man dressed in a typical tradesman outfit (company polo shirt, beat-up work trousers, carrying some variety of toolbox). He looks at me and says “Excuse me sir, could you tell me which building is Mackenzie House?”. I think I managed to maintain a smile as I directed him the right way, but I couldn’t be sure since my face was burning and all I wanted to do was run away and hide. I manged to hurry along to my appointment, fighting back tears and feeling a bit deflated, playing the moment over and over again, the word “sir” burning its way into the back of my mind like someone stubbing a cigarette out on my forehead.
What gave me away? What did he see at first glance that coded me as “man” to him? I thought I looked good, especially with my new hair. I think, for trans people who are like me relatively new to going out as our preferred gender, this question sums up a lot of the anxieties and stresses about living with a body that is genetically designed to undermine our attempts at passing. Being misgendered, especially at a time when I felt most confident about my look, could have really ruined my weekend and sent me into a spiral of self-consciousness and dysphoria. It almost did...
...But, I have resolved to myself to keep a positive attitude to even the shittiest of moments. I asked myself, “What exactly about my look would give any reasonable person the idea that I want to be treated like a man? Why on Earth would this man look at me, in my cute little skirt, flawless makeup and gorgeous hair, and think that I want to be referred to as “sir”?”. If this bloke thought upon seeing me that I am a man, then that’s his misapprehension, not anything to do with me. 99% of people - everyone else who saw me that day - were correct in seeing me as a woman, and this one man’s mistake is absolutely meaningless to me. Rather than start checking myself and feeling self-conscious about passing, I remembered the night before and how I cried tears of unrestrained joy when I saw myself in the mirror with my new hair - I remembered all the encounters I’ve had where nobody, for a second, questioned my gender - I remembered that what matters most is how I feel about myself, not what others feel.
Later on, I thought about the man who called me “sir”. He wasn’t trying to be nasty, he was just lost and I happened to be the first person he saw. He didn’t single me out. Whether he clocked me as trans, or just had a slip of the tongue, I’m sure he heard the word just as loud and clear as I did. Both my therapist and my partner asked if I had said anything to correct him, and my partner in particular was angry that he would say something like that. I didn’t correct him, but I’m not angry, either. I hope - and I believe in my hope - that later on he thought about the encounter and maybe felt a bit embarrassed that he had called a woman “sir”. Or maybe he met his mates for an afternoon pint and had a laugh at my expense. The thing is, I don’t know how he felt. So I choose to believe it was a mistake and that I saved us both some embarrassment by brushing it off, because believing so is the most positive way I can react to this, and allows me to keep my faith in other people as strong as ever.
To close, I want to post this video that made the rounds last year of a speech by Irish drag queen and LGBT activist Panti Bliss. In it, she talks about being troubled by that same question: “What is it that gave me away?” It’s both deeply touching and rather funny, but it makes a very important point at the end.