My gender changes when people are mad at me. Go figure. No, I am not some sort of human mood ring. I’m a middle-aged bureaucrat, albeit a gender-confused one. In fact I am not even really confused - it’s other people that find my gender confusing. Not everyone. Not the people that I meet on the street, because there’s nothing ambiguous about my appearance. I look like a woman. A butch dyke, perhaps, but definitely female.
The people close to me get confused, though. They know that I don’t think of myself as a woman, and that I prefer to be called ‘he’. I don’t tell this to everyone that I meet, because it invariably involves a ‘conversation’ that I don’t want to have. I don’t want to have that conversation with anyone, but I figure it’s not even worth having with most people - that they won’t understand and may not sympathise. I could be wrong about this. But there is some risk involved in testing that assumption, so I wear the repugnant pronouns. Yesterday, for example, someone called me ‘missy’. It was at the pub and it was someone I know slightly and it was all very light-hearted and a discourse about non-normative gender identification was just not going to fly.
But I do have that conversation with my close friends. They are the people who matter and it matters to me that I can tell them who I am and that they care. If they don’t then they are not my friends. I’m lucky that most of my friends are queer or trans and they are jiggy with that sort of thing.
It’s more complicated with girlfriends. I don’t have many, and that’s probably part of the reason. I’m not really trans, not really lesbian, not really queer, not really butch – just a bit of all of them, so it’s a niche market. Actually there’s no market: it’s more of a private-sale-by-arrangement situation. I’ve been around queer communities where butches get called ‘he’ all the time but that is not the case in Australia - here the average lesbian finds it pretty weird and threatening. Even the radical queer ones tend to find it a bit odd. They get confused by my failure to transition, I think. Because that’s what trans folk do – that’s what being trans is all about. And trans folk who have transitioned definitely expect me to. They are still waiting.
Some women that I’ve been with have struggled. They always insist that they are fine with it, but using the ‘he’ word seems to be difficult for them. Using it consistently or correctly in different contexts is even harder. This has created conflict at times, because I get a bit testy about it. ‘It doesn’t reflect on how I think of you,’ they say. ‘It’s just a habit, a linguistic rule that I’m used to.’ Surely it can’t be that hard, I say, to make an exception to a linguistic rule. The unspoken response is: you’re the one who’s making it hard. ‘You don’t expect people at work to call you “he”,’ they say. ‘I can’t, and that’s why it’s important that you do it.’ Sometimes they say, ‘It would be easier if you looked like a man,’ which takes us back to the start of the conversation. And so it goes.
On the other hand, some of the women I’ve been with have been great. They listen and they don’t have a problem with it and they are incredibly supportive and affirming. One woman I was with used to get so upset when she used the wrong pronoun that I ended up comforting her. She didn’t even know why she said that, she said, because she didn’t think of me as female at all. I was like, ‘Er...really?’ Because I don’t think I am very manly. But this woman thought that I am, that my innate masculinity was so obvious that she couldn’t think of me as anything but a man.
That all changed, though. I don’t know what changed her thinking about my innate masculinity, but it coincided precisely with us breaking up. When that happened, I stopped being a man. Whenever she talks about me now, she always refers to me as ‘she’ and as a woman. We don’t talk, so I haven’t had a chance to ask about it. It’s possible that she does this deliberately, to hurt me, but I doubt it. I mean, I’m sure that if she thought about it she would know that I hate it, but I suspect my feelings are not a priority for her.
I don’t know why my gender changed. Maybe she feels like she doesn’t need to keep up the pretence anymore. Maybe she felt like she was doing me a favour and she doesn’t feel like doing it anymore. Maybe she thought of me as female all along, while saying the exact opposite. Maybe she only said that stuff to please me. Maybe she doesn’t believe in all those things that she said she believes in.
I don’t know. But I do know that she’s not the only one who has changed my gender according to their mood. This has made me quite sceptical about the things that people say about my gender, even the positive affirming things. And quite depressed about my gender. It seems so untenable, to look one way and feel another.
Then, by chance, I was chatting to an old friend who is a trans guy. He transitioned years ago and has a beard and everything and I had almost forgotten that I ever knew him by a different name. He was in a relationship with a lovely woman for years and they had two kids. That relationship ended a year or so ago. Very sad. Very acrimonious. Recently, his six year old daughter told him, ‘When mumma gets mad she calls you a girl.’
So it’s not about me, I thought. And it’s not about how I look. Because if it can happen to him, it can happen to any trans person. Indeed, it could happen to anyone. It’s just that we don’t do that in our culture - we don’t get people’s gender wrong. Because it’s degrading. Gender is part of what it means to be human. Getting gender right is a human right. It only happens to trans people, because they don’t have the same rights as everyone else. Their human rights are optional.
‘It has happened to me before, years ago’ my friend said. ‘Back then I got very threatened and angry about it. But this time around I just find it kinda sad. And I feel a sense of pity toward my ex-partner, because it demeans her to do that. More than it demeans me.’