“Excuse me, but are you a…?”

I’ve been wanting to write about gender hell for a while now, and Twisty gave me the opportunity this morning. Apparently, Stingray, a dear friend of Twisty’s, got called out in the women’s bathroom. Twisty describes Stingray’s sartorial sensibility thusly:

Though Stingray is—to borrow a lunkheaded monosyllabic qualifier from Hub (you remember old Hub, the guy whose blogger wife famously opined that a post-nuptial weight gain is the moral equivalent of a vinyl siding swindle)—hot, she does not practice femininity. Her unwillingness to capitulate to the sexbot mandate is, frankly, a danger to the kidneys of certain members of certain classes.


Now, Stingray’s nemesis fled the scene, rather than saying something nasty or fetching security to throw Stingray out. I and virtually every other gendervariant person alive has encountered all three reactions, and some of us have been physically harmed; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a bathroom story. (My favorite one has to be the woman who saw me topless and pre-everything in the women’s locker room and asked, “Are you a man?”)

A side-discussion has erupted in comments over why women feel threatened by appearances like Stingray’s, what precisely it is that they’re reacting to. Here’s just one comment:

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the idea that women find the idea of women who look “manly” threatening. I think it’s because to them all men are threatening, and the momentary presumption of lurking male presence in one of the few male-free zones available could give them one of those nasty startled flashes that seem so much worse than the circumstances that caused them.

I must respectfully disagree. A woman who calls out someone like Stingray in the women’s bathroom is not reacting to perceived maleness. Why? Well.

As someone who passes as male, I have encountered that reaction too. There’s a stark difference between it and what Stingray received, to wit: When a woman thinks she is looking at and talking to an actual man, she immediately apologizes to him for her error. If a woman walks into a clearly-labeled women’s bathroom and sees an apparent guy washing his hands at the sink next to three women, she will still assume that she is either in the wrong bathroom or that he has made a totally honest and understandable mistake.

The perceived guy in this situation is almost never treated with suspicion, let alone hostility. He’s a man. He can’t be in the wrong. I know (knew, since I haven’t used the woman’s can in a long time) that a woman really thinks I’m a dude when she either covers herself in shame or walks back out to check the sign again. Ironically enough, some of the only women who do feel empowered to throw the bum out are butch dykes.

Now, there’s another side to this, which is the reaction you sometimes get when you don’t seem to be bucking gender trends on purpose. If you seem like a nice girl who’s just a little tall or slender or mannish or clumsy or with one of those short haircuts they have these days–but it’s not your fault!–the script will read as follows:

“Oh! Excuse me, are you a–Oh. Oh, I am so sorry. I’m so sorry. I just–it’s dark in here, and you’re so tall–but you’re pretty! You’re really–you’re just beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful girl. And ha, I’m just, bear with me, you know? I’m an old lady. But you’re–you look fine. Just fine.”

Stingray, on the other hand, is an obvious malcontent who must be punished. I don’t think the other woman was fooled for a second. She knew exactly whom she was looking at, and exactly what she was doing.

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9 comments for ““Excuse me, but are you a…?”

  1. Azarnes
    April 24, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    Yes, exactly. If a woman thinks the individual in question is actually male, she will apologize, check the door, or yell for a cop. A non-conforming woman ( as a butch, I qualify) gets the thrice over, and the rude questions, with the sickening post-script- ‘really, you’re quite pretty!” No, I’m a lineback. I look like Wolverine, not Jessica Simpson. And guess what? It is no compliment to me to say I look pretty despite eveything about me- body, build, stance, haircut, expression, clothing, mannerisms. That is all deliberate. Why would I want to be working against everything I am presenting? Just call be sir and have done with it.

  2. zuzu
    April 24, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    I got mistaken for a man quite often when I had short hair. I don’t dress particularly butch, either. It was one thing when people saw me from the back, because I am both big and tall, but what got me was the people who could see my face, see that I was, say, wearing rather large earrings, and see my tits! I mean, you can’t miss the tits.

    I guess I just didn’t fit in the box people wanted me to be in, so they zeroed in on one or two features and assigned me a gender based on that.

  3. April 24, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    I’ve done the double take a few times in the restroom, but it’s not hard to make a quick assessment. If the person, who looks like a guy, isn’t leering at me, then I usually assume the person’s a woman.

  4. Sjofn
    April 24, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    Now I’m wondering if I would be mistaken for a guy if I just cut my hair short (I don’t like how I look with short hair, though, I blame the hideous Dorothy Hamil haircut I had in fifth grade). ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that’s the only blatant HELO I AM A WOMAN signal I’m left with these days.

    A tempting experiment!

  5. Nymphalidae
    April 24, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    I don’t understand why people care. There are stalls…people aren’t going to see your parts. I grew up sharing locker rooms with boys because girls weren’t common enough in hockey to warrent making locker rooms for us. It wasn’t really a big deal, it was just how it was. People should stop being prudes.

  6. NancyP
    April 25, 2006 at 12:55 am

    I (slightly femme female) feel worse walking into the guy’s bathroom by mistake, because they DON’T have stalls, and I don’t want to get some shy guy’s sphincter clamped down midstream. I have always expected men to be the delicate sex.

  7. Older
    April 25, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    I get the gender confusion all the time, despite the hips, and the boobs, and back in the day, my long hair (now very short). It used to annoy hell out of me but after 60 or so years of adulthood, I think I’m finally getting used to it. I’m usually perceived as gay. Gay guys think I’m a gay guy (despite the hips and boobs) and lesbians think I’m a lesbian (despite the joined-at-the-hip obviously male husband). But it’s kinda flattering, y’know, especially when they try to hit on me (at my age!)

  8. April 26, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    My husband has confused the heck out of a few people by *gasp* wearing a kilt, and *double gasp* having long pretty hair. Some of his coworkers at a military institution clearly thought he was a gender-bending moral degenerate for wearing his family tartan to work on Christmas Eve, though even the most horrified of them liked his fancy ankle-laced shoes that go with the outfit. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was very shocked when he told me how many asenine comments he got.

    There was also a little boy in a restaurant who loudly said to his brother (while pointing at my be-kilted husband’s back) “is that a CHICK? she’s got a BEARD! but it has to be a CHICK, she’s wearing a SKIRT” Poor kid’s head nearly exploded before his brother explained that it was a dude, a scottish dude. Having been given a category for the bearded-long-haired-skirt-wearing-creature, the little boy was satisfied.

    I think it is definitely the lack of easy categorization that makes people feel threatened, not a perception of someone being in the wrong category. I’ve seen similar responses when I don’t fit people’s expectations of a female, or a brit, or an american, or a scientist, or whatever hole they want to stuff me into.

  9. Magis
    April 26, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    If he’ll take his Clegh Mohr and Skean Dhub with him, at least they won’t point.

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