I changed my name at my job after a year. I received a new email address, a new name plate, and requested new pronouns that are still often stumbled over in meetings or conspicuously avoided. In December, I disappeared on a “staycation” for two weeks and returned less barrel-chested. Wanting to avoid advertising my blatant physical change, I eased into wearing fewer layers and less baggy shirts to work until eventually I stopped thinking twice about choosing a tight T-shirt in the morning, or even walking up a flight of stairs to use one of two private and by default only gender-neutral bathrooms. (I ignore the man and woman signs). All of my co-workers were along for the ride, watching me unfold, knowing, if not understanding, my herstory. Or so I thought everyone knew, that everyone would always know.
We were on a product group team-building adventure and a new employee ended up on my team. She and I had sat together in a room a few weeks prior for a full-day new hire orientation. (I had been a contractor for my first year and still needed to complete employee training.) During the team-building scavenger hunt, this new employee asked if my position at our company was my first job. I must have looked puzzled because she explained that she asked because I look young, which I’ve heard a good hundred times in the past few years. I told her I’m much older than she thought, and she asked how I maintained my youth. I threw out my standard, “it helps to style myself like a teenage boy.” It was her turn to look puzzled — she thought I was a teenage boy.
I am aware of how people perceive me. When I use the women’s restroom, I always hunch and use something to cover up my flat chest; When I use the men’s restroom, I never open my mouth to speak and reveal my high-pitched voice. I am no longer surprised when a jaw drops over my driver’s license, and I never care whether it is my actual age or gender that is so shocking to these convenience store clerks and bouncers. But to have a co-worker, someone I’d spent a day with, barely believe I was old enough to hold a copywriting job alarmed me.
A few days later I ended up at a not-too-fancy Mexican restaurant in Lake Tahoe. Our hostess, a young girl, exchanged a few words with me and my friend Derek and seated us. She returned several minutes later and said, “I don’t know how to say this without sounding rude, but you need to pull up your pants.” As she walked away, I blushed a shade of pink darker than the margarita before me. “What just happened?” I asked.
“She thought you were a young boy,” Derek said. “She treated you like her little brother.”
“I’m old enough to have birthed that child,” I said to cover up my plumber butt embarrassment. I respect my mother and she raised me not to show asscrack at a restaurant, no matter how divey. But disgusting the other customers aside, being spoken down to as if I were fifteen was kind of demeaning.
It happened again a few days ago, not the asscrack thing now that I’ve started wearing belts again, but the teenage thing. I met a couple of out-of-towners through a friend — I introduced myself as Nick; I was wearing a white undershirt, the kind that cannot possibly hide even A-cup breasts; of course they were confused. I didn’t find out until later that they “couldn’t determine my age or sex” so perhaps I’m employing hindsight, but I felt the weirdness, like they were trying not to use big words. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but I felt off-balanced, like we couldn’t find a common ground.
Despite my propensity for being a social recluse and lone wolf, I actually like people and have begun to pride myself on being able to find a topic of mutual interest and chat up anyone. I didn’t quite realize that this could change, that I could be so confusing to people that they might not now what to say to me, or how to engage in a mature conversation with me.
I’ve changed a lot in the past year, and this is only the beginning. I figured that people would “mistake” my gender — whatever that means — asking me for a tampon if they think I’m a girl or striking up a conversation about sports if they think I’m a boy, or “ma’amsirring” me if they are uncertain. I expect to feel odd if and when I pass as a man, even knowing that I won’t entirely understand male privilege until I experience it. I know what it’s like for people to think I look young, like a young boyish woman, and that I should take it as a compliment. But I never expected women to chide me on the bus if I pause for an eigth of a second before giving my seat up to the pregnant or elderly, for people to appear flummoxed when I mention living in San Francisco for a decade or that I’ve held adult jobs for that long. I didn’t quite realize how much it sucks to be a thirty-one year old passing as a child.