I’m still qualified for this, right?
I feel a bit problematic writing this piece. I thought I’d given up my rights to write on anything women’s rights related, on the 20th of May, 2021—the day an SPCA campaigner called me ‘Mr.’ without doubletaking. But the scrutiny felt over your gender, being acknowledged as a gendered-being first and a person second? Regardless of our identities, we all experience it. It’s this feeling that’s at the heart of what it means to break the (gender) bias, this year’s theme for International Women’s Day.
I’ve moved through the world as a man ever since starting testosterone. And it’s been… a mind-fuck. I wasn’t prepared for the small, unsettling changes to how people treated me once I started medically transitioning. It’s an ongoing culture shock. It’s taken some readjusting to realise that even if I hadn’t changed internally, my physical changes were shifting others’ perceptions and expectations. Now that I’m seen as male, the ways I naturally express my personality to others are questioned by non-men (that’s some cognitive dissonance). I hate being seen as another schlubby dude cashing in on patriarchal dividends (what sociologist Raewyn Connell defines as the advantages to all men reaped from our unequal gender order). But when I out myself as trans then I’m not truly seen as a ‘real man’—just an echo from a woman’s mouth. I suppose being Asian helps: people think us effeminate, soft, unmanly. I want to fully embody my femininity, but I fear it’ll cost my male identity.
There’s so many biases wrapped in gender performativity and perception that we’re constantly taking on and recreating. For international women’s day, how do we break them? Can we break them? In my process of reconciling everything involved in being seen as a cis-passing “man”,
I spoke with others to hear their experiences of being gendered, as “women” or otherwise. Ellie (they/them, Turtle Island Aniyunwiya), a queer, non-binary person is seen as a cis-woman but isn’t. OP* (she/her, Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu), is a straight/questioning, cis-woman whose masculine-leaning style and personality throws people the fuck off. And Moth (she/moth), who describes herself as “kinda like a woman, but not—a ‘woman+’ along the lines of being trans-woman/trans-femme/‘Moth-gendered’”.
What’s some misconceptions people have about you and your identity?
ES: I’m often misgendered because I look cis and have a lot of cis privilege. I’m not perceived how I identify most of the time unless I out myself to people. It’s super unfair that cis-people have these ‘androgyny’ expectations—that I should get top-surgery and all that. It sounds terrible, but the cis-people in my life, as much as I love them, all still see me as a woman. Like, “Ellie is just doing the ‘they/them’ thing, call them that—but they’re still a woman”. I feel like people are memorising my pronouns rather than respecting my gender identity. One of my past partners always introduced me as ‘gender-neutral’, and I’ve been called woman-adjacent, which really fucks me off.
OP: I’ve been told a lot of people avoided me back in high school because I looked like a bitch from the way I presented myself and my ‘personality’. I was often asked if I were a boy/lesbian because I dressed pretty masculine compared to all the other girls. Even now, people ask, especially after cutting my hair short. People are so surprised that I’m Māori because I’m light skin and because my personality doesn’t match stereotypes of wāhine Māori which is straight-up fucking racist.
ML: People assume due to my name and presentation (I like to dress quite androgenous), that I’m non-binary which I don’t consider myself to be. Or they assume when I dress more femme that I’m a woman, which is not entirely correct. Oftentimes it’s even difficult for me to figure out where I am on the gender spectrum. I try to look at gender more as a metaphor, so calling myself ‘Moth’-gendered because what our culture commonly associates moths with reflects my gender quite well. But people can get a bit weird about [my gender] so I try to gauge what I tell people. It’s hard to be taken seriously particularly when it comes to official document-type processes. I try to be as accurate as possible but sometimes it doesn’t work. In some situations I’m a woman, in others I’m trans-femme, in some I’m Moth-gendered—it’s all context-dependent.
Do you feel they treat you differently when they get to know you and your identity more?
OP: Honestly, once I talk to people, they’d be surprised [about my identity]. I had some friends in high school that thought I was lesbian that upon finding out I wasn’t into them, they would distance themselves. Many of my family and schoolmates were surprised that I wasn’t lesbian, and were all “You just gave off that lesbian vibe”. What vibe is that? It’s just cringe, stereotyping the fuck out of lesbians, creating this category of how lesbian women should look and act (non-femme presenting, and I guess whatever my personality gave off).
Do you actively try to shift these perceptions?
ES: It depends on the situation. if I know I won’t see someone again, I’ll just let it pass because otherwise I’m spending my entire life trying to correct them. But when it’s people I care about and want to build a relationship with, I’ll correct them. It also depends on my safety if I’m uncomfortable in a space and don’t know the people.
OP: I’ve honestly started gradually presenting more femme these days—I don’t dress at all how I used to. I do like dressing femme, but it’s just I don’t really feel like I’m seen as attractive when I dress masculine. I know I shouldn’t have to feel like that, but yeah. These days you want to be a good-looking person—especially for my partner because I want him to be attracted to me. If I dress in a [certain] way I’m suddenly a lesbian again.
ML: I don’t really have a self-awareness around how people perceive me at times. It’s hard to control people’s perceptions of me, which leads to people see me in the way that I am superficially because I can’t do much else about it.
Doesn’t that get exhausting?
ES: I try to be understanding, cause I get that y’all have to unlearn what y’all have called me for years. But yeah, it’s tiring to constantly correct you; at some point I’m just gonna stop trying.
ML: I think that I’ve been really lucky with how people interact with me. Being a queer trans-woman, I’ve been surprisingly sheltered which I think contributes to how I’m able to so freely express myself. When people perceive me as I am, that gives me a lot of joy and a lot of energy, even if that reaction isn’t 100% positive.
How have/are you overcoming this mismatch?
ES: I hate the idea that queer and trans-people are inherently resilient because we’ve had to go through bullshit. But like, it’s a bit true. I first came out to one friend in 2018 and it was such a negative reaction I didn’t come out again for like, a year. [But] queer community is everything. That’s been huge in uplifting me and making me feel secure in my identity.
OP: Honestly, I’ve recently started questioning my sexuality as I’ve suppressed it for a long time. Because of people giving me labels and shit, I’ve never had the chance to think about it. I just wish I could’ve been allowed to be attracted to whoever without the “I called it!” and “No surprises there”, the “We already knew” shit. I say I’m straight because it makes me uncomfortable trying to explain myself to those who think they know me better than I know myself. But I have good mates that don’t give a fuck and are understanding of what I feel. That helps.
ML: When people do get it and see me as myself it really strengthens me in who I am. People, like my partner, help me reflect [upon] myself, especially when I get deadnamed or misgendered. Then I ask people to use my name and pronouns a lot to help me reiterate to me that I am who I am. Being able to come to terms with who I used to be, and finding some joy in it, really has helped me embrace that.
*Full-name withheld to protect interviewee’s privacy.