I am a woman that is often misgendered and as my appearance is androgynous (small frame, short hair, no make-up, masculine clothing); I do understand why. For as long as I can remember I have had people perceive me as male. I remember being in Primark with my mum, I must have been less than 10 years old, going into the changing rooms and the assistant said I could go in and pointed to the male entrance; my mother was not impressed and the shop assistant profusely apologised. My hair was shoulder length, but I always wore boy’s clothes, that’s how I felt comfortable. I never thought I was a boy, I just wanted to be the person I was – a girl who liked boy’s clothes and football but also liked my doll.
It is often the person who has misgendered me that is left feeling uncomfortable and repeatedly apologising once they realise their mistake, this happens so often that I am more surprised when people know I am a woman straight away.
Being faced with multiple incidents of being accused of being in the wrong toilet and told to get out, has caused me to feel uncomfortable about going to the toilet in public spaces and will often avoid this if I can. When I do find the courage, I now expect an incident to take place. Often people briefly think they have come into the wrong toilet as when they enter and see me stood washing/drying my hands they look at me then walk back out and check the sign on the door. I can see the cogs turning in their mind and the look of panic and confusion when they see me. This has become the norm for me, and I am surprised when someone doesn’t bat an eyelid, I am left feeling like I’ve failed my androgyny (which of course is ridiculous), not only do I fail at being a woman I’ve failed to produce the reaction I have come to expect. I am however filled with relief and pride when coming out of the toilet having escaped with no incident.
The rise of talk around the gender binary and people identifying as non-binary is great that we are having the conversation about gender, but I do feel by adopting the identity of non-binary that accepts and agrees that the gender binary does exist. But I would argue that societies’ beliefs of what a woman or a man should look and behave like should be changed and the need for a new ‘label’ should not exist.
I fully understand why someone would identify as non-binary; I do believe that if I was in my adolescence now struggling to find my place in the world, I would most likely identify as non-binary. As it stands now my identity is first and foremost a woman; being masculine of centre – without the in-between – helps me to explain my appearance and my personality in a world where I do not fit with current ideals of the gender without losing the fact that I identify as being a woman.
Gender is a social construct one that is drilled into us and chosen for us before we are even born, the rise of gender reveals with pink or blue confetti is simply baffling to me. A child should have everything open to them both feminine and masculine toys, clothes and games their imagination and creativity should not be stifled.
Every time I am misgendered it heightens my social anxiety and low self-esteem which says, ‘I don’t have the right to take up space in the world’, ‘I have nothing to offer and ‘Others will be better than me’. The reality is that there may be others that are better than me at certain things but that does not mean that I have nothing to say and should feel guilty for taking up space. I do have a voice, I have experiences that are mine, and I do believe that my experiences in life have given me an emotional intelligence that has served me well. I mask my anxiety for the most part very well, I do indeed function and can force myself to step out my comfort zone when I really want something. I recent years I have tried to fully embrace my androgynous look, instead of me thinking I need to make sure it is more obvious that I am a woman so these things do not happen, I now believe if someone feels uncomfortable with my presence then that is their problem. My appearance is only part of who I am but is an important expression of my identity. I am a woman; a masculine of centre/soft butch lesbian and I refuse to apologise for that!
Is a man any less of a man if he is dressed in a skirt or wearing make-up, am I less of a woman because the clothes I chose to wear are from the ‘men’s’ section? The answer is no, regardless of how I dress or how short my hair is I am no less of a woman. How someone identifies is personal and I respect anyone and everyone’s identity, there is always room for a greater understanding of others. Let’s keep talking about gender, let’s challenge the gender binary and the gender expectations we place on people especially children. I have experienced never fitting in with my gender, being told I am ‘wrong’, I bring on unwanted attention myself for presenting the way I do, and I hate that children are still growing up being told ‘no’ that’s for girls/boys and clearly not for them. Being comfortable in your own skin, recognising and loving the person you see when you look in the mirror matters far more than someone else’s discomfort. Never stop being you.
Ruth Spencer-Lewis is currently studying MSc Psychology at the University of Westminster. She tweets @ruthslewis.
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