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Navigating a world that doesn’t believe your gender exists

I have a favourite jacket. It is a rather ugly thing, shapeless and grey, with the brand’s letters stitched varsity-style into the upper left arm. It does not flatter me –  too big in the shoulders, lumpy through my torso, and my hands don’t quite make it all the way out of the sleeves. It’s my favourite because when I wear this jacket, I can be read as something other than female.

The idea of ‘passing’ for trans* people, like myself, is often a fantastical ideal – a world without long stares or awkward bumbles around the words ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir,’ without slurs muttered by a passing stranger, or sometimes shouted from moving cars. A world where nobody has to take a few minutes to ‘figure out’ what gender you are.

The challenge can be insurmountable, even for those who pursue hormone therapy, surgeries, and painstaking hours spent self-teaching gendered gaits and mannerisms. Even after all that, a person may still take a glance at a trans* body and see nothing but the gender that body was forcibly assigned at birth – the body does not ‘pass’ as the gender of the person inhabiting it; does not ‘pass’ as the desired product of days, months, or years of work and practice. And as students know well, the opposite of passing is failing.

Having to ‘pass’ as one’s true gender puts the onus on the person whose body is being judged, willfully or not. As though nothing is as final as the word of the outsider. ‘Passing’ implies that if a trans* woman is called “sir” when her waiter takes her order, she has somehow failed as a trans* person. A femme trans* man may struggle desperately to be read correctly in light of his gender presentation, and harder still are the questions from friends and family who ask him, “Why don’t you just be a girl?” It falls on him to be ‘manly’ enough to ‘pass,’ before being allowed to express himself as he chooses.

‘Passing’ necessarily makes ‘failing’ the fault of the trans* person who doesn’t try hard enough to fit into a stereotyped role of the ‘opposite’ gender, rather than the fault of the systemically and unfalteringly transphobic society that only believes in binary genders, and dictates a very certain, very narrow way for trans* people to be accepted as one of those two genders. The struggle is enough for trans* men and women, but what of the few people who don’t want to be seen as either female or male?

* * *

The metro empties at Lionel-Groulx, and I find an empty seat, shrugging off my backpack as I sit down. I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn to see a man smiling, holding a small business card toward me. He gestures at the side of my head as he pushes the card closer to me. I take it. It’s a card for a barber shop near Atwater and it reads “Haircuts for men.” I smile and open my mouth, about to hand the card back and explain, “I cut my own hair,” but hesitate, and decide to pocket it instead. Haircuts for men.

I am not a man. I thought (or knew, maybe) as a child and well into my teens that everything would be easier if I were a man. I resented my body for what I saw as weakness and unattractiveness in its soft curves and small shoulders, but even when I first encountered the idea of trans* men – “boys with pussies,” as it was so eloquently first described to me – I knew that wasn’t me.

I also never felt like a girl. Being a girl, or even trying to be girl-like, seemed like such a farcical act that I assumed every girl and woman around me was just making a show of it too. I spent years of my life thinking they must all resent the femaleness imposed on them, the way I did.

When I finally learned the words for myself and people like me, in those nights spent poring over my laptop while my roommates slept, they felt awkward and bulky in my mouth as I whispered to myself. Genderqueer. Non-binary. Androgyne. Neutrois. But I felt just as awkward and bulky in my own skin, pretending for a lifetime to slot nicely into the smooth, simple category of ‘female.’

 * * *

 I am 3,500 kilometres away from my mother, and over the phone she is telling me that she’s seen pictures of my new, shorter-than-ever haircut on Facebook. She tells me I look unfeminine with such short hair, and in my collared shirts and unfitted sweaters. “Why do you want to look so much like a boy?” With nothing to say, I force a weak laugh.

She tells me she’ll be here when someday I decide to learn to be a girl. She tells me that she already has one son, that she doesn’t need another. On the other end I hold the phone far away from my ear so she doesn’t hear the ugly sob that fights its way out of my throat.

* * *

 In line for the cashier in the Redpath cafe, I have my head turned to look out the window. As the person in front of me takes their receipt and leaves, I hear the cashier call, “Next? Sir?” As I turn around and approach, the “sir” falters and turns into an awkward “er…ma’am?” I shrug, and not knowing how to explain, say, “Both are good.”

Nobody ever looks at me and thinks instinctively that I must be genderqueer, or that my preferred pronouns are neutral. And they never will, no matter how much effort I put into androgenizing my body, my voice, my wardrobe, or my personality. It’s impossible for me to be read as the correct gender. When I’m making a first impression on anybody, I am male or I am female.

The closest I get is being read as male, because it is the only societally provided alternative to being female, the square one of my efforts to ‘transition’ – though really, nothing is transitioning or changing about my gender or my identity. What I am trying to change is other people’s perception of it. But there simply is no androgynous ideal for people to perceive, no stereotypical concept that my body can ever conform to that would make people read me correctly.

Sometimes invisibility is the worst thing in the world. But sometimes it feels like liberation, like having a card hidden up my sleeve. Sometimes it feels like I can slip away with a secret too big for the unimaginative rigidity of the genders that have always felt like two doors slammed securely shut in front of me.

*Name has been changed. Wong Kar Tsai is a U2 Biology student. To reach them, email for a contact address.