When I tell the woman behind the desk at the gym that I’d like to sign up for a membership, her face breaks into a smile.
“Brilliant, sweetheart! I’ll just need to phone our people upstairs – two secs, okay?”
She picks up a handset and dials.
“Karen? Hi, it’s Lisa at reception. I’ve got a boy here who wants to sign up, can you send someone down for him?”
Later, when she realises her mistake, the woman’s face crumples.
“Oh my God, I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m so so sorry, it was just the name and your gym clothes are so baggy, I’m so sorry, the tomboy look really suits you, you’re such a pretty girl-”
I smile and mumble out a string of no worries and it’s okays, all the while awkwardly avoiding eye contact.
Because I might not be a boy, but I am definitely not a girl.
When you’re non-binary, being misgendered is an occurrence that is both frequent and incredibly awkward. Most people outside the LGBTQ+ community (and a good number of people within it) automatically assume that everyone they meet is either male or female. This means that when I meet someone new, there is a pretty good chance that they will read me as one of those two things.
When a shop assistant calls me “miss”, I can’t say “Actually, I’m a boy”, because that would be a lie; when a waiter calls me “sir”, I can’t say “Oh, I’m a girl”, because that’s not true either. Telling the truth isn’t an option – coming out to everyone I meet is something that I just don’t have the mental energy for, and is also something that could well put me in physical danger.
“Are you a lesbian?” a boy on the bus asks me. “You look like one.” His friends snigger.
“Yeah.” I say, deadpan. “What’s your fucking point?”
A woman sitting opposite gives me a supportive smile.
I’m not a lesbian. I’m not a woman. But tell a group of strangers that, and that support disappears.
It leaves me in a horribly awkward, in-between space, stuck trying to pick the easiest lie to tell. When someone reads me as male, immediately my shoulders hunch and my voice drops, because pretending that they are right is so much less awkward and anxiety-inducing than allowing them to realise their mistake. In women’s bathrooms, I smile, my voice drifting an octave higher than usual – anything to avoid that whole gasp-almost scream-check the door routine I’ve been subject to so many times.
Sometimes it’s less painful to just play up to people’s assumptions.
Me and my girlfriend (who is, of course, not my girlfriend at all, because she is not a girl) get into a taxi. We’re wearing our work clothes – smart shoes, black trousers, hoodies, rucksacks slung over our backs – school uniform, basically.
The taxi driver peers at us. “You lads sure you’ve got enough money for this?”
Me and my partner glance at each other.
For the rest of the journey, we’re stuck. We’re unwilling to lie, so we stretch out this delusion, half pretending that we really are two teenage boys, heading home to play video games after a long day at school.
“How long have you lived here, then?” the taxi driver asks my partner.
“Twenty years,” she mumbles.
We find ourselves stuck in that grey space far too often. When you’re non-binary, there is no safe box to tick – if someone misgenders me, I cannot honestly correct them without also telling them that neither ‘male’ nor ‘female’ is a label which fits me, that I am other.
I wish I could say it was empowering to be able to alter the assumptions people make about gender, but it isn’t. It’s just frightening.
After a meeting with my tutor at university, I find a note on my personal records.
“Met with the student today,” it read. “He was well prepared for the meeting. He had selected all of his course options and discussed them with me.”
Heart sinking, I looked up my tutor’s email address, intending to send him an email reiterating the safe lie I’ve learnt to tell people. But when the time comes to type it out – “I am actually a girl” – the words just won’t come. It would be easier to tell him that I am an anteater. It would be easier to drop out of university altogether.
So I grit my teeth, and I type.
“This is a bit awkward.”
Sentence by sentence.
“Maybe you read me as a trans man who is just starting to transition, or just didn’t realise.”
The half-written email stares at me.
“I am actually not a boy or a girl. I just identify as somewhere in the middle. I prefer to be called ‘they’, rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’. Please don’t worry, I wasn’t offended by your assumption. Cheers.”
Each sentence feels heavy and difficult, like shoving boulders off a cliff, but it is still easier – so much easier – than just pretending that I’m a girl.
I get misgendered every day, and it isn’t often that I have the energy or the confidence to correct people.
But I am getting there.
In situations that feel safe, where I am protected by the distance afforded by emails and texts, in places where I feel comfortable starting a discussion and answering questions, I am getting there.
I don’t think any trans person, binary or non-binary, should ever be obliged to out themselves to educate cis people. Ever. No-one is obliged to put their safety at risk to educate others. But realistically I know that most people won’t revise their assumptions about gender by themselves.
So when I can, I tell people.
I like to think that because I’ve done it, somewhere along the line, it’ll be easier for someone else to do it too.
I am sitting next to my brother at his favourite pizza place, on his tenth birthday.
When the waiter appears, he gives us a big grin. “Twins? Awesome! What can I get you guys to drink?”
My brother giggles, completely unaware of the awkward way my parents shift in their seats. Despite the ten years that separate us, we look almost identical – next to him, the roundness of my face and my annoying failure to grow beyond 5’2″ makes me look a lot more like his twin brother than his older sister.
My brother orders an orange juice.
I order a double whiskey and coke.
The waiter glances anxiously at my parents, who, still awkwardly peering at their shoes, are apparently completely willing to let their ten-year-old hit the Jack Daniels.
Hey, I get my laughs where I can.
Unimaginative feature image from examiner.com