I was at an outdoor festival this summer, sitting on a bench with a friend, watching people walk by and enjoying the kind of summer weather I’ve rarely found in Iceland. As we sat there talking about politics, a person walking by caught my friend’s eye and he paused and asked with a slight grin, “Do you think that’s a man or a woman?” He seemed puzzled and amused at the same time.
I didn’t know. Who was I to answer that for anyone, really? And what made that any of our business to begin with?
Yet, we make assumptions about other people’s identity all the time. And sometimes, when we can’t seem to figure each other out, we get really uncomfortable. A person with an ambiguous gender expression gets confused looks on the street and some folks get very upset at the thought of someone daring to cross the “sacred” boundary between masculinity and femininity. As if world order is threatened by someone identifying their gender a bit differently than others do.
This doesn’t just happen with gender. Multiracial people and persons whose appearance does not fit neatly into a particular racial category get asked, “So, what are you?”, and non-white American-born Americans are asked about their country of origin and questioned again when they say they’re from Ohio. Asked to explain and justify their identity to soothe the inquirer’s anxieties.
But the male/female gender categories are curiously rigid. People who dare to challenge the male-female binary seem to challenge the beast within society that has not learned to contain it self and cannot tolerate ambiguity. It raises its head at a teenager who dresses in gender neutral ways and lashes out at a person who seems to be using the “wrong” bathroom at a bar.
“Which box do you check when you don’t belong in any box? How do you navigate the world when the world is built on identifying with one group or another group, male or female, and the place that feels most right to you is neither?”
How other people identify is really none of our business. But creating an environment where we can all be who we are without feeling excluded, judged, or rejected definitely is our business.