In one of my favourite episodes of Blackadder, Nursie explains to Queen Elizabeth I that she was almost a boy. "Out you popped, out of your mummy's pumpkin," she says, "and everybody shouting, It's a boy, it's a boy!' And somebody said, But it hasn't got a winkle!' And then I said, A boy without a winkle? God be praised, it is a miracle. A boy without a winkle!'" And then Sir Thomas More points out that a boy without a winkle is a girl.
It's friggin' hilarious, I tell you. But poor deluded Nursie's quaint olde English ways of determining gender would never hold up in a big city with a large queer population where gender is fluid, or as my friend Alex puts it, "It's a continuum," with infinite possibilities, kind of like the vast expanse of the universe. (It's the sort of thought that drives me to drink.)
This is awesome but can also be wildly confusing. And confusion can lead to embarrassing moments. I've often found myself feeling like a dolt when I've referred to someone by the wrong pronoun. This is a problem I've encountered specifically when meeting female-to-male (F-to-M) transgendered people. Male-to-female TGs seem to be a bit easier to define. I figure if someone looks male but is wearing a skirt, heels and makeup (or some variation thereof), he's a "she." Otherwise, he's a "he," and I've had no problems with the system thus far.
With F-to-M people, however, it can get a little more complicated. After all, lots of women wear pants and have short hair. Sometimes, even after I've been corrected more than once, I continue to refer to someone by the wrong pronoun, like I can't wrap my head around it.
To top it off, I find myself getting terribly curious about things that are none of my business. Like, has someone gone through surgery, and if not and he doesn't have a penis, what makes him a man? I'm not debating anyone's right to choose their gender, but like the study of the universe, this is an interesting subject.
There is obviously a problem with the way society has slotted gender. We don't even have a berdache category, a term used by native societies in reference to men who lived like women, and vice versa. This leaves little wiggle room, and if a subject ever called for wiggle room, this is it.
I get some help from James, the former facilitator of the F-to-M Toronto Peer Support group at the 519. James reiterates again and again that he's not speaking for anyone but himself, as these things can be awfully touchy and are definitely specific to individuals.
Still, he offers some pretty practical advice. "How are you supposed to know, if you're just going by visual cues?" he says. "The best thing to do is ask (how someone wants to be addressed), but if the person appears obviously female but goes by male pronouns, look at that person and say in your head, 'He, he, him, his,' etc. It's like trying to remember a name."
But some will get annoyed if you ask. "They want to be seen as human beings rather than genders," which is totally understandable. But others "will be annoyed if you get it wrong or try to ignore their gender. To make it more complicated, you can't just assume that because someone is not on hormones or had surgery that they go by female pronouns. Some people don't bind, never do hormones or surgery and identify as transgender F-to-M. Some people have surgery and hormones and identify as transgender, or even decide they are female but are comfortable with the modifications they have done."
And then there are F-to-M transsexuals. And, no, you can't easily tell one from the other when an F-to-M TS is in the first (and sometimes second) year of treatment. James agrees it's a pickle. There are TG folk whose gender varies from day to day. Sometimes, he suggests, "the best thing to do is learn the person's name and avoid all reference to pronouns." This can be high-maintenance, he says, "but if you like someone you go along with it." That's the best idea I've heard yet.
As for my invasive curiosity, James says I should probably keep it to myself.