I could hear the sound of footsteps and voices before I could clearly see anyone. It was well past midnight and I was cutting through Prospect Park on my way home. As a white, 32-year-old gay Canadian, America was still offering me surprises and lessons at every turn.
Soon details emerged: peach skin, long hair, hips, shorts and the smell of sweet shampoo. Teenage girls. They shared a similar bent posture, making them appear roughly the same height, a soft mountain range coming my way.
Before our paths converged, one of the girls looked up, sensing they were not alone. With a canopy of leaves diffusing the park lamp a few meters away, her skin was tinged green. Without seeming to put any thought into it, her big brown eyes narrowed as she wondered out loud, "Are you a boy?" Then she paused, biting her chapped lips, considering her options. "Or a girl?" The three other girls—now looking like witches to me—took in my 140-pound 5-foot-6 body, my angular face framed by a slightly receding hair line, and repeated the question ad nauseam: "Boy or girl? Boy or girl?" There it was, hanging like a slack elastic band between us, growing tenser as we started to move apart. It was not the first time I had been interrogated about my gender.
When I was in high school, maybe the same age as the four girls, I made it to the final round of my city’s speech and debate competition. It was held at a school theater across town, the kind that is painted matte black to give the impression that you could be anywhere. For my speech, I recalled a conversation I had had with Stan, the owner and manager of the fast-food place where I worked. One night while cleaning the grill, I asked if he ever awarded employee of the month honors, something I had seen in movies. In response, he lectured me like the sage I had made him in my mind. "Don’t care about such things," he said. "Think bigger. Who would you rather have as a boss for the rest of your life, me or yourself?" The crowd applauded enthusiastically.
Good will hung in the air even after the three winners (none of them me) were announced. People gathered to shake my hand and smile at me the way older people do when they feel pride in a young person. One lady, who had watched intently as I delivered my speech, pushed through the crowd, making her way to the snug circle I stood in the center of. She came close, put her hands on my shoulder, took in a breath. The crowd leaned forward. "I have to know…" she smiled. "Are you a boy or a girl?" The crowd broke quietly and quickly.
The woman’s face still in mine, I mumbled, "Boy."
Standing there, I noticed all the little cracks and chips in the matte black paint, creating little fractures and fault lines that made it impossible to think I was anywhere but where I was. I was shocked that there could be something unknown about me. As a kid whom everyone knew was gay, the idea I could possess some mystery was surprising. The fact I might have to answer for it? Confusing and upsetting. What did it matter if I was a boy or a girl? Were there other options?
Lately, I will be on a train and an elderly person will bump into me. Without looking, they will say, "Sorry miss," or "OK dear?" Even, once, "Watch it, girlie." After a few of these encounters, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble began to click. People don’t see gender. They read, feel and sense it. We construct gender. It does not matter if I look female, male or androgynous. It’s that they—the seniors, the teenage girls, the lady from the debate competition—sensed that I was not a man in a way they understood men. In the same way I sensed the teenagers before I saw them, people sense me—and what they sense is sometimes unclear.
When someone questions my gender, they are not really questioning me. They are coming up against their own ideas, their own constructions of what a woman or a man is, and what exists beyond these narrow distinctions.
Growing up, I was lucky to have a good support system of friends and family who helped me understand and enjoy my sexual orientation. This foundation enabled me understand that gender, like sexuality, can be fluid. So when the teenage girls in Prospect Park asked me if I was a boy or a girl, it seemed important not to answer within the limited choices provided. Instead I did what I wish I had done more than 10 years earlier. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Still figuring it out."