Sapphic Salon: Sirs and Madames

Natalie Stein
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My girlfriend gets called sir a lot. Every time a stranger refers to her as a guy (sir, buddy, "him"), we give each other a smirky look, and can't help but feel bad for the person once they realize their mistake, as they most often do, once she opens her mouth.

There are still times, however, they just can't tell the difference, either because they don't care to look beyond a customer if they're serving us in some way, or they would rather assume she's my boyfriend than believe we're lesbians. I look "too straight" and she, apparently, must be a guy in a T-shirt and shortly coifed haircut. (I call it the lesbian triangle.)

Today at brunch, it happened again. Despite living in a large city, dining at a popular spot in a liberal neighborhood gentrified by hipsters, our 20-something male waiter barely glanced at my girlfriend before asking "And for you, sir?" We immediately talked about it after he left the table, about how we always end up feeling bad for the person. He might be embarrassed, he could feel silly or let it get to him in some way. We feel bad that there is a possibility a stranger feels bad for making a mistake. Is that wrong?

When people assume I'm straight, I become frustrated, as if they are saying I'm trying to pass. When I'm out with my girlfriend, it's more apparent, I'm sure, that I'm elsewhere on the Kinsey scale. So I've really been wondering if these two ideas (my girlfriend passing as a boy, myself passing as a straight woman) will ever become instinct. Fighting for equality and marriage and basic human rights are important, of course, but I am personally curious as to when sexuality and gender will stop being assumed so freely. Is there something that myself or others in my predicament can do besides hold our girlfriends' hands or wave a rainbow flag around to proclaim our queerness? And should butches or studs or any woman who wants to wear her hair cropped and men's jeans be forced to feel empathy for those who give them an incorrect pronoun?

I'm not sure if I react correctly in these situations, which happen more frequently than I would ever have assumed. Perhaps there are those who think I should be happy to "pass" in situations otherwise deemed "unsafe" for queer girls like me, but I'm more of the in-your-face "That's right, she's my boo" type, and I'm going to stop trying to feel bad for those who think otherwise. (I'll still forgive them eventually though, because I'm also that type of person.) 


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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Mistaken ID

We get this all of the time. I "pass" as heterosexual and my partner is mistaken for a young boy (she's 46; I'm 39), especially when her hair is freshly shorn and she's wearing bulky outerwear (winter). We were in Target once and she put a bottle of Coke on the belt. The cashier asked me "Is it okay if he has this?" I replied "She's paying so sure!" We've been offered coloring books, toys, and other children's items (how young does she look people!).

We mostly laugh it off. But I see your point.

Both my girlfriend and I are

Both my girlfriend and I are trans and while I haven't been read as male in a long time, she hasn't been transitioning long and isn't out full time so often we go out as what may appear to be a heterosexual couple. Which is interesting in its own way and does offer some protection in the conservative area we are in. But then she also is pretty androgynous even when she has to be in drag as a guy (I think she just looks like she is butch when dressed so) and is read as female when not presenting as one. So there is a mixture of sirs and madames and obvious blanks.

Lesbian relationship stuff + transitioning issues = Lots of 'fun' with identity politics.

I get it too

Perhaps similar, but maybe not quite. I am a straight female. I am married to a male, obviously. But I wear my hair cropped short and I wear men's clothes. When I get called sir or occasionally mistaken for my husband's 14-year-old son, it embarrasses my hubby to no end but it doesn't bother me. It only bothers me when people are rude about it. And because I choose to dress this way and don't exactly have a very feminine face, people think I'm gay or bisexual. It's not an insult to be gay or bi, but the way these assumations (not a word, I know) are directed at me and worded, it is an insult. When I was walking in the mall with my ex, holding his hand, two guys behind us loudly asked, "Is that two guys?" and then snickered. When the person realizes their mistake after calling me sir, I snicker a little to myself, just at the look on their face. It's an honest mistake when you're taught that there are only 2 sexes, and they're either manly or girly, and that lesbians are hot chicks. (By the way my computer underlines 'girly' as not a correctly spelled word, but manly is. Interesting.)

confused and amused

I've always thought of myself as quite feminine-looking but when I worked as a retail assistant I was mistaken for a man (by customers) on several separate occasions. I was confused but amused! I think it happened because the people in question didn't look at me properly - because I was in my shapeless uniform and standing behind the counter. Once, a mother told her child to "Give the toy to the man" - referring to me. The child looked at me and laughed - I was laughing too! - so then the woman looked up at me and realised her mistake. She looked horrified and embarrassed. (I did feel sorry that I had laughed at her mistake but it was my first reaction - which may have been rude!) I am tall and I have short hair, so it's probable that in my shapeless uniform I looked more like what people think of as "masculine" - perhaps people aren't used to women wearing shapeless clothing. I think perhaps we have sort of mental 'shortcuts' that we are unconsciously taught - so for example when you catch a tall/broad person with short hair out the corner of your eye then we think "man" and vice versa, a small/slight person with long hair = woman. This is why people need to be more aware of gender as a spectrum and an emphasis. (I'm especially thinking of the runner Caster Semanya, and the news reports about the dispute over her biological sex were constantly misreported as being "disputes about her gender". Grr! She says she's a woman - so that's her gender! End. of. story. Were they just trying to avoid saying the word "sex" on TV or do people really not know the difference??)

Some people don't

Some people don't honestly know the difference between sex and gender. My husband, no matter how much I explain, as clearly as I can, cannot understand gender is what you do, and that there are at least 5 reported SEXES. That gender is on a continuum. Because he was taught, like everyone else, that there are rules for what guys and girls are supposed to look like and be interested in and 'do', as far as behavior. He loves me, loves that I'm different, but "it would be nice to be able to tell sometimes." Which irritates me, but I know he means well. He sees a beautiful woman; I see a girl who's sometimes like a boy and that's ok. He can't understand that not everyone is either masculine or feminine. He definitely doesn't understand transgender either, which my computer doesn't recognize as a word, by the way.

I am a femme but...

Shaved my head a few times. Regardless of what I was wearing and regardless of my tits and ass and feminine features, people would call me "sir". I'm standing there in a fitted tank top and tight jeans with make-up on and I'm "sir"? I think I was more confused than they were once they realized that I was a female.

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