Sometimes gender can’t be read upon first impression. And as you’re probably imagining, this can make a lot of daily situations awkward or unpleasant.
As a genderqueer person, I find myself in these situations over and over again.
A lot of people find comfort in labeling and categorizing things. It can make the world an easier place to predict, and can take away insecurity. If they can put a name and possible behavior on others, it’s easier to recognize and anticipate what will happen. It can make them feel safe.
But I’ve noticed that if you belong to a category that is unknown and undiscovered, people tend to get anxious and don’t know how they should handle you.
When it comes to gender, these labels tend to be binary. You’re either a man or a woman and there are no in-betweens. And there are women with long or short hair, women who wear makeup and women who don’t, straight women and lesbian women, feminine and masculine women.
Some of these definitions are clear right away. Others are more difficult to discover. Still, people tend to label the minute they meet someone and make up their mind about others almost immediately.
But sometimes these binaries don’t quite fit.
I’m somewhere in-between.
And I usually have some trouble defining or labeling myself.
In some ways, I’m a woman — without a doubt. I checked, double checked, and my gynecologist confirms this fact. All my body parts are those that fit a female human being.
But on the other hand, I can also assure you that I have been a boy since the day I could talk and choose my own clothing. I’ve always shopped in the men’s department and I have masculine mannerisms.
My major issues have revolved around restrooms. They have always hated me and I have always hated them in turn. I can’t remember a single time I walked into the women’s room and felt comfortable. Going to the restroom fills me with fear. I anticipate it constantly, and I need to prepare for it mentally.
This has brought me trouble since I was a kid.
In kindergarten, other girls giggled when I walked in. They’d start whispering about me, loud enough for me to hear their conversation. “This blonde boy must be lost. Why would a boy walk into the girl’s bathroom?” they’d ask. I must be a very dumb boy.
Their intentions were harmless, but they left me feeling wrong.
In the years that followed, I continued to have similar experiences. The only thing that changed was that I was growing older. The cute little boy who walked into the wrong bathroom and was received with giggles grew into a man who was invading women’s spaces.
No one is afraid of a small boy. But when you appear to be a grown man, things are different.
I’ve learned a lot and gained a lot of experience with human behavior over time. I’ve studied people who were quickly driven to fear when caught off guard in an environment they deemed to be “safe.”
Over the years, a lot of friends have also told me that they didn’t realize this was an issue for me. If even my friends don’t get it, I can understand why it’s difficult for others to see.
My girlfriend is a great example of this. She is a very beautiful and feminine woman who has never experienced any trouble visiting bathrooms. Going to a public restroom was as normal for her as it is for most people. She was used to walking in, doing what was needed, and simply walking out again.
That is, until she met me.
Walking into a restroom with me by your side is a totally new experience. At first, she didn’t pay attention to the responses of other people.
We’ve been together for years, and while I’ve slid into a peace of mind about this issue, it seems that she’s developed an extra sense for other women in bathrooms. Now she’s the one who notices the stares and whispers when we walk in and out together.
So, what’s it like to travel?
My girlfriend and I have backpacked for a year in the Americas, lived in Mexico for months, wandered through Europe on shorter trips, and traveled through China for a month. Currently, we’re in Central America.
Are you wondering how people around the world perceive me?
Well, it’s almost exactly the same as it is in my hometown.
Some regions and cultures are more welcoming to LGBT people than others, but I’ve never encountered any major issues. We do avoid countries that fight LGBT rights and we tend to be cautious about expressing affection in public. And bathrooms scare me anywhere in the world.
But overall, I’ve found that positive experiences overpower the negative. And a lot of other travelers have stood by our side on our journeys. It has given us confidence and a feeling of safety when we needed it most.
Not long ago, we decided to go to a party in Krakow with a young couple we’d met only an hour earlier. I was quite uncomfortable after entering the club, and felt like other people were staring at me. But one of our new friends reassured me that nobody was staring in an angry way, and that he was by my side if anything were to happen. It felt amazing to find a new ally who understood my concerns and told me he would look after me. Finding allies in other travelers has been one of the most positive experiences I’ve had on my adventures.
The road may surprise you.
The friendliness of Colombia surprised me, for instance. In no other country did we meet more openly LGBT people than we did in Colombia. When arriving in the stunning Parque Tayrona, we met two boys who were adjusting their makeup in front of their tent. Immediately recognizing them as our allies, we set up tent right next to them and became friends very soon.
I’ll now be able to return to Colombia with a feeling of safety.
Different cultures have different habits.
Some indigenous American tribes call it Two-Spirit, and believe that this third — or even fourth — gender is a normal diversity, just like a difference in eye color. They don’t think of gender as binary in the way that many Western cultures do, and they believe in the grey area in between male and female.
Thailand is also known for its gender diversity, and I’ve found that there are tons of kathoeys and tomboys in various parts of the country. For some cultures, the idea of non-binary gender identification is rooted into their beliefs.
Being misgendered and harassed around the globe.
There isn’t really a proven method to dealing with this, but time has taught me to be more patient and less angry when I am misgendered on my travels. Learning to see yourself through others’ eyes is the key to acceptance.
Misgendering will happen and there’s little you can do about it. That’s why I think it’s important to grow mentally and find ways to overcome the negative emotions you encounter when being misgendered, rather than spending time on arguing and picking a fight with the people that misgender you.
The fact that these negative encounters are real and won’t go away is a clear sign that the positivity should come from within your own mind. You can grow stronger and learn to adapt a positive lifestyle.
Not letting yourself spend too much time focusing on the issue in your mind is a crucial step in getting over it. Seeing each separate occasion as a negative thing will leave you feeling depressed. That’s why I keep telling myself it’s not important, and have begun to see it as a normal side-effect of who I am. I get to choose if I want it to spoil my day or not by focusing on it. It’s not easy at first, but I got better at it over time.
When I’m being judged or verbally attacked, I get this feeling of inferiority and sadness. That feeling is an expert in spoiling an otherwise good mood. Hundreds of times I’ve spoiled my day by lingering on a negative event that only lasted five minutes.
Acknowledging this reality has led me to spending less time lingering on these moments. By focusing on my loving parents, my friends, and my girlfriend who know that I’m perfect just the way I am, I’m usually able to turn my negative emotions into positive ones.
I will admit though that I learned this the hard way, and it’s taken me a long time to understand.
Going to the bathroom will always be a little nerve-wracking — no matter where you are — but you can make it more tolerable.
I’m not going to give you false hope about this by claiming that I have the perfect solution. I don’t. But over the years, I’ve learned a few things here and there.
These tips are no magical solution for every anxious situation, but they may help make situations less awkward. Sometimes they do the job, sometimes they don’t.
Bring a companion. This isn’t always an option, but if you’re with another woman, she can be of great help to you. I’ve noticed that walking into a public restroom alone is definitely not better than being accompanied by another woman.
This is a type social proof and security. We don’t expect a woman to bring a man into the women’s room. If I were a man, she would have sent me to the men’s room, right? This can be a big help.
Identify yourself immediately. Letting people know that you have walked into the room can be a good idea. It is best to get the first impression behind you, and it is easier to walk right back out if there’s a problem than it is to be caught off guard while you’re already inside.
Because if you’re going to be judged, it will be way less awkward if you’re still wearing your pants.
This happened to me when I was sitting on the toilet one time. Outside, in front of my stall, two women were loudly discussing the fact that there was a man in this exact toilet stall. They were arguing about what should be done and how I should be handled once I came back out. I’ve never dreaded leaving a toilet stall so bad.
Stay confident about how you feel and who you are. Then, just be that.
Trying to be different won’t get you anywhere, and it won’t make you happy. Negative attention tends to make you feel small, which you definitely don’t deserve for simply daring to exist.
This is why you must remember that confidence is the one thing that keeps you going. Confidence in who you are, how you feel, how you express yourself, and how you are chasing your dream. You deserve to be who you are and nothing else.
And in the end, being genderqueer or gender-nonconforming should never stand between you and the world.
Are you trans, gender-nonconforming, or genderqueer? Share your travel experiences in the comments!
About the Author: Inge Turelinckx
LGBT travel writer for onlyonce.today. As LGBT traveler, gender questionable, I see the world through different eyes. I hope to be able to share this with you and convert everyone into an LGBT ally.