At the Castro farmer’s market today:
The man selling hummus and other spreads held out a piece of spinach-stuffed bread with yogurt, artichoke hummus, and jalapeno sauce on it. “Free sample, sir?”
I dropped my voice half an octave. Not faking anything, just the lower end of my normal range. “Sure,” I said, taking the bread. Part of what fascinates me in my experience with my beard is what gender they guess me to be. Some days, I feel like I’m presenting a very masculine appearance – button down shirt, tits smooshed flat in a sports bra, shoulders squared, taking large steps. Sometimes I default feminine, raising my voice a few tones and turning up my sentence-ends, to appear friendly to store clerks and taxi drivers. Most days, I feel kind of neutral. I have my beard. I have my tits. I wear tshirts sometimes, button-downs sometimes, jeans most times. And in these neutral times, it seems like a toss-up what gender I’ll get read as. Not that people will necessarily be confused; that comes a few seconds later. It’s the first read that puzzles me. “Free sample, sir?” “Can I help you, ma’am?” These phrases, said with casual confidence – and often quickly corrected – give me hints at what people notice first. Sometimes it’s obvious why. When I’m slouched in the window seat, with a blanket over my chest, no wonder the stewardess calls me “sir.”
These moments are often fleeting. As soon as I ask the stewardess for a coke, my voice tips her off to her “mistake.” So, sometimes I try to extent the moment. I drop my voice a little, square my slouchy shoulders, let the ends of my sentences fall, clip my words a little bit, substitute “yeah” for a precise “yes.” I’m curious what they’ll see next. If the tits don’t tip them off, and the voice doesn’t tip them off, will they wise up to my gentle jawline, my delicate hands, my shallow brow ridge, or some subtle social cue of feminine behavior that I’m not even conscious of performing?
So much of the reading of gender is below consciousness – mine as well as theirs. So I try to slow these moments down, pay more attention, see what I can pull out.
Of course, the answer is that most of the time I can’t read the person’s mind. I can’t tell what they responded to, what they thought.
The man selling hummus doesn’t correct himself, but I can see the second look as he watches me eat the hummus, which, incidentally, is delicious.
He tells another customer about the special deal – five for the price of four – and then turns back to me. “It’s good, yes?”
“Yes. Very tasty.”
He talks me into another sample – the same stuffed bread, with butternut squash dip, hummus, and sweet and sour carrots.
As I chew, he motions stroking his chin, nods towards mine, and says, “This looks good!”
“Thanks!” I smile. A compliment always feels good.
“I like it!”
“How… How do you… How do you grow it?”
“It just grows there.”
He looked puzzled.
“It just grows there,” I repeat, “I just stopped shaving.”
“Hm. Wow,” he purses his lips and raises his eyebrows, nodding. He thinks for a moment, nods approvingly. “It looks good. I like it!”
He smiles and nods again, then goes back to discussing the merits of the lentil-curry spread with seasoned carrots. I take him up on the five for the price of four deal, getting one of everything except the jalapeno.