It was at a recent event during LGBT+ history month, held at an illustrious national society aimed at the promotion discussion of diversity and inclusion in STEM subjects when, returning from the bathroom, I encountered a member of the hospitality team whose immediate response was ‘oh, excuse me sir’. Innocuous enough you may say except, I’m not a ‘sir’ at all. The irony was not lost on me or my partner when I recounted the story. How, at an event whereby we had been asked to specify our preferred gendered pronouns that were also printed on our name badges, could someone get it wrong?
This was not a solitary occurrence. As a woman in my 30’s I am consistently ‘sir-ed’ and the incidences of mistaken identity in public bathrooms are too many to count. Rather than face the questioning looks or comments I will purposefully use non-gendered or accessible bathrooms wherever possible. Why? I have stopped asking although if I ran a quick poll when such things occurred I can imagine responses would be like the numerous apologetic comments I get once the inquisitors actually see my face or hear my voice; ‘I didn’t see you properly’, ‘From the back I thought….’, ‘your clothes’, ‘the way you’re dressed’, ‘your hair’. Instantaneous snap judgments on gender based on appearance that seem to create a need to comment rather than acceptance. Bizarrely, these judgements on my womanhood are primarily made by women and rarely by men.
I have tried to justify it many times myself. I am about 5ft 8, quote broad shouldered, have short hair and generally attire myself in menswear and androgynous clothing. Would I use this as basis for the labelling of gender? The short answer is no. Possibly because of my own appearance or growing up in Brighton or because I’m openly gay, when I look at someone my immediate response isn’t are they male/female, and I would never feel the need to comment on someone else’s gender identity. Believe me, if anyone knows what bathroom facilities I should be using it’s them. If I walked into the men’s I’m sure I would be greeted with a similar ‘what are you doing here?’. This matter is not to be confused with the that of non-gendered/gendered bathrooms in relation to transgendered/non-binary people, (although I’m all for people using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity), it’s purely used as an example of one of the day-to-day issues faced even in such ‘modern’ metropolis’ of culture and acceptance such as as London.
Not that I really see it as an issue anymore, depending on my mood I either just ignore it or am forthright in telling any questioning souls as they recheck the sign on the door that yes, they are in the right place. My acceptance of it as a fact of life has now more been replaced by the outrage of my friends/partners, (past and present), whose response is generally ‘but you’re clearly a woman!’. To those who know me or really look as me yes, but wider society still seems to question it. At the same event I also engaged in conversation with a woman whose immediate assumption was that I was trans. In a way, this can only be a good thing as we are seeing increasing awareness of trans and non-binary gender identities. It is also another question I have faced before because, despite the progress made in gender identity and acceptance, some people still can’t grasp you can have short hair and be wearing a suit and tie, yet still be a woman.
This leads to where my main question lies, in the disparity between public perception of gender and the cause of inclusion. I should mention now that I am an engineer, master of rocket science and currently studying for my doctorate in advanced materials; not career options many would consider ‘typical’ for a woman. The promotion of women in STEM subjects is one that I fully believe in and one that needs continued publicity and action. We need to promote careers in such subject as valid career options among the younger generation and attain more equal representation of women across these industries. Many notable and worthwhile societies and institutions exist to do just this. Events such as the annual International Women in Engineering Day, campaigns across various media and nationally recognised awards all strive to celebrate, promote and encourage women in traditionally male dominated industries. The problem I find however, is that to be ‘role model’ or an example to young women/girls to engage with a career in such subjects, there is still a need to conform to generalised perceptions of ‘women’. To be an advocate of women in STEM subjects you have to ‘look’ like a woman. So where does that leave me?
My partner recently wrote an article expressing a similar opinion about what it means to be gay. Herself, much more conventionally ‘feminine’ than myself, would never have her gender questioned yet often people ask ‘what’s his name?’ in regards to her partner or immediately assume she is heterosexual. That’s because in public opinion, lesbians look like me. That’s despite modern culture more frequently portraying gay woman as beautiful, feminine or sometimes more ‘alternative’. Whilst it can only be praised that we are seeing more representation of LGBT+ characters in mainstream media, the stereotypical representation of lesbians of old, with a buzzcut and flannel shirt, has long since passed. Now it’s cocktails, manicures and make-up, so why does society still question sexuality in relation to how you choose to wear your gender?
In reality we are all, as women and/or as part of the LGBT+ community, somewhere in between. Our experiences of how we portray our gender and how it is perceived are as individual as every one of us. We have common ideals and goals towards the equality and promotion of our women in wider society. My own personal experience unfortunately is that I can be one, not the other. I can be a ‘lesbian’ and promote LGBT+ issues, yet I can’t just be a ‘woman’. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so detrimental to what we are trying to achieve. The word ‘diversity’, so widely thrown around these days, means that we must stop questioning ourselves when fighting for the parity of women. Instead, we should accept and promote these differences that can only make us stronger.
Please note: This post is solely based on my own personal experiences and I welcome any comments and constructive discussion on the topic.