When I was little, I tried to go to the toilet in a fancy restaurant but had to go back to my parents to ask them if I was “Male” or “Female” because I didn’t understand the door signs. If my life was a novel, my editor would be annoyed at me for over-foreshadowing.
My feet start to involuntarily dance as I fumble for the towel in my freezing bathroom. I squint at the hands on the dial of my watch, resting on the cistern next to my glasses and my phone, which is blaring out some track from my Spotify discover playlist. I’m going to be late.
I shut off the phone, apply glasses with a well rehearsed one handed wrist-flick-and-raise, while I desperately clutch my towel with the other. I spin round and throw a cursory glance in the mirror as I dart to my bedroom to throw on some close and try to catch this bloody bus.
I really need to get my hair cut.
The mirror in my flat is the perfect size for me, which I’m sad to say was definitely a deciding factor when I was choosing where to live a few months ago. I don’t know exactly how big it is, but all I can see when I look into it is my face. And I really have to make an effort to look into it if I want to see myself, so there’s no chance of an accidental glance, and definitely no way for me to have to gaze upon my own naked body.
My fringe flops over my face as I peer down into my wallet to grab some shrapnel for the bus driver.
“There you go mate,” he indicates to the ticket as closes the doors and drives on.
Mate, mate, maaatttteeeee. It doesn’t sound like a gendered pronoun. But when an old scouse bus driver calls you it, it is. Lad, son, mate. They’re all one in the same. And I hear them a lot. To be fair, with my hair at this length now it’s about 50/50 split between “mate” and “love” depending on whether or not you can see the outline of my breasts through my clothes.
Check my watch, just enough time to swing by Primark before work. I need to grab a couple of pairs of black jeans, nothing special, but I’ve lost some weight recently so I needed to try them on. The shop’s about as quiet as Primark gets, and I follow my usual route, straight downstairs to the men’s section. I grab a couple of pairs around the last waist measurement I can remember having and go to try them on. I have to go up two escalators to get to the women’s fitting room.
And this is the part where I always feel like what I imagine it must feel like smuggling drugs through customs, or buying an underage drink, or sneaking into a second film at the movies after your one has finished. I’m sure I’m going to get stopped and questioned. I’m going to get caught. Because I shouldn’t actually be going to the women’s fitting rooms, nor should I go to the men’s. I should be in a gender neutral fitting room – but they’re a bit like a first edition Charizard Pokemon trading card; I’ve heard they exist, but I’m unlikely to find one in my local Primark. But I needn’t have worried this time; the attendant doesn’t even look at me as she asks
“How many, love?” then keys the number into the pad on the way, glancing only half over her shoulder as she passes me the card and waves me through. Love.
Nine times out of ten this is the case, the attendant (if there is one) is usually paying more attention to the number of items and the length of the queue behind me, than my body shape. The one time in ten that they do stop me, it always ends in public embarrassment (for them, not for me). I have a brilliant sense of humour about the entire thing, but you have to, you learn to play the game. Like when the woman at the counter for the fitting room at store I last bought a suit at, informed me (and half the queue behind me.
“You can’t come in here, you need to go upstairs to the MENS fitting rooms.”
“But why?” (I feign innocence).
“Because this is the WOMENS fitting room.”
“I don’t understand…”
“You need to go to the MENS to try this on.”
“But I am a woman.”
And I swear to god I have never seen the colour drop from someone’s face so quickly. Sure she apologised until she was blue in the face, but I really didn’t mind. I found the whole incident hilarious. Considering that to get to this fitting room I had to go down two escalators, and through a huge lingerie section, to a pink doorway (not a euphemism) adorned with a massive sign reading “WOMEN’S” – the idea that I’d wandered in there by mistake was ridiculous.
But none of that today. I find an empty cubicle, draw the curtain shut behind me and start kicking my shoes off as I try to avoid the three floor length mirrors glaring at me. I didn’t connect my mirror aversion to my gender dysphoria until I was in my late, adult teens. I’d never even heard of gender dysphoria until I was leaving college – and I didn’t want to admit that I probably had it until the end of my first year of university. For a long time I was worried that I hated my breasts because I wanted to be a man, but I found the prospect of a sex change completely terrifying so I ignored it. Discovering that gender neutrality, and non-binary-ness was a thing, was one of the biggest reliefs I’ve ever had. I hadn’t realised there was a difference between knowing I wasn’t a girl, and wanting to be a boy. There’s the brilliant grey ground in the middle; being neither.
My gender dysphoria is mainly related to my breasts. I really do hate them. I never wanted them, and if I had the courage and the money I’d get what’s called ‘top – surgery’ to remove them. But in the absence of that option I cope with sports bras and doing my very best not to look at them. Like any mental health condition (and that’s what I feel gender dysphoria is for me at least) I get good days and bad days. Today was a good day; I didn’t feel horrendous when I got naked for the shower, and opted for one of my less baggy black t-shirts for work.
But now, standing in the ugly glow of the fitting room cubicle, staring at myself from three slightly different angles, I’m glad I need jeans and not shirts. I’ve never had an issue with my vagina/crotch area. One of the main reasons I was so confused about my gender dysphoria to start with was because I didn’t feel like I wanted a penis, nor did I feel disgusted at my female genitals. This even goes as far as my underwear. I have very strong feelings about what clothes I can and can’t wear (gender dysphoria fun!). I only wear men’s clothes, but nothing “laddish”, so there are a lot of chequered shirts in my wardrobe. A trans man once let me in on a big secret; the cheques hide and mask ‘feminine’ curves and make you look more masculine. But, I wear boxers and knickers depending merely on which I grab out of the drawer, when I reach in in the morning (unless I’m on my period) and on the whole I’m totally unfussed about the matter.
“Unfussed” I think, is the best way to describe my approach to my gender. I don’t tend to tell people that I’m gender neutral, in the same way that I don’t tell them that I’m a lesbian. For me it’s totally personal and affects only the most intimate moments of my life.
The only part of my life where I feel like I have genuine problems because I do not ascribe to socially defined binary roles, is when I have my hair cut.
I like to wear my hair, like the rest of my appearance, short and towards the masculine side of androgynous. This is a very hard thing to explain to a female hairdresser, who is used to doing curly blows (is that a thing? It sounds like a thing?) and foiling women’s hair so they can sit for half an hour reading a women’s magazine. I’ve always avoided getting my hair cut. For me, a hairdressing salon is such an extraordinarily feminine environment that I genuinely feel suffocated being in them. But I’d feel just as uncomfortable in a gents barber’s shop. What I need, more than a gender neural fitting room, or bathroom, or pronoun, is a gender neutral hairdresser. Not a unisex hairdresser who does boys or girls. A hairdresser who understands that for queer people, our hair is an incredibly important part of how we expresses our true selves. That sounds a bit prosaic, what I actually need is a hairdresser who when I ask for a short haircut and explain how I need it to look, doesn’t try give me the “power bob”.
Until I find one of those I’m biding my time until the morning’s “I really need to get my hair cut” announcement to my tiny mirror becomes “I need a haircut NOW” …. I can probably stand a few more inches (again not a euphemism.)
I find the size that fits me, and take them to the check out. I’m served by a trans woman who seems to be at the beginning of transitioning. I make a point of complimenting the colour of her lipstick, because I know how important it is for her to ‘pass’, to look the way she feels, and her face lights up. And, see this is the thing. This is the reason there is a huge difference between sex and gender. This is why for me I don’t care that I’ve got a vagina but if my breasts dropped off tomorrow I wouldn’t grieve them. Sex is biological, it’s chemical, it’s functional. But gender is image. It’s role. It’s perception. If you saw a photograph of my lower half in my new jeans, you would have no idea whether society says I’m supposed to be good at making sandwiches and bad at driving, or supposed to pay for the date and not allowed to cry. But if you saw my top half, in a well-fitting t-shirt like the one I’m wearing now, you’d know exactly where I’m “supposed” to fit in.
But I just don’t. I’ve never fit in. And I’m never going to. And that’s fantastic.