When did you pretend not to care?

Every day, I pretend not to care. I have tried many ways to express this — I am not male, I am not masculine, I don’t think like a man. But I look like one. At least, to me, I look like one and often sound like one, too, as my voice is rather deeper than I would prefer it to be. That’s a huge problem for me because no matter how I dress or act, neither of which is realistically very masculine, I am assumed to be male on sight without question. Of course, some people also see me as a woman on sight, often because of the clothes and makeup. But I get the former far more often.

So when this happens, I have to ask myself the question — how much do I want to have to talk about this today, in this moment with this person? There was a time when I would discuss my genderless status with every person I encountered. It is a painful discussion to have, as anyone who has even had to do it once can certainly attest. But to have it a dozen times a day, often far more often, is exhausting and makes me want to hide at home, preferably under blankets and sobbing into my own hair (in the absence of traditional sleeves, which do indeed work as well for wiping sad eyes as is implied in Genji and the like).

Anyone who knows me well is well aware of my absence of gender. But even that is an ongoing battle with my on need to feel comfortable, balancing that need against my need not to be confrontational. When people use words like “he” and “she”, it is almost a physical pain within myself, not my ears but my head, a dull throbbing that feels very much like a sudden change in pressure during a flight. There’s no escaping that until people stop doing it.

The only way people are going to stop doing that is if I constantly explain and remind — especially people who didn’t grow up with an understanding of gender being a completely socially-derived concept that has nothing to do with biology or body parts but is about performance and expectation. How many times have I had a lengthy conversation about why “it” or “they” is acceptable but gendered words are not? How many times has the person looked at me with a blank look of utter confusion, not as a way of rejecting it but clearly unable to comprehend that a word like “he” is as loaded and aggressive a term as those deprecating words used for races or sexual orientation. There is one major difference, though. It is very rare that people use racist terms without knowing that they’re racist. Sometimes they use them without thinking but they are definitely aware of it when they have their attention drawn to it. Even if you are a racist, you know that that’s the content of those words.

Gender, though, that is a very confusing one for most people. They think that gender is something that is connected to biological sex. It’s not. Biological dimorphism is certainly a thing but we are differentiated not simply by sexual traits. You could classify humans in any number of ways and the differences would be just as obvious and just as biological. You could group people into classifications by hair color, by skin color, by height, by bone density, by face shape, by blood type. All of these are biologically deterministic markers of differentiation that would be quite easy to divide humans into — those who have A-type blood and those who have O-type blood (and I am aware there are several others but I’m just using this as an example) are easy to separate and have distinct medical profiles. Those who have high bone density are easily separable from those with low bone density and their health concerns are different, growth patterns varied, etc. There are many things that you can determine about someone’s body by their hormonal balance (their biological sex) but just as many that can be determined by many other genetically-determined division markers. Why have we as a society normalized sexual dimorphism as a basis for constructing expectations for behavior? Mostly because it provided a convenient way for one half of the population to own and subjugate the other and, once that was programmed in for enough generations, the subjugated half accepted that and this balance remains to this day — how many people who identify as women fit the stereotype of love-obsessed, man-crazy wedding-focused child producers? Many. Not all, by any stretch of the imagination. But a huge proportion, maybe even as many as half, even a hundred years after democratic emancipation in many western countries.

That basic lesson in historical cultural dimorphism aside, the older you are, in general, the more difficult it is for you to understand that your idea of linking physical sex and societal gender has no basis in objective reality. For example, my parents love me deeply and always have. And they make a serious effort to call me “it” or “they” (most genderless people prefer “they” but I prefer “it” for reasons that I can certainly explain if that confuses anyone) but they don’t know why it hurts so much. And they frequently, when not making such a concerted effort, call me by gendered words. So when they are talking to their friends, for example, they might not think to call me “it” — in fact, they have told me on several occasions that their friends seem to judge them as disrespectful of their child when they use genderless words to refer to me and they don’t want to come across as unkind. I have many friends who are religious leaders, too, and they more than most seem to have a lot of difficulty making genderless references to people the norm, even when talking about or to someone like me, who has openly expressed a preference for it. In the case of Jewish and Christian leaders, I suspect this has something to do with the fact that they have a gendered notion of divinity and find it difficult to think of humanity in a genderless way. In the case of Buddhist and Hindu leaders, I suspect it has something to do far more with the notion of the separation of religious communities by gender in a historical sense — still today, there is an awkward problem whenever I visit a Buddhist temple that the scholars are separated into “monks” and “nuns”, neither of which is an appropriate place for me to be situated and it is even more awkward for me to go to temple at an Orthodox synagogue or, perhaps more throughly difficult, a mosque, almost all of which are gender-segregated with no place for those who don’t have one — seriously, if you haven’t seen my passport or birth certificate, it legit has an X in the gender box, something that has caused me untold questions in immigration lines, I can assure you.

So I pretend it’s not a big deal. There are other, far larger questions. For example, it doesn’t show that people I care about don’t care about me. There’s no need for me to turn every conversation into one about gender identity — I don’t want to have the conversation and I’m sure other people get quickly rather tired of it. Yes, we need to fix the issue that people aren’t using genderless terms automatically but that is something that will take time and it will, more importantly, take cultural change that hasn’t happened and that most people don’t seem to want to make happen. I can’t fix this problem, even for those directly around me, without driving them completely crazy on a constant basis, unless the cultural norms themselves shift and those linguistic and behavioral standards recondition the people who are (usually inadvertently) causing me pain with their speech and writing.

Most people, I have noticed, pretend to care. I believe that’s probably the most recognizable trait of the modern idea of relationship — two people who have completely different goals and dreams, ways of life and interest, pretending to be interested in each other for more than the stability of the relationship and the sexual contact that comes from it. There’s a line from a movie, although I can’t for anything remember which one — and I’ve searched but the internet is often lacking, as it is at this time. “Boys dance with girls so they’ll have sex with them. Girls sleep with boys so they’ll dance with them.” It’s not necessarily true in terms of the gender roles or specifically relating to dance but it’s absolutely the norm in modern relationships where there’s an expectation of commitment, a forgiveness of infidelity, a general understanding that friends will be independent and together-time will often be relegated only to planned dates and sexual encounters and a premium put not on quiet time or peace but on “emotional space” apart from partners. People are pretending to care when what they really want is a stable partnership with the additional option (implied necessity?) of sexuality.

Me, though, I have to pretend not to care. Not about people — I care very deeply about those I am close to, definitely more than most do. I make up for that caring by having an absolute lack of interest in the general public. I will help people, certainly, strangers included. But I don’t care what people outside my close friend network think or feel or do. I pretend not to care that the words from the mouths and fingers of the people I am closest to hurt me deeply. I pretend not to care that they don’t understand how vital it is to me to be accepted without the expectations or viewpoints of gender. Because if I don’t pretend, my whole life becomes about it and my whole relationship with everyone in my life becomes an ongoing and repetitive discussion of my lack of gender. And that’s something I wouldn’t want to put anyone through, including myself.

Shakespeare is vastly overrated. But he did get one thing right — all the world, indeed, is a stage and we are nothing but players. We pretend to care, pretend not to care, pretend to be many things throughout our lives, often shifting minute to minute. Some days, I just have to accept that either I’m going to fight or I’m going to be fitted into categories of “woman” and “man” in people’s minds. Someday people may stop thinking of the world in a divided way. Someday we may also have outposts in Alpha Centauri. I wouldn’t put money on which will come first, though, but if you want to insist, I’d have to expect the second.