“I’m sorry I have to ask you this, but are you a ‘sir’ or a ‘madam’?”
The security guard at the Taj Mahal looked at me earnestly. He was helping me figure out where to store my daypack. The lockers were at another entrance, I’d found out. I couldn’t bring in my computer that was tucked in the depths of my bag.
But first, he had to know this one thing.
When I left for India, I had all the intentions of passing as a man. I was worried about safety. Boyeon and I bought matching rings so we could pretend to be a married (heterosexual) couple, if necessary. I was totally prepared.
Except that I was also totally silly. All those things I read online made it seem like Indian men would be leering at and harassing us constantly. Our experience couldn’t have been farther from that highly shared stereotype. (When I was talking to my buddy Keyes about this, they said an Indian friend of theirs suggested that painting India as a scary place for women (and especially white women) to travel arises from the racist notion that, without the West, postcolonial India has reverted to its “uncivilized,” pre-colonial ways.)
That said, Boyeon and I covered a lot of ourselves, didn’t go out late, etc. And while I know that nothing causes sexual assault/harassment except the assailant, we wanted to abide by local customs, too—and not draw more attention to ourselves than we already did.
Granted, men populated the streets, especially at night. They were the shopkeepers, hoteliers, and waitstaff. There was a pervasive presence of masculinity and notable absence of women in lots of places. Group members of a tour I took in Northern India were encouraged “not to make eye contact with men” because it could be considered a come-on.
So all of that is also true, but I never felt the need to pass as a man for protection.
Besides, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to even if I tried.
In Korea, it was everywhere. No matter where I went, what level of tomboy I offered in my clothing choices. It was [accusing glare] “This is the women’s restroom,” “Are you her boyfriend?,” or “Men this way, please.”
When we walked the streets of Kolkata, it was almost immediately “madam-madam-madam” (though that would change to about a 50-50 split later on in the trip).
I wondered what the difference was. What gendered markers had changed from there to here? How did I fail to fit onlookers’ expectations of “male” or “female” from one day to another? What was the equation?
That’s not to say I didn’t elicit confusion. At the hotel where I was staying in Agra, I was one of the only guests, and so I ended up having long conversations with a couple of the staff members (who just happened to be men). Both had initially mistaken me for a man when they saw me from behind. “That’s smart,” one told me. “You probably get bothered less on the streets. Much safer. Do you just dress like this when you travel?”
“I dress like this all the time,” I said.
Or while having tea on the rooftop of the hotel, I got into a deep conversation with the other staff person. “Did something happen to make you dress like a man?” he asked.
I shook my head. Sure, I cut my hair off after a bad breakup, but I knew my gender expression was something totally separated from that.
“I just finally gave myself permission to be who I am,” I said.
When he made a comment later about how I could probably find a nice man or woman dressed like that, he laughed, but the joke hit a little too close to home, especially since India isn’t really known for its queer-friendliness.
“No, no,” I demurred, and I laughed, too, to cover whatever truth he had inadvertently unburied.
He apologized, his face sincere. “I didn’t mean any offense.”
Of course, India isn’t the only place I where elicited this kind of confusion. I was patted down by a male security guard who mistook me for a man at an airport in Malaysia, to the giggles of his female coworkers. I was constantly told I was in the wrong restroom or sauna entrance in South Korea. High school students in Jamaica couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl. And in the U.S., my non-binary travel buddy Keyes got misgendered by the TSA, and I was even called “ladybug” once by an agent at an airport in Atlanta.
In fact, in contrast to many white European cultures, gender fluidity has long been a part of Indian culture, with its gender-bending Hindu gods and goddesses and the recognition of hijras, a trans or “third gender” identity that has existed since antiquity (until outlawed by British colonial law in the 1800s).
And the effects of British colonial laws that criminalized homosexual acts and gender diversity have been long-lasting, not only culturally but also legally: It was only in 2014 that hijras reclaimed legal recognition under Indian law (though they still often experience discrimination); and though the LGBTQ rights movement is alive and well in India, the law forbidding homosexuality has yet to be repealed.
I was in the subway in Delhi, and I was going through the ladies’ security line.
Security stations like that were everywhere—metal detectors and pat-downs by gender-specific officers. The thing was, these women’s spaces made me feel safe in a geography dominated by men and masculinity. Two rows in the center of the Kolkata subway cars had signs over them—“Ladies Only.” Boyeon had accidentally sat there once, and we were surrounded by the bright saris and light laughter and kids on laps and students with backpacks and an invisible line that kept the men to the sides. That said, “this is a women’s space—one that had to be created because the terrible things that have been done to us by men.”
And yet, in that subway car, I stood as close to the edge of that invisible line as possible. I felt like a lurker, an interloper. I didn’t want to be called out, to have to explain myself, to have to stick out my chest or raise my voice to prove that I belonged.
Because I don’t. And yet I do.
When given two options, what else can I choose?
Back in the Delhi subway security line, the female officer doing the pat-down looked at me as if scandalized. “Are you a woman?” she asked sharply, loudly, stepping back.
I sighed. “Yes, yes, I am,” I said.
She patted me down and sent me on my way.
I was on my way to lunch with a friend of a friend. She’d suggested meeting on the platform at Karol Bagh, the nearest stop to where I was staying, and then taking the women’s car. One or two cars on each train is designated women-only in response to the high rates of sexual harassment on Delhi public transportation, and it was an easy enough place to find each other. I’d said sure, knowing what might happen—but also knowing what might happen in the general cars. And after all, my passport said “F,” so I reasoned that I had every right to be there.
We got on the car and within minutes, I was gently reproached by a concerned young Indian woman (who, to her credit, probably thought she was being helpful to a wayward foreigner). “Excuse me. This is a women’s only car,” she said.
“I’m a woman.”
“Oh, sorry.” She gave me a brief smile that seemed to offer both an apology and a recognition of our kinship. Our shared womanness. Our shared right to this space.
Or maybe I’m just reading into things.
Regardless, the same thing would happen on the subway ride back.
The next day, when I rode the subway with my tour group and the other women piled into the women-only car, I hesitated. The other general cars were full, so our tour leader sent the women on ahead and told them to meet us in two stops. I waited with our guide and a couple other guys until the next train came.
While the risk of causing confusion brings problems of its own, I think being masculine-of-center has its benefits while traveling. I honestly think that part of my ease as a solo traveler in India (for the times when I went solo) was bolstered by my knowledge that I don’t look particularly feminine.
That walking alone during the evening, lit by only headlights and the glow of restaurant windows, I might be mistaken for a man (and thus left alone).
Or in restaurants, when mistaken for a “sir,” I’d try to drop my voice to its lowest alto when ordering. I’d let the misgendering slide, knowing that that misidentification might give me an extra layer of comfort in a restaurant full of men.
But that can also backfire. In a yoga class near Rishikesh (yoga capital of the world!), I think the (male) instructor felt more comfortable physically adjusting my body than that of the other six (female) practitioners because he perceived me to be a man. It wasn’t until about halfway through the yoga session that he must have had second thoughts, at which time he said, “Women, roll over to your right. If you’re a man, roll to your left.” After that, he stopped adjusting me almost entirely.
I wish I had rolled forward to backward on the mat instead (which a friend later suggested on Facebook). But I didn’t. Internally disgruntled, I rolled to my right. And in gaining that recognition, I lost a bit of it also.
And for some reason, I was embarrassed and annoyed, knowing that I was the source of confusion in that pointed question. That there was something in me that was not enough of something. And it reminded me how it was that lack of “enoughness” that made it so I didn’t belong in the women’s car or the women’s line or whatever bathroom I went into to do my business. That made me raise the pitch of my voice when someone looked at me in shock in women’s restrooms in Seoul. That caused me to forego wearing my most masculine clothes when going to the sauna so I wouldn’t be directed once more to the men’s section.
In this class full of (more feminine-than-I-am) women, I felt the red arrow pointing directly at me—another you do not belong here or you are Other.
Not from the other women (who were in my tour group and were fabulous), but from the very question that had implicitly been raised—What are you?
It wasn’t until I came to Nepal a few weeks ago that I started wearing my binder again. With so many gender-segregated entrances and security lines in India, it didn’t seem safe to go more masculine. I had to convince people every day—in all these small ways—that I was the right person in the right place that I didn’t want to push my luck.
Still, after being “madamed” through all of Kolkata, when I walked the streets of Bangalore weeks later, I heard a familiar refrain from vendors, something that reminded me of the reaction I often elicited in grocery lines back home—the blurring of something definitive, and the closest naming of my lived identity that I might get on this journey:
“Madam—brother—could you please—”
I couldn’t help but smile as I walked on by.