Offbeat Academia: Identity comments don’t faze self-esteem

A case of mistaken gender identity isn’t as offensive as apologizing for it.

Winter has taken my identity, or what’s left of it.

On any day in February, at any time, I can be found wearing at least three layers of clothes – ratty clothes, at that. I get my brother’s hand-me-ups (he’s a mustachioed 13-year-old, already taller than I am), one being his black and blue nylon coat. And some boy ripped all the tassels off my gray hat in eighth grade.

If my chest wasn’t small enough, it’s virtually non-existent now. Whatever subjective curves I had – gone. I am now a little boy.

But this didn’t just start in December. I’ve been a little boy since I was 5. My mom dressed me up as a vagabond for Halloween, cutting the fingertips off my gloves and using her eye pencil to spot my cheeks and chin with stubble. At every house, they asked my sex before I got a piece of candy. What a hassle! That’s probably why I opted for Tinkerbell the next year.

I didn’t wear an underwire bra until I was 14 (even then, I had room inside an A-cup). I got along with boys in high school because I was one. Boys felt OK around me because I was one.

Once I came to college, I had matured enough to fulfill my feminine role or so I thought. My parents and I went out for breakfast the morning I moved into 1300 residence hall last year. The waitress chatted us up a bit after we’d finished our meals.

“How old is he?” she asked my mom in a hushed voice with a smile. I let it go and answered for her.

“I’m 18.” She wouldn’t believe me.

“You must be 12,” she laughed. She thought I was playing around, until my father stepped in.

“No, she’s 18, and she’s a girl.”

I felt uncomfortable because the waitress looked so embarrassed. She mumbled a few apologies, took the check and left. I laughed it off with my parents and forgot about it immediately. We were standing up when she returned.

“Oh, well, now I can see you’re a girl.”

Oh yes, because now that I’m standing, you can clearly make out my voluptuous female figure.

“Your hair’s so short, and you were slouching a bit, so I couldn’t tell.”

OK, lady, you’re making a scene. I didn’t cry or anything, so you don’t really have to apologize.

I’m tired of people feeling sorry for me or giving me that hand on the shoulder and saying, “You’re obviously a girl.” No one is going to know much about me on the first encounter, so what makes gender more significant than other aspects of my character?

I write this confession not only as a testimony to my experience, which may be shared by others, but also as an opportunity to come out of my androgynous closet. I can look like a boy. You don’t know anything I don’t.

So please, don’t try to sympathize when the clerk mistakes me for your little brother. You’re only creating tension. When the nursing home resident called me a “young man,” I felt no loss of pride or self-esteem. Don’t apologize for him or correct him. He might tell me a good joke or show me a magic trick.

And please don’t try to comfort me by reassuring me of my femininity. I create my own. I don’t care about the way I look. I appreciate a 12-year-old boy just as much as I do a 19-year-old girl, so I take it all the same. Who has time to get in a rut about gender identity anyway?
Don’t be so nervous about your pronouns.

Sarah Sanders can be reached at

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