Imagine a pair of boots. A sturdy, well-made, kind of nondescript pair of boots. They are functional enough, but kind of plain. Imagine that you live in a country where every citizen is issued this one pair of boots at birth, and that there are no other footwear options permitted by law. If you grow out of or wear through the soles of these government-issued boots, you may trade them in for a new pair, always identical to your old ones. Imagine that everyone you know wears these very same boots without question or complaint.
Now imagine that your right foot is two sizes bigger than your left one. No matter what you do, one boot will chafe, and the other will slip, and both will cause blisters. When you mention your discomfort you are told that odd-sized boots are forbidden, because they cause confusion and excess paperwork. It is explained to you that this footwear system works perfectly for everyone else, and reminded that there are people in other countries who have no boots at all.
You are beat up in grade three because none of the other kids have ever seen feet like yours. The teacher tells you that you should probably just learn to keep your boots on. Your parents blame each other. You end up wearing an extra sock on your small foot to compensate, and never go to swimming pools. Your feet sweat profusely in the summer and you always undress in the dark. You hate your feet but need them to walk and stand up on. You hate your boots even more. You dream of things that look like sandals and moccasins, but you have no words for them.
You learn things will be easier for you if you just never talk about your feet. One time on the bus, you spot a guy with the exact same limp as you, but you pretend not to see him. He watches you limp off at your bus stop and then looks the other way. You can’t stop thinking about the man with the limp for weeks. You are nineteen years old and until that day on the bus you thought you were the only person in the country who couldn’t fit into their boots.
I have always felt this way about gender pronouns, that “she” pinches a little and “he” slips off me too easily. I’m often asked by well-intentioned people which pronoun I prefer, and I always say the same thing: that I don’t really have a preference, that neither pronoun really fits, but thank you for asking, all the same. Then I tell them they can call it like they see it, or mix it up a little if they wish. Or, they can try to avoid using he or she altogether. I suggest this even though I am fully aware of the fact it is almost impossible to talk about anything other than yourself or inanimate objects without using a gender specific pronoun.
It is especially hard at gigs, when the poor host has to get up and introduce me to the audience. No matter which pronoun the host goes with, there is always someone cringing in the crowd, convinced an uncomfortable mistake has just been made. I know it would be easier if I just picked a pronoun and stuck with it, but that would be a compromise made for the comfort of everyone else but me. A decision that would inevitably leave me with a blister, or even a nasty rash.
Perfect strangers have been asking me if I am a boy or a girl as far back as I can remember. Not all of them are polite about it. Some are just curious, others ask me like they have every right to know, as if my ambiguity is a personal insult to their otherwise completely understandable reality. Few of them seem to realize they have just interrupted my day to demand I give someone I don’t know personal information they don’t really need to sell me a movie ticket or a newspaper.
I have learned the hard way to just answer the question politely, so they don’t think I’m rude. In my braver days, when someone asked if I was a boy or a girl, I would say something flip and witty, like “yes” or “no” or “makes you wonder, doesn’t it?,” but I found this type of tactic greatly increased the chances I would get the living shit kicked out of me, so I eventually knocked it off. Then I went through a phase where I would answer calmly, and then casually ask them something equally as personal, such as did they have chest hair or were they satisfied with the size of their penis or were those their real breasts, just so they would see how it felt, but this proved just as ineffective.
A couple months ago, as I was smoking outside the Anza Club after a gig, this young guy marched up and interrupted the person I was talking with to ask me if I was a man or a woman. I told him I was a primarily estrogen-based organism, and then I asked him the exact same question. He took two steps back and dropped his jaw.
“I’m a man.” He seemed visibly shaken by the thought of any other option.
“And were you just born male?” I continued, winking at my companion.
“Well, yeah, of course I was.”
“How interesting.” I lit another smoke.
“Hard to tell these days,” my friend chimed in.
The guy walked off, looking confused and kind of vulnerable.
“He’s gone home to grow a moustache,” my buddy said, then laughed and shook his head.
I thought about it later, how the guy’s ego had crumpled right in front of us, just because a stranger had questioned his masculinity. How scared he was of not being a real man, how easy it had been to take him down. It dawned on me that if you’ve never had a blister, then you’ll never have a callous, either. And if your soles are too soft, then you are fucked if you ever lose your boots.