Ever wonder what it's like to live as the other gender? No, I am not announcing my upcoming plans to transition. But leaving San Francisco to travel through 16 countries this year on a mission to find the Supergays for our upcoming documentary, I discovered how much gender is a binary concept.
The misconception of my identity has been most evident in South America where daily greetings are dictated by gender. Upon meeting someone, women kiss other people on the cheek. But when a man meets another man, a firm handshake replaces a kiss. Numerous times I've been offered a handshake by a man only to have to pull him in and respond with a kiss on the cheek instead.
Even when I'm not faced with the "to kiss or not to kiss" debacle, gender pronouns remain an issue. I can't tell you the number of times that my partner and I have walked into a restaurant or a hotel and been greeted with "Hola amigos." As soon as I hear "amigos" instead of "amigas," I know that they think I'm a man.
Deciding how to react can be a challenge. Often times, I correct people and say, "Soy una mujer. Yo se que soy diferente." meaning "I am a woman. I know I am different." In this way I try to open up people's minds to alternative ideas of gender. But sometimes I get too darn tired of explaining myself, so I pretend not to notice.
The hardest part of all this is trying to maintain my own sense of confidence and esteem while others whisper about me behind my back (or sometimes in front of my face but in a different language). Of course the self-consciousness creeps in. I'm someone who hates sticking out in general.
It took me most of my teens and twenties to gain the confidence to stop hiding behind feminine pretenses and start dressing in a masculine way that felt most natural to me. Living in San Francisco, I felt validated by other butch lesbian friends who presented themselves in the same way. That's when I finally got the guts to cut my hair and wear the clothes I wanted. One surprising result of this change was that I scored a lot more dates. I don't think it was the hairstyle that caught the attention of others so much as my comfort in my own skin.
In a queer mecca like San Francisco where butch women are all over the place, it's easy to feel comfortable. But when you are the only one who looks like you, it's impossible to hide. I felt the most normal traveling in Africa and South America when my "bros" Krista and Megan (shown in photos) came to visit me during the year. When I had another buddy with me who also got stared at, I felt less alone.
Being a foreign traveler for a year, I've often felt just that... foreign. I don't fit into the 'norm.' These feelings are probably the same for an African-American person visiting China, or a Western woman traveling through Muslim countries, or a disabled person in any part of the world. When you don't fit the status quo, people can sometimes get hostile or fearful and you take in their negative judgment. Other times, people just stare with curiosity.
I've had the opportunity to reflect on how much I've changed in the last decade since I last traveled for an extended period. Yes, there is now a short haircut, clothes from the men's department, and a wallet instead of a purse. There are some people who may say, "well you look like a dude, what do you expect others to think?" But ultimately when I look in the mirror I don't see myself trying to be a man or making a statement. I see myself just trying to be Lisa. I figure that if I can be myself and open other people's minds, maybe it is a small step for others in the world to feel free to be themselves as well.
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