In Mexico, I am 70% a man.
Buying street tacos, it’s “¿qué quiere, amigo?”
Playing dominos in the Casa de Amigos, it’s “te toca, joven.”
Walking along a strip of restaurants, it’s “caballero, te muestro la carta con platitos muy sabrosos.”
The number of times I’ve been referred to as male in the past week probably surpasses the previous 24 years of my life.
Initially, I was surprised. In the US, store clerks or security guards will sometimes see me out of the corner of their eye and call me “sir”, but as soon as they look me in the face or hear me speak, they’re all fluster and “sorry, ma’am’s”. Here in Mexico, more often than not, I get referred to as “amigo” or “caballero” or “señor”, and it sticks.
When it started to happen, I would get tense. It wasn’t being referred to as a man that I reacted to —that was in some ways more affirmation of my gender identity than I get in the US, which I’ll speak to later— it was fear of that moment when they get flustered and apologize and switch pronouns, making me have to deal with their discomfort at thinking I’m offended. I’m not offended. But I also don’t want to have to hold them while they deal with the ridiculosity of our gendered society pooping on their face. Been there. Done that. Moved on. (…. well, not completely…. I am writing this blog post!)
There was this funny little moment early on, though, that helped me relax. I had just been introduced to someone, and she was referring to me, and used the male “él”, and then paused, looked at me and was like “¿ella? ¿él? ¿ella?” “No importa,” I responded. It doesn’t matter. The conversation continued. The moment passed. A clarification had not been required. A big deal had not been made. Nobody cared.
And then there were just countless interactions with people on the streets hawking fresh mangos, restaurants, t-shirts, anything. Almost all of them would launch in with “caballero” (gentleman) and then stick with it. Even after I opened my mouth (men’s voices don’t tend to sound like mine), got up from the table (men don’t tend to wear leggings) or came closer (men tend to have facial hair), I was still read as a tall white dude. Sometimes people would switch pronouns halfway through, but it always seemed as though they’d forgotten their original assessment of my gender, because they never batted an eyelash.
In Spanish, most adjectives are gendered, which meant that as soon as I talked about myself, I had to reveal my gender identity. It got to where, in an environment where I was seen as male, I’d have a sad micro-pause before defaulting to referring to myself with female pronouns. I’d just hope people would assume I still hadn’t gotten the hang of adjective-noun agreement instead of reading me as female. Eventually, though, I started switching back and forth on purpose. Or I’d elide the ends of adjectives altogether.
It’s funny, feeling this affirmation of my identity in a place where gender roles and gender-based discrimination are stronger and more obvious than in the States. Compared to the US, women have far fewer rights (abortion is only legal in Mexico City, for example), and sexual violence is very prevalent (to the point that the public transportation system has separate train cars and bus sections for women and children only). Perhaps because the gender expressions are so much more separate and distinct, a more masculine-presenting body becomes a man’s body, instead of being open to interpretation as a butch lesbian’s, for example. In Mexico, there’s not a strong enough mental concept for me to be both a woman and have short hair and wear button-ups and slacks, whereas in the US, there are a lot more gendered mental concepts that allow people to keep me as a woman in their minds even as my entire presentation contradicts that.
And in Mexico, there seem to be certain gender markers that just don’t ever cross over. I didn’t see a single other person who looked like a young woman with short hair, at least as short as mine. Experimenting, there were a couple days when I wore slightly more feminine clothing, and got pretty much the same “you’re a guy” response. I concluded that my haircut was the biggest contributing factor. I guess long hair is such an essential marker of femininity that people just can’t imagine a woman who’d cut it off.
I want to return to why I feel so much more gender-affirmed in Mexico, a far more strictly-gendered place, than the progressive (predominately white-normative and owning class) spaces I frequent in the States. In the US, it is the people educated in political correctness —educated in a cognitive politics instead of an embodied politics— who make a big deal about learning my pronouns and then inevitably mess up and then flip out about messing up (which I’ve already said is a whole load of emotional work I’m frankly exhausted by). In the world of cognitive politics, the currency of belonging is heavily skewed towards conscious, verbal communication. So, messing up someone’s pronouns easily becomes an ego-driven identity crisis as the person wonders whether they’ll lose their seat in the movement’s game of musical chairs.
For me, though, when I share that my pronouns are “they/them/theirs”, it’s not an invitation into ego spiraling — which is isolating— but an invitation to connection, a fuller connection with me in the complexity and fulness with which I see myself. Unfortunately for me, though, the only way I can quickly and efficiently signal my not-solely-femaleness in those space is through language, which keeps people in their heads. And ultimately, it’s not that I care about the language per se. At a bare minimum, I just want people to stop assuming how I am based on the shape of my face, or how my hair grows, or where fat accumulates on my body; it would be nice if people wanted to engage in the dance and unfolding that is my ever-changing gender identity. But the pressure of perfection or fear of offending usually squashes any curiosity. When people call me “she” after I’ve asked them to use “they”, what hurts is feeling like a huge chunk of my shimmering humanity is just totally invisible, not of interest, cut out for convenience, like the nutritious bone and skin cut off of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Talk about isolation. That, my friends, is a lonely experience.
What feels so liberating about Mexico, though, is that everything here is just so much more embodied, including gender, and so, much easier to read. Maybe it’s because there’s enough violence and poverty that people just haven’t been able to disconnect from communal embodiment as much as they have in the US. Everything is closer to the flesh. During rush hour on the metro, there’s no need to hold onto a pole because you’re squeezed into so many bodies. Unabashed PDA is absolutely the norm. Eating a ripe mango or a spicy, unruly taco off the street is a deeply sensual experience, above and beyond the fact that you’ll always eat it with your hands. The Zona Rosa (gay district) has myriad sex shops with elaborate, no-holds-barred window displays. People just go for it. And because everything is so embodied, so out-there, the language of gender is much easier to read, to learn how to speak. And so if, in the unfolding that is my gender feeling self, I wake up feeling masculine-of-center, I know what to wear to be seen that way. It’s not perfect, because in people’s minds gender identity and biological sex are inextricably linked to each other and then to superficial characteristics. But, unlike in the US, how I’m treated is, with my body, very much under my control.
It feels important, here, to talk some about class privilege. Gender expression is very tied to capitalist consumption. Anyone with enough money (even if it’s only a little) is heavily gendered. Men wear fragrant cologne. Women wear beautiful makeup. Everyone wears more fitted clothing. Only poor people, panhandling or selling candy out of boxes around their necks, tend more towards gender neutrality. Gender expression and differentiation, here, seem to be a sign of socioeconomic status in the way that more androgynous athleticism (via the likes of Patagucci and Nike) and tanned skin are in the US. I also wonder how accepted I would have been in my semi-in-between-ness (because remember that only about 70% were caballero-ing me) were I not white and obviously affluent by Mexican standards.
When I was at the Basilica de Guadalupe, I used a public restroom. Because it was public, you had to pay for it, so there was an attendant standing outside monitoring things. I walked towards the women’s side, bought my toilet paper, and was about to go through the turnstile when the attendant yelled over to me that I was wrong, that I was going in the wrong bathroom. “No, this is right, I’m going into the right one,” I said back to her. I just avoided eye contact and inserted my coin to get in. When I exited, I didn’t look at her. It was a little jarring. Had she persisted, I definitely would NOT have felt safe (much less comfortable) in the men’s restroom. I spent a lot of the rest of my time in Mexico kind of dehydrated, I think unconsciously because of my trepidation at having to use any more public restrooms than strictly necessary, fearing a worse experience. I never really felt afraid, though, confident that my race, class and nationality would protect me from any serious trouble.
Besides that one incident, mostly performing masculinity in Mexico City served me well. It was my first time in a latin american country not experiencing street harassment. I didn’t worry much about walking around holding hands with the obviously feminine-presenting person I’m dating because I realized that we were probably often read as a straight couple. I didn’t worry about people messing with me while walking around in the evenings.
As I write this, I’m flying back home, wondering how things will change when I step off the plane into Boston, hotbed of all those (I should say “us”) hyper-educated liberal progressive types, wondering how my time in Mexico City has changed me. I’m willing to bet I’ll go from being a 70% a man to 90% a dyke and 10% a hipster. Funny how none of those are true. I’ve gained a lot more confidence dancing across the gender expression / perception line in the past weeks (actually a huge amount of credit here goes to Kateri for being super affirming, not just random dudes selling fried street food, but that’s another blog post). It’s been fun, kind of an experiment, that I kicked off by wearing a (floral) suit to my friend’s Indian wedding. At one point, a couple of the aunties stopped me, took my hand, and were like “that’s interesting, they don’t usually do henna on men.”
I’m testing the waters, seeing what I can get away with, experimenting with people’s mental gender encoding schematics, all of which started long, long ago. What I feel excited about is continuing to poke at people’s schematics, making my body living proof that the categories don’t work. I feel excited to experience my body as a place of resistance to gender constructions, and also to others kinds of constructions, like national borders and racial hierarchies. Lately, I’ve felt an inundation of messages telling me how much it matters that my body —weirdly-gendered, white, upper-middle-class, educated— locate ourself in the eye of the storm. That’s probably another blog post, but in the meantime, if asked “qué quiere, amigo?” my answer is: an embodied politics of joyful resistance!