Caught. That’s how I feel any time someone talks to me on public transit. I’m used gritting my teeth beneath the genderfreak spotlight—at this point, any confrontation hits me square in the jaw and sends me reeling back to safety in the ever-present book in my lap.
But this question seems harmless enough, so I turn. Two black teenagers slump in the seat behind me: a girl with hair dyed so many hues of orange that it looks like her head’s on fire, a boy with a too-big leather jacket thrown over his shoulders. These kids are Punk Rock with a capital P and they know it—their fashion sense reminds me of my high school femme punk heyday. I check out the safety pins jammed in their pierced ears and grin.
“Where do you go to school?” The boy speaks for the two of them—it’s clear that the question is a product of some mutual whispering.
I don’t know why he’s asking, but I tell him anyway.
“Oh damn, you’re in college? We figured you were in high school.”
“Yeah, I know. I look young.”
“We thought maybe we knew you or something.”
He pauses. With the first question he was just making headway, smalltalking me up so he could drop the real bomb.
“So…what are you?”
I was waiting for that one. Boygirlboygirlboygirl. They scan my face for an answer. I feign ignorance.
“What do you mean?”
The flaming-haired girl finally pipes up.
“He sure talks white.”
I’ve gotten so used to having my gender up for debate that I’m not expecting this kind of confrontation. They play Name That Race until the boy consults me once again.
“For real, what are you?”
“I don’t really know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Are you white or not?” The girl is the one talking now, frustrated by my ambiguity.
“If I told you that one of my distant relative were black, what would you call me?”
The question I sling back at them puts the ball in their court once again. The banter continues.
“He looks white. He’s white.”
“But he’s got black family. I thought he was Hispanic or something.”
“No beard—no way.”
This acknowledgment triggers something in the girl’s head—I can see the wheels turning in her fiery hair as she scans my face, then my chest, checks out my shoes with a quick glance back to my jawline, just to be thorough. Bolder now, she starts slinging the questions.
“Are you a girl?”
“I don’t know,” I say for the second time.
“Listen to the voice. It’s a girl.” The boy is certain.
A flush of embarrassment creeps across his face. “Whoa, I just called you ‘it.’”
“Yeah, that’s not cool. I’m a person, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah. I just…I don’t know what you are, so I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s ok. I usually say ‘they’ when I’m not sure.”
He nods, thinks for a moment. “I get that.”
“So are you a girl?” His friend is still milking her newfound audacity for all it’s worth.
“Does it really matter?”
She pauses. “Huh. No. Guess not.”
Her abrupt acceptance totally checks me on my assumptions—I didn’t expect a high school student to so easily discount the gender binary that I had to read academic theory to break.
The El rolls up to my stop, and I move towards the door.
“I just can’t tell,” she says again, desperate for an answer before I slip away. “You look like a girl, but you’re talking to us like you’re a boy.”
“Sometimes people seem like one thing and turn out to be something you wouldn’t expect.” I swing my backpack over my shoulders and exit onto the train platform. I hear the boy’s final comment on my way out.