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‘Excuse me sir ... I mean ma’am ... uh ... I mean ... sir?’

I’m a smart, independent human and I don‘t need your gender stereotypes

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Patricia Gao

Thinking about and talking about gender can be really difficult. It can be hard to find the right words for complex and abstract feelings — I don’t even know how to express all my thoughts about gender. I think if conversations about gender identity and non-binary-ness were prevalent when I was younger, I would’ve immediately gravitated towards adopting a non-binary label. Maybe it’s the MIT bubble, or maybe the world’s becoming a more open place. I’m not sure. But I’m really glad there are productive and supportive discussions about gender being had these days. It’s given me a new way to think about things that greatly affected the course of my childhood.

Growing up, I was a “tomboy,” which Wikipedia defines as “a girl who exhibits characteristics or behaviors considered typical of a boy.”

As a kid, I joined a karate dojo. I played with Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars action figures. I spent my recesses playing football and basketball with “the boys.” I always asked for the “boy’s toy” with my Happy Meals. (I hate how toys and activities are gendered, by the way, but people called me a tomboy for preferring these to ballet lessons and Barbies.) I still cringe when called “princess,” “angel,” or other pet names typically reserved for girls.

I know that many families are not that supportive when their kids deviate from traditional gender stereotypes. Luckily for me, my parents supported my activities, preference for having short hair, and “masculine” clothing style. They got me Obi-Wan Kenobi and Red Power Ranger costumes for Halloween. (One of my little sisters went as Queen Amidala and the Pink Ranger, respectively. We were pretty cute, if I do say so myself.) My parents bought me legos and superhero toys and didn’t mind that most of my friends were boys. I’m thankful for their support.   

However, while I felt completely accepted at home, I felt a bit different at school. As a short-haired elementary schooler wearing boys’ clothing, I was often mistaken for a boy, and my female schoolmates would sometimes be startled to see me in the girls’ bathroom. Being misgendered as a kid used to bother me so much that I refused to use the bathroom at school unless it was unisex and single occupancy.

I distinctly remember the first time I ever stepped into a store to intentionally purchase clothes from the “girls” section. I was just about to enter the fifth grade, and my classmates and I had just gotten the puberty talk. That, on top of my experience in elementary school, had made me extremely self-conscious about my boyish appearance. So I traded soccer jerseys for blouses and (what would now be considered unisex) Star Wars tees for floral, fitted shirts. I remember feeling grateful that my family purchased a whole new wardrobe for me (at my request), but I also remember feeling even more self-conscious wearing girlier clothing. It never felt like it fit properly. I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror.

That year, I decided to let my hair grow out even though I didn’t like the way it looked or felt. As middle school and high school came, I slowly incorporated more of the boyish clothing I preferred into my closet, but I kept my long hair to avoid being misgendered. I even dated a guy in high school who once told me he’d break up with me if I cut my hair. That relationship didn’t last long. Before I left for MIT, though, I decided I would cut off my hair and donate the nearly foot-long strands to Locks of Love.

There are two people whom I trust to cut my hair. They’re both family friends who are professional hairstylists, and they never give me the slightest amount of trouble when I ask for super short haircuts. So, when I came to Cambridge, I figured I’d wait out the school year and get a haircut when I visited home at the start of each summer. This was for two reasons. First, I knew that back home, my hair would be cut exactly to my liking: my bangs just right, the sides tapered just so. I am super picky about my hair and knew these familiar hairstylists would get it right. Second, emails sent to my dorm mailing list revealed that some local barbers flat-out refused to give woman haircuts shorter than a bob. That really freaked me out. I was astounded that a hairstylist would refuse someone a haircut based on such discriminatory reasons.

The months progressed, and my hair grew longer. I was impatient for the summer to come and inches of my hair to disappear, so I started cutting my own hair. I began with the child-sized safety scissors (lol) I had among my school supplies. Eventually, I bought professional haircutting and thinning scissors. I tried to remember how the stylists back home cut my hair, and attempted to recreate those motions and cuts. I even watched a few YouTube tutorials, but that’s all I was going off of. It took hours and a masterful set-up of several mirrors to make sure the back was even. I’d cut my hair every two weeks or so to keep it at my preferred length. This past year, I invested in clippers, and it has changed my life — what took hours now takes 20 minutes, and that’s only when I’m paying attention to detail.  

As for clothing, during a “Spring Cleaning” session this fall, I realized just how many women’s clothing items I had acquired over the years that I absolutely never wear. Dresses, things to wear under dresses, things to wear over dresses, heels, flats, low-cut shirts, etc. I decided that there was honestly no point in me keeping these items because I would frankly never wear them under any circumstances, thank you very much. So I sent some clothes to my sisters and donated the rest to charity, and wow did I feel liberated. I’ve since stopped paying attention to whether I’m shopping in the “men’s” or “women’s” section, and I refuse to feel weird about it because my current style makes me really happy.

Frankly, not caring what gender a piece of clothing is labelled for has allowed me to optimize for whatever features I want: fit, style, material, pattern, design, etc. I’d say that now, about 80 percent of my clothes are from the guys’ section because I tend to like the styles, materials, and patterns there. Pants, though, are always a toughie. Mens’ pants have larger pockets (read: any pockets), but women’s pants fit my curves better. I wear shoes that are relatively unisex like Vans or Converse. I don’t wear makeup or much jewelry, and my main fashion staples are beanie hats. Overall, I’ve been told that my look is pretty androgynous.

But my discomfort with traditionally “female” things extends to more than just appearance, shopping habits, and hobbies.

A lot of male-female couple dynamics you see in TV shows that “the guy in the relationship” does, I do. I’m the one to politely inform the waiter that my partner’s dish didn’t come out as requested (he’s super shy, and it is adorable). I’m the one having the firm conversations with Comcast about the discrepancy on our bill. That kind of thing. We evenly split household chores and errands, and “traditional gender roles” don’t factor at all into the way we run our household. We both cook. I pick up the dirty clothes he leaves around the house, and he drives when we need a car for outings. He does the laundry and takes the cat to the vet. I shovel the snow, and if we had a lawn, I’d definitely be the one to mow it.

I recently got engaged to this amazing man, my partner of five years. He proposed to me and got me a shiny engagement ring, which I love and picked out myself! Learning the history behind engagement rings has led me to insist that I get him an engagement ring too (he agreed enthusiastically) and now I’m in the process of planning a proposal of my own.

When we’re married, if I change my last name at all, it will be to hyphenate it. I’m not very fond of change, which is part of the reason I want to keep my current last name, and a lot of the reason I will be keeping female pronouns rather than adopting more neutral ones even though I probably fall closer to “non-binary” than to “female” in gender-label-land.

I still get misgendered with some amount of frequency, but that doesn’t bother me very much/at all anymore. I'm at peace with who I am and how I express my gender, but it wasn’t easy to get to this point. I can only hope that other folks who question their gender or have non-traditional ways of expressing it find support — you certainly have mine!