Ever wonder what it’s like to live as the other gender? No, visit I am not announcing my upcoming plans to transition. But traveling through countries where gender is a very binary concept, people tend to automatically label me as a man.
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 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 times that Jenni 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 into a fohawk and wear the clothes I wanted. As a consequence, I have to say that was when I scored the most dates. I don’t think it was the hairstyle 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 (shown above) and Megan (shown left) came to visit me during the year. When I had another buddy with me who also got stared at, I felt less alone.
Returning to the town in Chile where I had spent two years volunteering after college, I visited several people who I haven’t seen in a decade. The last time they saw me, I still sported long hair and wore women’s clothing. Concerned about how my old friends might perceive me now, I made sure to wear a padded bra and my most feminine clothing to our reunion visit. But nonetheless I was offered handshakes by the men and called “Tio Lisa” instead of “Tia Lisa” when they introduced me to their partners and children. I felt a sense of shame that surprised me. My own internal homophobia still exists, just buried deep inside.
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 a black person visiting China, or a Western woman traveling through Muslim countries, or a handicapped 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 and you are left with interpreting their reactions…
I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on how much I’ve changed in the last decade. Yes, there is now a short spikey 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.