“Mommy! Mommy! Why is that man wearing a dress?” The little boy was tugging urgently at his mother’s sleeve, his voice scandalized. We were standing in the check out line at Costco. My mother, Mary, had recently gotten a crew cut and died her hair copper penny-orange. Her hair would cycle through shorter and shorter cuts until she needed to let it grow out to facilitate getting it cut again. We mark time, in the family photo album, by what cut Mary was sporting. After getting a crew cut, Mary kept being mistaken for a man. On the day we went to Costco, fed up with being addressed as “sir,” she donned a very lacy, very flouncy, resonantly purple dress. It looked like something a woman would wear to drink tea and eat scones on a sweeping, sun-dappled lawn. The little boy’s mother was turning red with embarrassment, simultaneously trying to hush the kid and explain to him in an undertone that some women have short hair. My mother and I found this intensely amusing, the absurdity of the encounter dispelling any lingering annoyance.
I’ve had plenty of my own experiences of being mistaken for a man. When I was driving buses for Metro, people would frequently address me as, “sir.” This was more in deference to the fact that I was sitting behind the wheel of a bus than anything else, as my hair was long enough to identify me as female to anyone who took a second look. Generally, though, hair seems to be what people are most prone to using in their determination of gender. My students in China, up until the day that I left, were unclear about whether I was a man or a woman. They found the combination of skirts and very short hair bewildering. “Mr. Turner,” they would say, “are you girl or boy?” I would say, “That’s Ms Turner, and I am a woman,” and then I would write Mr., Mrs., and Ms., on the board and give a brief mini lecture on which form of address is used with which gender. This probably would have helped the issue, had any of my students been paying any attention whatsoever. My student Chester, who was pretty convinced of my manhood till the day he tearfully said good-bye to me, circumvented the issue by calling me, “Teacher Turner,” or “The Turner.”
I got a buzz cut before we left China. Buzz cuts are marvelous things. It is a haircut that one gets solely for oneself, with no eye towards trying to please or appease anyone. This gave me the same hair cut as many of my students, which I gleefully pointed out, rubbing one hand over my own hair while rubbing the other across the top of John’s, or Glen’s, or Justin’s head, and saying, “See, we have the same haircut!” This took the wind out of those students’ sails who were intent on humiliating me. Really, by the end of the year, they should have known that wasn’t going to happen.
Back in Seattle, I started jogging around Green Lake every morning after seeing Athena off to school. Ducking into the women’s restroom before my run one morning, I heard a little girl refusing to enter the restroom after she saw me go in. “It’s not the right bathroom mom!” I tried to keep myself from laughing too loudly. Her mother patiently showed her the sign outside the door, the universal stick figure in a dress sign denoting the women’s bathroom, and finally managing to coax her into the stall next to mine. If you look, the stick figure has a buzz cut.
I was sitting at the big Starbucks in U Village one afternoon, diligently working through a practice test from the Barron’s Police Exam study guide. Two women sat down next to me. One seemed a bit out of it, and the other seemed like some kind of therapist who was taking her patient out for some real world stimulus. The therapist chattered away while her patient made noncommittal noises. I wrapped up my practice test with a quick calculation of the total amount of heroin seized in a drug bust and got up to leave. As I was packing my book into my bag I heard the therapist exclaim, “He looks way to young to be a cop.” Her patient perked up enough to agree with her. As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I ran my hand over my lack of facial hair and reflected that if I were male, I would definitely look too young to be a cop.
By far my favorite instance of being mistaken for a man happened in Thailand. Our guide, Nok, took me and Athena to a temple in Chiang Mai, which is in the northern part of the country. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a large complex on top of a mountain. In one of the rooms there is a monk who spends his time blessing throngs of faithful Buddhists, foreign tourists, and faithful Buddhist foreign tourists. Nok ushered us into the room, and we knelt in front of the monk along with a cluster of other people, mostly Thai. Monks are not supposed to touch women, or to be alone with them. The monk turned his attention to Athena, his face split by a mostly toothless grin. First he threatened with energetic motions, to dump the whole bucket of holy water over Athena’s head. Athena giggled nervously. The monk chuckled and got down to business. He deftly tied a bracelet of white cotton thread around her wrist without touching her at all. Then he began to chant over Athena, his eyes dancing with sparks of joy as he chanted and vigorously flicked holy water on her with a little broom. After he had adequately doused Athena with holy water, it was my turn. He touched my hand as I held it up for the bracelet. After he’d tied the bracelet onto my wrist, he took another look at me, and cried out in Thai (which was later interpreted for me by Nok), “He’s a woman! I thought she was a man.” The whole room burst into fits of gleeful giggling. The monk laughed at himself, performed a shorter blessing, accompanied by no less vigorous flicks of the little broom, and sent us on our way.