On Consistently, rather than Sporadically, Not Passing

One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed since coming to Bolivia is that I’m almost universally read as male here.

I’ve had this happen periodically throughout my life when I had short hair (and when Hansen was popular) but in the states usually as soon as someone gets into a conversation with me, or even a good look at me, they are pretty sure I’m a girl. This has, since I left middle school (see above re: Hansen, getting teased for looking like), been a source of great amusement and not a little encouragement from me.

Not so much, in Bolivia. For the most part. The academics at the ethnohistory conference this past week didn’t noticeably sir me, and most travelers (i think) read me as a queer woman.

I think it is a combination of my height, my haircut (oh, if i’d kept my trendy lesbian faux-hock with faux mullet, would i look more like a boy or a girl?), the button-up shirts/sweaters I wear, and the tendency of some people not to make eye contact with tourists. My current haircut is actually really popular among young men in Bolivia, mostly students.

But it’s not just the people who momentarily cross my path in the street or on a bus “pase nomas, amigo” or the woman at the desk in the hostel in sucre (who saw my name and passport) “necesito un taxi por mi amigo aqui” but the elderly economist who sat next to me on two consecutive flights the other day. (A note about amigo: it’s not gender neutral, and i never got it when i was in Ecuador or Bolivia 6/5 years ago with long hair. Not even amiga, as far as I remember. More like mamita or something). The economist called me “usted” too which is a mark of respect I usually don’t expect from professional older men.

I’m mostly not troubled, mostly really amused, especially because sometimes I find it handy. For example, on the street at night alone, I used to put the hood up on my hoody but now I don’t.
And I’m curious to see if I am getting any different treatment from people. I suspect I am getting a bit more deference from the women who work at the hostels, which is a little strange. But I’m a shy, soft-voiced, spanish-stuttering guy so maybe they think I’m cute or something.

The one place it did bug me was at the queer dance party I went to last Saturday night. [note: I promise to write more about Pride in La Paz. I’m waiting on pictures!] I mean, if there’s one place I want to be read as a woman, it’s at a party hosted by lesbians. But I was surprised to overhear “amigo” again when one of the butcher queer women was asking my fellow traveler, much more traditionally female looking, who her “amigo” was. Now maybe that explained the initial reticence to come talk to us– what if we looked like a straight gringo couple, instead of two queer girls just there to make friends? But lots of these women were playing with gender too, just in different ways. Long-haired ways, for the most part.

So yeah, the women at the party picked up on my preferred gender quicker than the economist, but only because of my name and hearing me called “ella.” Well, and dancing with me. But I’m still surprised to be taken for male when talking face to face.

And finally, while I’m used to playing lightly with gender, I’m really unused to being taken for male for long periods at a time and I get unsure of how to handle it. For example: I didn’t correct the economist on either flight, but just answered his questions and made polite conversation, waiting to see if he would change his mind about me… he didn’t. Mostly I only correct people if they need to see my id or if I plan on making friends.

So yeah, still thinking about that.

3 responses to “On Consistently, rather than Sporadically, Not Passing

  1. Fascinating occurrences, especially given the fact that you are slender and pretty–it makes me wonder two things: are they used to slender handsome young men around, thus making more likely to take your appearance at face value? (Unlike the US, where many males are larger and beefier, except on college campuses.) Also is it possible that culturally they consider it more polite not to inquire, and to assume that how you present yourself at first glance is how you want to be treated, in your case, as a male. That is, it wouldn’t occur to them that you aren’t male, or if it did, it would be impolite to suggest anything of the sort. Especially in the older generation. It is a curious thing to track. Keep the great blog coming. I love it!

    • Ha, it’s clear you haven’t been to a football game on the University of Wisconsin campus. Yeah, that’s the strange part. I don’t feel like I present as particularly masculine, nor do i look it. But maybe where I’m used to the line of “androgynous” in the US being is more to the masculine side here.

  2. I agree, you don’t present as male, except perhaps in a culture where women are usually dressed in more explicitly female garb–skirts, makeup, jewelry, cute shoes–etc. If you wore earrings it might give them a hint. Not that I am suggesting it. An article on being taken as different gender in a different country would be fascinating.

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