My Gender Changed When I Visited India

For me, the answer which I was expected to come to wasn’t a difficult one. For others it is. For some (including me), it’s not a question that seems necessary at all.

After a few minutes of shuffling forward nervously, I reached the front of the line. The person in front of me walked through the detector, put their arms out and was patted down briefly by a state police officer before wandering on. This is the relaxed process I had become familiar with in my time in India. The measures were not serious. I had walked though a security checkpoint previously with a box of matches in my pocket and found the security guard puzzled when I tried to turn them over.

It was my turn to walk forward and step up onto the wooden block to be searched. As with everyone, the metal detector let out a frantic beep of panic met by the unfazed straight-faces of the officers. I stepped forward and stood with my arms out. The searching officer looked at me. They looked in my eyes. They looked at my body. They looked at my clothes: cotton trousers, a pink T-shirt and purple hoodie around my waist.

“Female?” they asked, with a smirk of malice and confusion.

“No,” I stood with my arms out.

The officer didn’t believe me. I realized this when I felt their hands grabbing and groping my chest and waist for a few seconds, unlike the relaxed process I observed the others in line experience. I stood with my arms out. They gestured, now sporting a disappointed expression. I stepped off of the block and walked into the fort.

While in India, I encountered many situations exposing this peculiar point about gender. It is currently common to say as a criticism of gender that it is a social construct. This is true, but so are many things. Money is a social construct. Friendship is a social construct. Democracy is a social construct. The important point about gender is that it is an unhelpful and increasingly unwelcome construct.

Standing in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, walking along a crowded marble pathway towards the grand mausoleum, a photographer walked past me. After knocking into my arm then turning around, an apology began streaming out.

“Sorry, Sir — um, Madam — um… ah, I’m… sorry.”

With a face filled with embarrassment, the local was clearly worried about causing offense and felt guilty for it. The genuine politeness and confusion I saw summarized the issue. The photographer was confused by me.

I am male by traditional labeling. I do not accept social genders and so consider myself non-binary, though I wasn’t sure trying to explain this to the police officers or photographer would have been fruitful. I have long hair compared to the traditional male image. I have a youthful (read: baby) face. I am just a human with hair and skin.

The photographer trying to apologize wasn’t just confused by me, but in fact by the concept of social gender. The multiple police officers who questioned my gender while searching me were confused by social gender. Rightly, what should be confusing is that I would be treated differently based on my perceived gender.

As I entered India, it was as if the dividing line of binary gender was shifted with the different culture. I hadn’t changed — bar my hair being slightly less buoyant in the humid climate. My gender identity hadn’t changed. Yet somehow, the way I was seen and the way I was treated — from the groping in security lines to unwanted approaches on the street — changed completely. The absurdity and arbitrariness of sexism and social gender were both plain to see.

At home in the UK, I have also felt myself nearing that illusive-yet-solid dividing line of gender binarism. The line is blurred until you hit it. While growing up, of course there are the obvious examples of division: the toy aisle with pink girls’ toys on one side and blue boys’ on the other; the list of sports a boy can participate in at school without being seen as an oddity and the list a girl can participate in without being seen as butch; the brutish and competitive male culture of confidence and the expectation of the opposite from girls. These are the parts of life to which we become accustomed and don’t even notice until we run head first into the gender wall.

There are also more subtle hints you feel as you get too close to the boundaries of your perceived gender. One particular example is small but feels significant to me. I like having long hair, but “girls have long hair.” This is very confusing for some people. Whenever I have tried to grow my hair longer I would hear murmurs from the people around me.

“Your hair’s getting too long!”

“When are you getting your hair cut?”

These questions were thrown in casual conversation, coming from most people I spoke to on a regular basis. I suppose this is important to me because it was an aspect of myself that I cared about and to hear these words was off-putting. It was discomforting to feel that a decision I was making, which I felt had nothing to do with my gender, somehow brought just that into question. A female counterpart would naturally be mocked and called a lesbian for having hair as short as mine and praised for having longer than average hair — this sword is sharp on both sides.

The comments about gender I’ve experienced at home seemed different to those abroad. They felt very understandable and normal. I felt like it was my responsibility to hold myself within my society’s boundaries of gender and that if I felt uncomfortable at the edge of this meant I should change. In India the different boundaries were more shocking to me. I was taken aback by the attitudes I met. This is not because they were worse than at home — they were just different, offset. They were no more wrong nor right. Seeing this shift is what helped me to understand that all genderism is nonsensical. Every person has a different concrete idea of gender with their own dividing line and our broader societies’ genderism is the amalgamation of those lines. There is no real gender divide, and no rule — certainly not a prescriptive one.

What has struck me after reflecting on the state of gender within our societies is the paradoxical confidence in which people hold their very different views about binary gender. Comparing India and the UK shows a variance of attitudes towards gender between cultures. People’s expectations of gender can vary with culture, with time, with age and by country extremely fluidly. How people perceive my gender can change between the grey pavements of the UK and the marble temple floors of India. It could change between this year and last.

It could change between the company of my friends and my grandparents. If individual perceptions of gender are so fluid, isn’t gender itself fluid and not binary?

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