“Sir—?” “Ma’am—?” “Sir!—?” “Sir!—?” “Ma’am!—?”

I don’t recall after which of these vocatives it was that I finally lifted my head and took off my headphones. Because I was cataloging in the library stacks and listening to a podcast (The Ace Couple, Episode 5: “The Complicated Intersections of Disability and Asexuality,” highly recommend), I was neither expecting to be hailed from afar nor particularly paying attention to this stranger trying to get my attention. Once it registered that the person (who was attempting to flag me down in the hopes that I might have an iPhone charger they could borrow—I did not) was in fact hailing me, I found myself rather amused.

This sort of confusion isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Between my height, my hair, my tendency these days to dress in work clothes (boots, ballcap, flannel, and overalls) and wear a binder, and my continued masking when indoors, strangers often aren’t sure how to address me. Very seldom do I encounter folks like the dental hygienist from my most recent dentist appointment, who began our time together by asking how I would like to be addressed.

It’s unfortunate that there are few widely-used gender-neutral vocatives one can use politely (“friend” sounds like I’m about to pull you for a ruse, and “comrade” raises many people’s political hackles), forcing folks to flip a coin and deal (with) the damage. Generally, though, people will pick one honorific and stick with it until more information arises—it’s a rare occurrence that someone will acknowledge their confusion by flip-flopping until I eventually respond to one or the other inaccurate term.

As long as I don’t open my mouth, I have a much higher chance of getting “Sir”-ed (which, for the record, I don’t particularly mind—though I know other nonbinary folks who do), and depending on the context folks may still go with it even after I start talking. More often, though, I have the experience of the person’s face moving from surprised to embarrassed before they quickly toggle between “apologise” or “forge ahead with the interaction as if nothing happened” like two options in a visual novel-style video game (or, in one slightly terrifying grocery store checkout interaction, “call manager” to look at my driver’s license because the clerk thought I was a man using some woman’s ID).

Each of these instances of identification (or—more often, misidentification) presents me likewise with two options between which to toggle: “correct them” or “let it go.” Unlike computer interfaces, however, life has yet to present me with a box I can check that says “Do not ask me again.”

In Timothy J. Sandoval’s essay “How Did You Get to Be a Latino Biblical Scholar?” (found in the anthology Latino/a Biblical Hermeneutics: Problematics, Objectives, Strategies), Sandoval (who identifies in the essay as medio-Chicano) describes the difficult position he and others inhabit as biblical scholars whose lives and academic work run the risk of being too tightly scripted and pigeonholed because of racial and ethnic categorisations within an Anglo-dominated discipline.

Drawing from his own experiences and borrowing from Louis Althusser’s account of the formation of ideologies, Sandoval describes the ways in which we are all continuously interpellated into identities. In his case, this interpellated identity is that of a Latino biblical scholar: “it is as if a larger social voice calls out, for example, ‘Hey, you, Latina/o!’ or ‘Hey, you, Hispanic!’ or ‘Hey, you, Latino/a biblical scholar!’ Upon responding, ‘Who, me?’ we are, at least partially, shaped into Latino/as, or Hispanics, or Latina/o biblical scholars” (p. 271). Choosing whether or not to respond to—and, in so doing, legitimise—that larger social voice in any particular moment can prove to be rather a pickle for those of us whose identities don’t fit neatly into the neat categorisations expected in a particular context or interaction.

There are good reasons to respond to the hail, but there are also good reasons not to. Calling Sandoval’s biblical scholarship “Latino biblical scholarship” might be a way for Anglo biblical scholars to delegitimise his work. It could be a way of saying, “What Sandoval and Hidalgo and González and Segovia and the rest are doing is not ‘true’ biblical scholarship; it’s ‘contextual’ biblical scholarship. We might put it on a syllabus in the ‘recommended readings’ section, but we won’t read it ourselves or talk about it in class, since it doesn’t really relate to us or the larger community”—as though the biblical scholarship produced by the white Anglos isn’t itself always already contextual. On the other hand, Sandoval and others might label their work “Latinx/a/o biblical scholarship” as a way of distancing themselves from the discipline of (white Anglo) biblical scholarship and forming a community of resistance under the umbrella appellation “Latinx/a/o.”

In some cases, this ambivalence can stem from an anxiety about one’s authenticity or belonging in a certain identity or group. In others, there can be anxiety about “proper representation” of the group to those outside. Being a white Anglo myself, I only know what I’ve read and been told by my Latinx/a/o friends and colleagues about how these anxieties show up for them. But I am intimately aware of the arguments that occur in the queer community over belonging and representation.

“We don’t want the straights to get the wrong idea about us” is a phrase oft heard in the Discourse (or, as Courtney from The Ace Couple relates with respect to her own identity as a disabled asexual woman and the backlash she gets for speaking about her experiences, “We don’t want the allos to get the wrong idea.”/“We don’t want the nondisabled folks to get the wrong idea.”).

I don’t want cis folks to get the wrong idea. In a culture that is extremely binary-focused and encourages successful attempts to pass (let me be clear, though: for some people, passing is literally a matter of life-or-death), I run the risk of getting misgendered any time I dress in ways that will be read as more masculine or feminine interact with anyone who doesn’t know me well and doesn’t have a habit of thinking before they speak, regardless of how I comport myself. I am constantly aware of what a colleague of mine has referred to as “the cisgender urge to call trans women and men ‘they’ and nonbinary folks ‘he’ or ‘she.’” She and I have joked about saving up the incorrect pronouns we receive to trade with each other and other trans friends later.

The more liberal side of cisnormativity lends itself to a sort of transnormativity—the expectation that all trans people are either women or men, and that all trans people want to and will undergo a series of medical and legal transitions that will allow them to pass, thus fading into the mainstream binary culture (though this narrative is itself complicated by the experiences of real trans people who transition). Those of us who are trans and exist beyond the binary, and/or don’t medically or legally transition, are erased by these assumptions. Inherent too in these assumptions are particular (white supremacist, ableist, classist) notions about what “real” women and men look like, meaning that cis people—in particular, cis people of colour—also fail to pass.

Contrary to popular belief, we can’t know a person’s gender (really, we can’t know any aspect of a person’s identity) just from their physical description.

But, as Vico Ortiz (known to many for their role as Jim Jimenez in Our Flag Means Death) gleefully reminds us all, “Passing is not the point of being trans. The point of being trans is SOWING CHAOS and DESTROYING CAPITALISM!”

1 Comment

  1. Phil Rienstra

    great piece! love that ending quote lol


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