Skip to content

Answering “is that a boy or a girl?”

March 24, 2009

Many trans and genderqueer bloggers have mentioned being asked “are you a boy or a girl,” sometimes by complete strangers. I’ve only been asked that question twice, and both times the inquirer was a very young child. However, I have noticed people asking each other about my sex –they probably only cared about my sex, and not my gender identity– as if I couldn’t hear them. Or maybe they didn’t even care whether I heard or not; maybe my gender ambiguity made me subhuman enough that my feelings didn’t matter anymore.

I wonder if it’s a cultural thing; I think most of the people who were asked to their face were from the US, or at least from English-speaking countries (of course, it wouldn’t be accurate to draw conclusions from only a few examples).

I think it’s easier when people attack you directly: I’ve managed to handle that in the past. But hearing people discuss my sex always leaves me feeling upset and downtrodden. I’ve never had the courage to stand up for myself. I can usually think up some responses, but only after the situation is past. I’d like to say something along the lines of:

“It’s a boy, and he has ears, you know. So knock it off.”

or, “Whatever I am, I’m a human being; so please stop talking as if I couldn’t hear you.”

Now I’m perceived as male all the time, so I haven’t had to go through this in a while. But school has already started and I’m going to have to use the locker rooms soon; probably the women’s room, since so many guys in the men’s room would know me. So I’ve prepared something to say to any girls who try to kick me out because they haven’t met me:

“You’re first year students, aren’t you? Well, I’ve been using this room for over four years now, so. Oh, and welcome to our school.”

It’s polite, but it establishes my relative authority on locker room use. And I don’t apologize for my presence: I won’t let myself feel inferior any longer. No one can make me feel inferior without my consent.

PS: After hitting Publish, I realized that I might be a jerk for invading women’s space. Not allowing myself to feel inferior doesn’t mean I can steamroll girls’ right to their private locker room (I don’t believe in gender-segregated restrooms, but I do have to abide by existing rules). I really don’t want to be an a-hole towards women; that was my biggest fear when I decided to transition. That said, I have a right to change my clothes somewhere, too; and lots of girls wouldn’t mind because they already know me. I think there isn’t a clear-cut answer to whose rights should prevail in this situation.

What do you think: how can I respect the girls and manage to change my clothes?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2009 12:13 am

    Good question (the last one that is). But I really don’t know.

    I’ve found that I don’t mind when kids ask me, because they’re not really asking what’s in my pants, they’re asking what I identify as. Adults, they just want to know clinically, medically, what’s going on, in my pants, which is much more offensive to me. Usually I tell them to stuff it where the sun don’t shine. I don’t like answering those questions, because if I was cismale they wouldn’t be even asking. So I treat it as if I were a cisman being asked that question, and just be rude back. >< NOT MATURE at all. But I don’t know how else to handle it.

  2. Andrei permalink
    March 25, 2009 1:59 am

    the most thoughtful boy/girl question I’ve ever gotten is “Would you like to be treated as a boy or a girl?”. However, people have done the debate rudely behind my back, but I’ve had to learn about it from friends (once because the offenders were doing it within earshot, but in fast Spanish which I didn’t understand, and using words I’m glad I couldn’t hear).

    I can’t really think of a sensitive way to reply to the locker room issue which doesn’t reinforce negative stereotypes. Even “Pardon me, but as long as I have a vagina I’ll be using this bathroom/locker room” seems to imply that organs are more important than gender identity. However, as bad as that is, vagina camaraderie might win over some ciswomen. Use at your own risk!

  3. March 25, 2009 2:54 pm

    I think you definitely have a right to use the women’s locker room. How that plays out is up to you, I think its important to explain yourself, and why you would rather use the womens locker room, plus your body should give you entry regardless.
    Also, I say this as a transmasculine boy but I feel that transmen don’t invade womens space as easily as cismen because after all there is ultimately still a connection to a female body, and likely female experiences growing up.
    I often use women’s room because I feel about a million times safer in the womens restroom. Any time my gender is called into question i feel unsafe, and I feel alot more unsafe when male bodied people call my gender into question…

    (ps- you should look at the story on my blog right now, slightly related)

  4. March 25, 2009 4:55 pm

    I’ve usually opted to answer the VERY FREQUENT “Are you a boy or a girl?” question with a.) automatically assuming it’s a genuine question and b.) answering with, “Have you ever heard of genderqueer?”, then going from there.

    Most of the time this question comes from a child whose parents react in complete embarrassment and try to cover their child’s mouth and apologize, which only gets exacerbated when I say “genderqueer”. Then they don’t know if they should cover the kid’s ears, too.

    However, when I went to Spain I had adults asking me due to cultural differences where they seem to be a lot less passive aggressive than U.S. culture. When someone would ask, I’d answer with “What does it matter?”, or the genderqueer question and it was never once confrontational or uncomfortable. Just inquisitive and dialogue-provoking. :]

    If someone is just being a jack ass, however, that’s another situation entirely (and I just react politely, which points out just how jack assy they are). Rare though, fortunately.

  5. March 26, 2009 9:56 pm

    Usually, little kids ask “Are you a boy or a girl?” and then their parents hurry them away and chastise them as if it’s an awful thing to ask someone. People who are asking because they want to know your sex? Absolutely, that’s none of their business. But I find that kids are usually just curious and want to know if you wear pink or blue. In those situations I find the parents to be more perturbing– there’s nothing wrong with gender ambiguity.

    That said, when adults or adolescents ask with malicious intent, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I usually respond with “Yes.”

  6. March 27, 2009 2:15 am

    @keegan i think ‘yes’ is a phenomenal answer. i do that with all kinds of ‘or’ questions i don’t feel like answering

    another idea: “are you a boy or a girl?” “i’m ____ (whatever you want to say). how about you?” if they answer something like “girl! obviously” without reflecting, then you came say something like “really? huh. go figure.” and change the subject after that. this calls attention to the fact that they’re being rude, without being any ruder than they were

  7. March 27, 2009 12:05 pm

    Helyx, you say you feel “safer” in the girls’ locker room, right? So, how do you think girls feel when a boy comes into the locker room? I mean, boys are dangerous, so you want to get away from them, but then you’re a boy, which means you are perceived as dangerous, and you feel you have the right to use the girls’ locker room?

    It doesn’t matter whether you ARE dangerous, what matters is that girls feel safer changing their clothes in an all-girl environment.

    Maybe a teacher can find you a room of your own to change in.

  8. genderkid permalink*
    March 27, 2009 4:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, all of you! I especially loved the hilarious ways in which you answer “are you a boy or a girl. I kind of hope someone asks me, just so I can try some of your ideas =)

  9. Principito permalink
    March 28, 2009 10:44 pm

    Hey man. Several persons have asked me if im a boy or a girl, even once a man asked me that while i was giving him his dinner (i used to work on a fastfood place), whas so weird, it was kind of… here it is sir….thanks, hee, are you a boy or a girl….. and my face was like what?,…a girl.
    Anyway, i’ve been thinking about how to answer that question in another situation, and the only thing get on my mind is “are you a boy or a girl….does it matters?”

    see ya


  10. March 29, 2009 12:25 pm

    The question is offensive. It should be dealt with in the same manner as another human using racial vulgarities, or sexual innuendo in public.

  11. March 29, 2009 3:19 pm

    one time I was with one of the youth I worked with who was 16 and we went to get another one of the youth who was about 12, when we got there and I was walking up with the older one the younger one looked at me and asked the older one “is that a boy or a girl”… she was immediately chastized and the older youth was like “shes a girl, duh, and dont ask that its rude…”

    if the question had been asked to me I don’t know how I would have responded…

    the younger girl apologized to me and defended herself by saying “well she had short hair so I didn’t know…”

  12. March 29, 2009 6:33 pm

    @helyx: “I feel that transmen don’t invade womens space as easily as cismen because after all there is ultimately still a connection to a female body, and likely female experiences growing up.”

    so i guess the corrolary is true, too? that we trans women, since we supposedly “grew up as boys”, we’re really men in drag and should use the men’s locker room? just suck it up when the men beat the crap out of us? nice trans-misogyny going on there.

    (note: i am not objecting to the OP, or any trans/gq individual, using whatever bathroom / locker room they feel safest in. it is repeating trans misogynist tropes that i am objecting to.)

    • genderkid permalink*
      March 29, 2009 8:35 pm

      I don’t think Helyx meant that transmen can’t go in into the men’s room (or that transwomen can’t go into the women’s room) — I think ze just meant that they can go into the women’s room if they feel safer when they’ve just begun transition (did I get that right, Helyx?). Like Jezebella said, though, that might be upsetting for the girls; that would be totally justified, but it would be cool if the girls were supportive of the transboy in question.

      If girls were not supportive of a transwoman going into the women’s room, that would be very transphobic, and the cisgirls should be the ones looking for another room.

  13. March 29, 2009 9:15 pm

    I think you got that right genderkid…
    alot of what that perspective is rooted in is also that mens locker rooms tend to be more hostile place… i would never force a trans woman to use a males locker room if she did not want to, but I know that I too would be extremely intimidated if someone told me to use the mens locker room.
    I also feel that there is a connection between all women and transmen because they always operate in a space of marginalization… This is not to say that transwomen do not, because they do as well.. but rather that because straight males and gay gender conforming males still assume male privilege they are less likely to be as open in the locker room setting…

    • March 29, 2009 9:37 pm

      ok, i did not understand the pov you were coming from. sorry for the harshness.

      • March 30, 2009 1:10 am

        dont sweat it, you brought up a pov I often fail to think about as well…

  14. April 1, 2009 2:00 am

    Greatest story of all time
    (that happened to a friend, and not me, but I’ve heard it so many times it might as well have been me)

    An orthodox-looking family of two hetero parents and their five kids come to get a family portrait. One of the younger boys gets antsy and asks the semi-obviously-lesbian photographer “ARE YOU A BOY OR A GIRL?”

    “Me? Oh, I’m a girl” she answers the brat, sweetly.



    • genderkid permalink*
      April 1, 2009 12:52 pm

      I agree, that’s a great story! It made me grin.

  15. ForumReader permalink
    April 22, 2009 11:43 pm

    This is a very interesting post, I don’t beleive there is really a such this as you invading a girl’s sanctury or post, if its a locker room, its not really a sanctury or a private space.

    Its not a girls private club,. a locker room is to get changed, but you bring up precisely the topic of why it isn’t that.

    Not everybody shares the same behavior, gender idendity, and outlook and preferences.

    In effort to cater to non existent concerns or overblown you are asking and questioning yourself about invading personal spaces. I don’t beleive you should make yourself to feel guilty for anything and you will probably elect more hateful expressions than symphathy .

    Not every girl or woman dresses in a feminine manner, has long hair, wear skirts, is in love with the opposite sex,etc.

    Take the case of khadijah farmer who was kicked out of the woman’s bathroom because the bouncer that she was a man due to having no hair being african american that is common to not have long hair and she was a lesbian.

    I am not understanding your point of view, because it looks as if your trying to ask two dfiferent questions to please two sides .

    Would love feedback

  16. Shonne permalink
    January 2, 2010 3:36 am

    I get asked that question so many times. And what I hate the most about that question is that when they ask me that they aren’t asking about how I identify or how I feel, their asking whats between my legs. And that implies that its okay to judge someone by their body, but I don’t agree with that. People I don’t even know just have to label me. It just shows how programmed human beings are that they have to label and judge everything and everyone. Nothing can be left unlabeled or uncategorized.

  17. tualha permalink
    April 13, 2015 10:55 pm

    Hi, I just stumbled across your blog while hunting for the Néstor Perlongher quote. I’m genderqueer and somewhat androgynous (not as much as I’d like to be!), and have been asked that question exactly once, by a young, very cute child who was somewhat androgynous herself. Sadly, I didn’t at that time know my preferred answer (“Why, no! Are you?”), so I muffed it. Being asked still made my night, though.

    S. Bear Bergman’s book The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You has a wonderful story, “New Year”, of how the author handled a “what are they?” situation with grace and kindness. I highly recommend the entire book to all transfolk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: