Written by Emma Conally-Barklem
We always travel together; by each other’s side through all our experiences. Having spent most of my life so far in a hetero-normative existence, to embark on my first relationship with a woman, who is now my fiancée, has been eye-opening to say the least.
Stepping aside from the fact that we are both tall, athletic looking women and in a mixed relationship, her being Eastern European and myself being biracial, we’re used to drawing attention. Since being in this relationship, I have witnessed first-hand levels of casual and cruel discrimination she has received after a fleeting glance and a judgement made based purely on her appearance.
For example, whilst visiting the restroom of a large city centre railway station, she was challenged about her right to visit the women’s restroom. This has happened many times and has been meted out by a wide range of women who have no compunction about stepping into my partner’s business, judging her and taking it upon themselves to decide they have the right to announce that she is in the wrong place.
To see the apprehension and dread she feels on simply going about her business is heart-breaking and unfair. What gives people the right to decide she is a certain gender based on spurious supposition and then become the judge and jury of whether she has the right to enter a ‘female’ space?
Responses can range from, ‘This is the Ladies!’, ‘I think you’re in the wrong restroom!’ to pointed staring and gestures which make her feel very uncomfortable. For the few times that I have been around when it has happened, I have challenged the person making the offending behaviour and seen disbelief that I would take it upon myself to defend my partner’s right to go where she wishes and also shame as they realise the colossal mistake they have made. There seems to me not a shred of human decency in this complacent discrimination which you could become liable to if you don’t subscribe to a very narrow definition of what a woman should look like according to the normative conditioning of the population at large.
Since when was it okay to make a judgement about somebody’s gender based on their appearance? The fact that I am baffled by this as she is clearly a very beautiful woman, is beside the point. What if she defined herself as ‘non-binary’ and used plural pronouns? What if she was a transgender woman in transition? Are her human rights protected here? Is there any legislation against this kind of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community who do not fall neatly into the rigid boxes society has assigned for them?
Some may say these were genuine mistakes and maybe, in that moment, the other woman felt intimidated by the presence of what she took to be a man in the women’s restroom. I would counter this with, surely if you had any sliver of doubt about a person’s gender, out of respect for them and your own ignorance, you would surely keep that to yourself and mind your own business?
Another case in point, was a recent visit to one of our favourite hotels. We had stayed many times before and were well known to some staff members who worked there. My partner visited the restroom before we were going to have breakfast. Suddenly there was a hushed commotion and reports of a man having entered the restroom which subsequently needed to be verified by a member of staff. We were stared at and treated with hostility by some members of staff. I was incensed by this and immediately asked to make a complaint to the manager. She dealt with this professionally and I recommended that members of staff should have appropriate training about how to treat their guests. Again, I raised the issue of whether it would have been acceptable to challenge a non-binary person’s right to use the facilities. Would this not be a form of gender discrimination?
The final and most recent example, the latest in a sorry trail of such incidents, was when my partner went to get her vaccine. On entering, she was greeted as ‘Sir’. After saying, ‘Hi’ and on hearing her voice, they realised their mistake. Rather than apologising they simply looked embarrassed, tried to disguise this with a cough (ironic in the circumstances) and quickly moved on to the business at hand. My partner, mortified by this as she has been every other time she has been called ‘Mate’ or ‘Sir’ based on a cursory glance at her height and short hair, felt unable to complain given the circumstances and also for her overriding respect for the centres and volunteers working hard under a lot of pressure. So no, she wouldn’t cause a fuss despite the emotional pain this caused her.
And so she is silenced, and due to her consideration of others and her own impeccable manners has remained so on many occasions prior to this.
We have reflected bitterly that the times she has gone out for a meal in a dress, wearing make-up she has received a very different kind of attention altogether. The shift from judgment to deference should not turn on the length of your hair, your height and the clothes you choose to wear. We all make judgements but surely judgements made on gender are due for revision given the rich variety of identities people choose to inhabit in society. It is their right to go about their lives without being discriminated against and there should be legislation which reflects this.
So, passing strangers, people in the hospitality business, members of the medical profession- people from all walks of life have exhibited discriminatory behaviour. This suggests to me that something needs to change, in how we stereotype gender norms and also how we interact with people based on our own prejudices and conditioning. Every human being should be treated with dignity and respect irrespective of what we perceive their gender to be.