I took a trip to my friendly neighborhood Walgreens tonight for a few necessities: antibacterial soap for my new tattoo, deodorant and a variety pack of tampons. I took my goods to the cashier and entered my phone number in the hopes of saving some pennies on my purchase. Naturally, my name popped up on the screen, and was seen by the guy behind the register.
“You’re not Catherine.”
“Yeah I am. You wanna see my ID?”
“No. But you’re [mumble] [mumble] Catherine [mumble] not….[something] [something].”
And then he mumbled some more stuff, which I promptly ignored as I swiped my card. I was unfazed. I am used to people being unwilling to accept that I am female.
This was merely a blip in a long line of stories I’ve got that challenge what people think is “female.” And it wasn’t the only time it happened at a Walgreens.
Last year I went to a SOMA Walgreens in SF to buy tampons. A big-ass variety pack. Seriously. This happens only when I need those things? I was wearing a hat, which I’m known to do. But this time the guy wasn’t that weird. Just aggressive. This particular conversation lasted a little longer.
I had just moved to Oakland and hadn’t changed my address on my Walgreens card. I entered my number (discount!) and prepared to swipe my card. But there was a pause in the air.
“Is this your address?”
“Oh, wait. That might not be. I just moved.”
“So you’re not Catherine?”
“I am. I just need to change my address. 4–”
“You’re telling me your name is Catherine?”
This was the first time this had happened, so I was just a bit off my game.
“I am. What’s the problem?”
“You don’t look like a Catherine.”
“Well, I am. Do you want to see my ID?”
“No I don’t need to. But there’s no way you’re Catherine.” [Why do people never want to see my ID?]
“You want me to take off my shirt?”
We all know from Women’s Studies 101 that breasts don’t make a woman, but to someone as ignorant as this guy, an equally ignorant and aggressive suggestion had to suffice in the moment. Big surprise, he said nothing. He proceeded to give me more attitude, and I proceeded to give him my address. And he persisted.
“I don’t believe you’re Catherine.”
“We’re in San Francisco. Open your mind.”
That was the best I could do in this circumstance. You’d think after all these years I’d have a few effective retorts prepared, but no. I wanted to fight, but I also wanted to run away. I was angry because I couldn’t change him in that moment and because I couldn’t “win” this argument. Unfortunately, I also felt defeated, because for a moment, with him in the space we shared, I felt alone and unable to stand up for myself.
He ended up entering my address for me [thank you so much!], and I bought my tampons and left. The minute I stepped outside, I felt this warmth begin to emerge inside. It was a hot anger. I felt the tears begin to well up in my eyes. Stop it. I couldn’t. Questions about who I am, why I was here as I am, and why can’t the world just let people be who they are swirled inside. I was pissed off mostly at myself for feeling weak. I walked to Powell Street BART with the bill of my hat pressed down to my eyes. The entire BART ride I contended with tears that I didn’t want to be crying. I remember broken sleep that night, and I remember the sadness I felt the next morning that I didn’t quite understand. After all, I had been through stuff like this before.
There was that time when I was at a wedding party, and upon being introduced as Catherine to a woman, she turned around and said, believing I was a man: “Why would your parents do that to you?!”
There was that time while driving along the 5 in California when I had to pee — never a fun pitstop — and the attendant screamed across five aisles of junk food, stale coffee and souvenir hats, “Hey! That’s the women’s bathroom!” Pissed, I screamed back: “I am a woman!”
There was that time at the end of a cab ride, during which the driver told me all about her son who had passed away from a drug overdose and perhaps felt a bit of a connection to me, asked me my name. With one foot out the door I told her and, upon hearing it, she turned around in awe. “You’re a–? But– uh.” “Have a nice night,” I said, adding the exchange to my list.
There was that time when my Dominican barber, upon hearing the origin and circumstances of my brown skin — a part of my story I relayed to her willingly — stopped mid-cut and exclaimed, “You’re the son your mom always wanted!” My haircuts last 12 minutes. This one lasted 30.
And then there is my voice. There was that time I spent 45 minutes on the phone — forty-five minutes! — trying to convince the woman that I was Catherine so that she could ensure my international roaming was all set up. Oh yes, my voice.
There was that time (two weeks ago, as a matter of fact) I called Zipcar and had to confirm my identity (“Is this Catherine?”) by answering three security questions and providing my address, last four digits of my SSN, mother’s maiden name, etc., because the person on the other end isn’t quite sure that I’m the Catherine on my end.
Or when I call the bank, or Comcast, or PayPal or whomever else and, after answering all the questions associated with the account owned by Catherine, the person on the other end says, “who am I speaking to?” “Catherine.” “Okay, sir, how can I help you?”
Ah, the dance of gender. The game of identity. The last time I wore a dress was in 1991 at my high school graduation and I’ve been regretting it ever since. Unfortunately for the people who can’t accept it, I will continue to wear ties, jeans, hats and suits. And I’ll probably look like and pass as a guy most days. Sometimes I come hard at them with a witty response. Sometimes I ignore it. And sometimes I cry.
If my name were Samantha or Jessie or Alexandra, things might have been just a little different. No, I’m not the woman they need me to be, and I’ll never be a man. This is female. Deal.