When gender and sex identity is up for discussion at Walgreens

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.

Image by Flickr user Charles Hutchins under a CC BY 2.0 license

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130 comments

  1. This is so awesome Catherine! Thank you so much for writing this! You couldn’t have summed it up any better. I have had similar experiences in my life and it was so refreshing to have someone else tell this story. Very well done my friend! Thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story…well some of your story anyway. You sound like a beautiful person, I hope I cross your path someday.

  3. I’ve been there too, though my pain comes from both being assumed male and assumed female so… talk about your rock and hard place. Either way I hope, though sometimes I feel it’s in vain, that someday people’s minds will not be so stuck in one or other, black or white, mode. Here’s to that day. Big props to you for sharing this special kind of pain.

  4. Felt the same way so many times, though also saddened when I am assumed female so there’s that fun twist, I don’t have your voice or stature. Life is so weird when there’s only two boxes. Big Love to you, Catherine.

  5. Hi Catherine, I hope you open up others eyes with this awesome blog! People can be so narrow minded and it is good that you shared your story. Bravo. Looking forward to seeing more from you.

  6. Well written and very illuminating. Good for you for standing your ground, and there isn’t anything wrong with crying, ever. Better to release the tension that way than have it set up camp in your body.

    Frankly, crying and emoting in public is another thing this country needs to get over and finally embrace. It’s been a long-ass time since the Puritans ruled the roost here. I think we can let go of their sphincter clenching ways now.

  7. Loved it. I was mistaken for a boy once by a four year old. I cried and I don’t know why. Ever since then I’ve never had the guts to be myself. I like what you wrote. Loved it in fact. I just might now have the guts to pick the lack of gender I feel I have.

  8. I literally just stumbled upon this piece and believe it was meant to happen right now for a specific reason. (I was getting ready to write a piece titled “Are you a boy or a girl?”) Beautifully written, it really touched me – that gender fluid, gender bender part of me that doesn’t really want to be defined as male or female on most days. Thank you for writing this, I look forward to reading more of your blog!

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience. Not at all easy having to always be educating other people, especially when they can’t open their minds and hearts.

  10. Been there. It is an uncomfortable place to be on the other end of “can I help you, sir?” I’m not sure who I feel worse for … myself or the salesperson when he or she catches the mistake. Women like us are special. Don’t doubt it for a second.

  11. People can be so close minded sometimes, its like no one has ever addressed their idea that girls must have long hair when they were growing up, so when they get rid of that idea they still cling firmly to the other ideas of femininity. I’ve had a female friend who liked to dress a bit like you, she had long hair and a strong figure so wasn’t mistaken for a man, instead she was constantly labelled as a lesbian, just because she didn’t fit in with their idea of what it is to be female.

    I’m doing a teaching course at the moment and we’re looking at sexuality. We were told it should be introduced at the youngest stages of education, some people shied away from this until they were told sexuality is not just preferences, its about our gender stereotypes. It starts with teaching them girls can have short hair, boys can have long hair, girls can like sports and boys may like sewing. The problem is I think we sometimes fail in even that, so how can we scaffold our students into understanding more complex gender fluidity such as your own.

    Anyway, thank you for writing this, it has really encouraged me to think.

  12. I love love your post. It’s sad that we are still dealing with a crisis that allows society to continue to produce this stigma about gender identity..

  13. I’ve got long hair. I also have a fairly feminine face. I am, however, exceptionally hairy, and prone to wearing slutty tops, so the hairiness is usually out there for the world to see. Just last week, this happened three times: walk into a shop with my girlfriend (whose hair is the same length as mine), and the shop assistant says, ‘Hello, ladies’. As soon as they saw that I’ve a goatee and a rug for a chest, they laughed and got awkward. My shit level was 0 – meh. It’s a bit different, of course, cause no one questioned me subsequently. But this kind of shit happens, and some people are assholes. All the best in dealing with this black and white world of ours. Keep bending your own little space of gender – hopefully the world will one day catch up, and learn that grey is the stuff life is made of. 🙂

  14. So well written. More importantly, it requires courage to write something such as this and you have that courage. Many people will read this as ti is on Freshly Pressed and I am sure that you will be respected a lot more after people read this article. You are a voice for a lot more who have faced similar situations.

  15. Reblogged this on Archaic Sugar and commented:
    We’re always having the answer for one another. Most of us think we have it all figured out, but end up boxing people in spaces as we impose on them ‘our,’ understanding of reality (without ever seeing them at all). We just keep on having the answer, at their expense without understanding something more about the world and the people who inhabit it right next to us. This post really makes it clear how committed we are to our own perspective in spaces we should be sharing with others.

  16. Wow, I really enjoyed this. You sound like someone who knows who she is, even of other people can’t seem to wrap their heads around it. I can’t imagine how annoying and frustrating and sad it must be to have to continue to deal with this issue over and over and over and over again. Until reading this, I had never thought about the ways in which being “obviously female” has affected my life, or the struggles that someone who is not “obviously identifiable” might face. Thank you for sharing and providing some insight. Will definitely be back to read more in the future. All the best to you!

  17. I’m in Wyoming and I wish there were more people who were as open and accepting as you are. Self confidence and openness are both truly beautiful things which isn’t seen in this unfortunately sheltered part of the country.

  18. Even though there is a lot of variety in gender, most people still don’t know it. I’ve had arguments about whether a pansexual is the same as a bisexual, because people have not understood they would only be the same thing if gender was binary. People confuse sex and gender far too easily – yes, typically speaking, sex is binary…but sexuality isn’t always based entirely on biological sex. It’s disheartening that most people just don’t know about how diverse the human race is, in gender…and what with identity theft, people would accept that far more easily than something they have not heard of before, or before encountered. I hope their encounters with you served as learning experiences, so they might be more understanding and/or kinder the next time they encounter someone who is not what they expect.

  19. Cashiers are scum of the earth. You think that someone doing something like that for a living would learn some humility when dealing with the public. Oh my, as George would say.

  20. Stunningly told and felt!

    I can’t help but wonder about those brothers and sisters in far away lands who wouldn’t DARE explore their gender identity, or true feelings, or what their hearts tell them is love. People who live in places where the outcome of such questioning is generally much uglier…

    Irregardless, yours is a potent and powerful story, beautifully told. Keep on being who you are whether in a Walgreen’s or anywhere else. The global revolution begins with you loving you a little more each day… and formerly ignorant people wake up to what’s real.

    1. I feel you. For everything I ‘go through,’ it’s nowhere near things that others have had to experience throughout history and even today in societies that can’t imagine anything ‘different.’

      1. Let us hope that in our lifetimes we see more and more people rising up and less and less ‘authorities’ holding all the power over people’s choice to live free and ‘different’.

  21. I don’t need to hear your voice or see your assets to believe you are Catherine. Your write up and the way you have presented it marks that only a Catherine. … oops sorry only The Catherine can write it!!! 🙂

  22. Very profound story, and just came across it, and
    never read any of your other posts. Anyway, I understand
    being gay, trapped in another genders body, having
    sex changes. What I don’t understand is that you get
    mad because people mistaken you for a man, but you
    are female, and get angry when they do this…OK, you
    said you you’ll never be a man, but why wear mens
    clothes if you want to be a woman so bad..help
    me understand that.

    1. Thanks for your comment, darkmuze. The answer to that is a long and varied one, with many different answers depending on who you ask. Not to mention the litany of theoretical books on the subject dating back decades. My answer for you right now is that if I say my name is Catherine, which is obviously a gender-specific name, don’t question me. Let me buy my tampons, which I need. You’re probably looking for more but it really is just about letting people be who they want to be and dressing in the clothes that make them feel comfortable, wearing or not wearing makeup that they want, and presenting themselves in whatever way they want. Period.

      1. Well, you seem confident enough in your
        body, SO as long as you are happy,
        comfortable, that’s ALL that matters, BUT
        understandable, people are going to be
        ignorant, so that is where your strength
        comes in….

  23. My fiance gets this somewhat often when we go out. She dresses in a pretty masculine manner, and always has a baseball cap on (though in my eyes I can’t quite understand how she can be mistaken for a guy). She usually responds by pitching her voice high and feminine, and the reactions are pretty funny to watch.

    As someone who works for Walgreens, though, I’m so sorry you’ve had bad experiences there. 😦

  24. Reblogged this on Across Difference and commented:
    This is a great piece and I can totally relate plus laughed out loud several times. I have found a soul-mate in the dance of gender,
    Check it out.

  25. As a child I usually liked being mistaken for a boy, that is until it once happened inside the ladies room. This really loud and aggressive lady started screaming at me to never come in there again and I calmly responded that was a girl. The look on her face was priceless.

    Lovely post. It’s too bad some people don’t mind their own business

  26. Thanks Catherine – I need to hear more and more from folks like you who manage to handle ignorance and hostility over gender. I’m lucky to be sisgendered and don’t have to deal with it but I’m on alert to be ready if I need to be an ally. Thanks for writing.

  27. Wow, after reading this I reflected upon my history and although I don’t get it regularly now because I have long hair, there have been half a dozen times where it has been implied or directly stated that I look like a man (courtesy of not caring to dress like a women or wear make up or jewellery) and not being particularly curvaceous. Can I recommend a book to you that I just read (yeah, I know, it’s not really a question): Dr Brene Brown’s book ‘I thought it was just me but it isn’t’. Of course, you might hate the book, it might be simple and obvious to you but then again it might not be.

  28. Such amazing comments and support in response to my post. This kind of encouragement is driving me to want to write even more and make sure I actually finish my pieces. To the logical mind, we are not alone in the world, but sometimes it can be hard to remember. Your replies have reminded me that I’m not alone in this and that every single identity in the world (well, maybe with a few exceptions) can face all kinds of struggle on various levels.

  29. Congratulations! After reviewing lots of WordPress publications for April, I’m awarding you with this month’s edition of my Gender-Bender Award! http://tiffany267.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/gender-bender-award-gender-at-walgreens

    My Gender-Bender Award is an opportunity to celebrate those who challenge and disrupt the gender binary. Thank you for being a part of that 🙂 As an award-
    winner, you are welcome to use my exclusive Gender-Bender Award graphic on your blog (if you linked back to me, it would be appreciated).

    Please nominate a post for May! You can nominate anything you’ve seen on WordPress, even another post you’ve written yourself.

    Thanks again and congratulations!

  30. You be you. As long as you are true to yourself, it doesn’t matter what other people think, or how they react. I know their words and reactions sting, but they are ignorant. You are beautiful, and I thank you so much for posting this. Please continue to share your experiences with us, both positive and negative.

  31. Reblogged this on 1leftofcenter and commented:
    I read this today, and it saddens and angers me that people feel the need to question others’ gender identity. Maybe, bu sharing this blog, someone will be enlightened, and stop themselves before they react this way.

  32. As an androgynous being, I really enjoy when people confuse my gender, but others are rude or not as believable of it. Some get upset when I do not want to tell them my gender so they label me with one anyway.

    Maybe I should write something about my gender-idenity as apart of my daily writing.

    I enjoyed reading your article. It’s a shame people are so stuck in their head about these things sometimes.

  33. Holy crap, so much support for you on here! I thought I’d leave you a note to thank you for sharing your perspective, but now I’ve got to acknowledge how very cool it is that so many people have expressed their appreciation as well. Writing such a personal account is really, really valuable– particularly for someone like myself who has never dealt with anything like the situations you describe. And many happened in SF! It brings to mind a little lesson I learned not too long after I moved here. I was on my bike and another cyclist gave me a heads up about something that fell out of my bag. “Thanks, man!” <- a standard response of mine. When I looked with more than a glance, I realized that he was a she and hoped that my mistake didn't turn her helpful gesture into one she regretted or felt embarrassed about. I was certainly embarrassed but tried to learn from it, too. Gender assumptions are unwise, particularly in a community as diverse as the ones around the Bay. I've tweaked my pre-loaded responses a bit and would like to think that I don't have to worry about making the same mistake again.

  34. I think it will take some time for people to open up their minds regarding what gender is and how females should be or not be. Stay strong, much love!

  35. Hi,

    I’ve heard some similar stories about this – a friend who has to double-confirm her identity all the time because of her wholly Indian name, and has even been accused of “cultural appropriation” for wearing traditional dress. Another friend expressed frustration at the constant assumptions that her darker-skinned brother was adopted.

    I’ve never had these kinds of problems myself, and it sounds like a special kind of hell that you’d have to deal with the kind of people that would wilfully and repeatedly deny the very facts of reality – insulting and demeaning you in the process – because it doesn’t mesh with their experience of the world.

    However, I’m commenting because I’d love some advice. I can imagine myself making initial mistakes of identity if I met someone like you, or even just someone that I can’t tell how they identify (especially if their name was, say, Joe, or Chris). We’re expected to read the cues about whether someone is a “he” or a “she” – curiously, for something that’s such a big part of our identity, it’s not something that we can drop into conversation in the same way we can casually imply, say, our relationships or sexual orientation by referring to “my brother” or “my partner”. No gender-specific first-person pronouns! It gets especially fraught in this time in which we’re just beginning to recognise gender as a non-binary spectrum.

    So how would I minimise any unintentional hurt or insult when I talk to people I don’t know? When & how is it appropriate to ask someone how they identify? Even asking can be a bit insulting/patronising sometimes, I think.

    I’m super-interested in your feedback, if you’re not already fed up with teaching people. I’ve thought a lot about the difference between people exhibiting mistaken pattern-matching and those exhibiting wilful denial / outright prejudice; and I don’t really have a satisfactory answer yet, given that for the person that has to put up with it, they’re both functionally equivalent.

  36. People should dress however they want and be who they are. You are a beautiful lady, don’t let closed minded people get you down. People need to realise that gender is more fluid than clothes or even beards. You get email, gal you’re awesome 😃

  37. I was on my way to work once, in the middle of the night on a saturday. A drunks guy passes me and yells out; “Hey, you a girl or a boy??” “Does it matter?” I ask him. I several outbursts of how disgusting it is that he can’t tell my gender. I do my standard response I always have in these situations when I can’t find words. I laugh and I walk away. When I’ve clocked into work I my brain tells me I should have told him this; “Awe, did you have to question your sexuality for a second there?” I am biologically female and gender fluid, and sometimes when people mistake for a guy (Since my cup-size is D that doesn’t happen very often), I get happy. But in situations like these I just feel the hot anger you describe above. We should be comfortable in our skins, regardless of gender. It’s a shame everyone can’t see that.

  38. I don’t understand what the need for people to justify things that do not need to be justified. Assuming that is you in your pic you clearly have feminine features to you.. who cares though I say. Shrug it off hun so not worth it. I face many of the same things that you do. Let them feel important and pick your battles Hun! As I see from reading this piece that you do 🙂

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