an elderly woman called out to me, what she thought was me, and indeed it was except I was no sir. Could you help me with something heavy? I said yes and brought my boyfriend out instead, as if supplying her with the more accurate version of her request, the sir she wanted. Are greetings just floating signifiers, or made of actual content? I suppose it depends on the context of interpretation: artist or viewer. If the woman’s intention was to produce invitation through contact, then it worked: I understood her request immediately, didn’t look over my shoulder for the others, would not have benefitted from clarification. Who, me? A few sentences ago, I almost wrote something about, “polite contact.” Is it ever polite to misunderstand someone? To brand them with your personal expectations of how the world works? The question assumes a superficiality antithetical to community, forcing “inclusion” to revolve around sight, the status quo of all human senses. Understanding demands space for difference and curiosity, which flower with appearances, sure, but only by firmly hidden roots, all the grounded stuff you can’t expect to see. To understand someone is to know that there will be truths both contradictory and unwitnessable. The only way out into the broad arena of true recognition is therefore through questioning and apprehending, and the elderly woman did both. She suggested a world in which my gender presentation and my biological sex may not reinforce each other, and she was polite to me regardless of the potential affront that stalks such incongruities. But by now, I am mistaking the viewer’s reception with the artist’s intent, imbuing her words with stance and premeditation. She simply thought I was a boy.
I brought my boyfriend out instead, without asking for his availability, having translated question into obligation. This woman needs your help. In the face of misunderstanding—was I embarrassed? feeling defensive?—I brought a man to solve what was then reinforced as a man’s problem. Why didn’t I just help her? Because I am no sir, and my drive in that moment to establish the few attributes I lack overpowered the possibility of the many I could contain—strength, fluidity, playfulness, understanding (the woman was, after all, quite old), or just being a good neighbor. I picked up all the implications of her greeting and found a way to carry both much more and much less than the situation asked of me.
Men have always turned “weight” into opportunity: muscles tasked with function, they rectify absences, fill holes, provide height when gravity bullies and receive praise through their lifted objects without having to become them. Weight, a woman’s problem that demands modification and restraint, becomes, in the context of dudes, a thing to absorb or pick up. I am engulfed by manly distinctions, a flame too close to my back. If words sometimes stick to the wrong body, which is modified by which? Why did I say wrong body instead of wrong words? Perhaps I could only prove I was not a sir through comparison and contrast, by taking the woman’s question seriously enough to insist I could only supply, but not become, the answer. When born of insecurity, need sometimes does nothing but highlight its own relativity: if I must find a man in order to establish my own lack of manhood, what does it mean to be a woman? I am not a sir, but perhaps not inherently a she, either.
Even landscapes can be made of habit and instruction. Land goes here, sky there, keep the horizontal median plush and predictable. But gender is pure context. Things weird or new look out of place against the backdrop of all that’s already been established as what is. Trace a line far back enough and you eventually find an initial point of contact between pencil and paper, context of the origin. Is it ever polite to misunderstand someone’s gender? If things are made up, and the social world is constructed, and humans are capable of change and growth, then the question is nonsense. Only when misunderstanding morphs into insistence does confusion become dangerous. But in the context of an elderly woman wearing thick glasses, crossing the street near our lilac bush and discovering my young, accessible body: it is simple reflex gone mildly rogue.
When people ask me questions, I sometimes wish to know their long-term expectation before answering. As if truth requires context or carries a faltering sense of responsibility. By truth I mean gender. Full of holes, defining itself against others and itself and the new day.