Back in August I wrote about the difficulties of being named Deirdré, which no one can spell or pronounce. An additional problem arose when I began dealing with large numbers of people online: many people don’t know whether it’s a male or female name. The default assumption was that I was male, perhaps because people “met” me in the context of technology, and assumed that a technically-capable person had to be male (that’s a rant for another time).
So I got used to being addressed in email as “Mr. Straughan;” it’s far better than some things I’ve been called online. My friend and colleague Adrian, meanwhile, had to contend with the fact that, in America, Adrian is assumed to be a female name (thanks to the “Rocky” movies). This Adrian is British, and male. On one memorable occasion, a member of a focus group of Roxio software users began (without prompting) to sing the praises of those wonderful online reps the company had, Deirdré and Adrian. Which was very nice, except that he thought that I was a man and Adrian a woman!
At least people meeting me in person usually figure out that I’m female, what with my two big attributes sticking out in front. But, when I was in Benares in 1985-86, even this certainty deserted me. I had very short hair at the time, and was a lot thinner than I am now. For most of the year, I wore salwar-kameez (traditional Indian women’s clothing, which is loose around the thighs but tight-fitting up top) and there was no question as to my sex. But in winter, to stay warm, I wore western clothing: baggy canvas trousers and a bulky sweater.
While travelling back from Kulu-Manali by bus, I was delayed in a small town where university students had blocked the road to protest something or other. I was standing outside the bus, waiting for something to happen, when a young man came bustling up, probably intent on telling me all about the noble cause, whatever it was. “Hello, Sir!” he shouted. Then, as he got a little closer, his face suddenly fell. “Oh, excuse me, Madam,” he muttered, and slunk away.
Soon afterwards, I was back in Benares, buying something in a shop. A little old Muslim man with thick glasses engaged me in conversation (in Hindi). I don’t remember what it was about, but we had been chatting for about ten minutes when he suddenly peered at me intently through his glasses. “Oh, excuse me,” he said. “If I had realized you were a woman, I would never have spoken to you.”