On Not Knowing

I used to have long hair. I started growing it when almost every other boy in my school had his hair short and spiky. Wanting to be different, or rather to accentuate the difference that was already there, to take control of it and throw it into sharper relief, I grew out my hair. But this had an unanticipated result: I was mistaken – not often, but with a certain regularity – for a woman. It happened in shops, in hotels, in public toilets, and once in a hot spring in Japan. It didn’t seem to matter how much stubble I had on my face, or how deep my voice was, I still got called “my darling” by burly young men in butcher’s shops; I still got directed to the women’s changing rooms. Once, in Nagoya, a person I’d just met was walking with me and a group of friends to the subway station. She’d been talking to someone else, but halfway down the hill she suddenly turned to me and asked “Man? Woman? Which one are you?”

The boldness of this demand was new to me. I was used to people making mistakes and then having to correct them myself, or raising an eyebrow and waiting for the penny to drop. But no one had straight-out asked me before whether I was a man or a woman. I said “I’m a man”, and she nodded and went back to her previous conversation. Now I wonder what would have happened if I’d said “Does it matter?” – not out of pedantry or spite, but because I wonder just how much our desire for knowledge, to know other people, is destructive. To know someone in this way is not to know of them, but rather to fit them into a category of knowledge, to understand them and their experiences. Their existence on a notecard, carefully filed: male, white, late twenties. What sort of existence could I have outside of these categories?

I don’t think that this type of demand is particularly unusual. It’s one that I’ve largely been spared from experiencing, and it decreased in frequency after I cut my hair short and grew a beard. But it is something that, for example, people of colour in majority-white societies have to deal with frequently; that age-old pattern of question and answer:

Where are you from?”


No, I mean where are you really from?” or “Where are you from originally?” or “Where are your parents from?”

The “confusion” which leads to this series of questions is predicated on the perceived right of the speaker to know something, to know someone. The pull of this demand to put someone on a notecard causes people of colour to be asked these questions of origin, and it also means that people who have ambiguous gender presentation are asked “which” they are, as I was. This might seem like a simple question which is readily answered, and for me it was – I am cisgender, which is to say that my biological sex matches my gender; I am a man born in a body which society (in general) views as male.

I am not trans*. Written with a wildcard star, *, this term covers a wide variety of identities and expressions, including people who are neither male nor female, people who are both female and male at the same time, people whose body does not match their gender, and people who exist, as much as possible, outside the binary of female–male. This complexity notwithstanding, trans* people are often spoken about in terms of “passing”, which is to say, whether they are viewed by society in a more-or-less unambiguous way. This carves a simple path from one step to another, an A-B-C of gender reassignment that elides a hundred thousand in-between spaces in which people exist, degrees of gender identity and expression which are culturally or medically ambiguous. (Is there a difference? The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a disorder for years.) You might think you know what’s in someone else’s pants, but you don’t. People are born with wildly different configurations of genitalia, to which doctors or parents may or may not take exception. Not to mention the various procedures, cultural or medical (is there a difference?) with which a person may alter their own genitals (or other parts of their body) or have them altered by others, and which may or may not have an affect on their gender identity. You don’t know what people “are”, not unless they tell you themselves.

The craving for certainty is tyrannical. It demands an easy answer in as few words as possible; it requires that if you cannot answer in this way then you have a good explanation as to why not. It requires that your answer be definitive and that it not change depending on to whom you’re talking or in which language you’re speaking. It requires that the answer is not “I don’t know”, or “It depends”, or “What does it matter?”

The politics of certain knowledge also works the other way around. Legible defiance of gender norms, women who can be identified as women acting in a masculine way, or men who can be identified as men acting in a feminine way is cause for harassment; “But I know you to be this way – why do you then act that way?” Sissy boys or butch lesbians experience harassment running a terrifying gamut from tutting and looks on the bus, to “corrective” rape (that euphemism!) or being thrown from a bridge – falling and screaming and drowning because of the fluid sway of their hips, now submerged in the river below. As Mark Doty wrote after the 1984 murder of Charlie Howard, a young man lynched by three boys in a small town in Maine because of the perception he was gay:

What could he do, live

with one hand tied

behind his back? So he began to fall

into the star-faced section

of night between the trestle

and the water because he could not meet

a little town’s demands

In this case, the demands that Doty writes about are not that Charlie state which he is, male or female, but that, being seen as male in some insubstantial, essential way, he conform to expectations and act masculine, to walk the right way and not hold hands with other young men. The demands of the boys who threw him over the bridge, switching easily from right-to-know to right-to-act, right-to-correct, led to Charlie’s murder.

This is no bland point to the effect that we should not stereotype people, that homophobia is bad, or that we should not judge a book by its cover. Rather, I wish to suggest that it is in the act of seeing someone, in the act of looking itself, that we place people in categories always already there, and that these categories restrict not only our modes of seeing others but also others’ modes of being, or, if you prefer, the ways in which they can be themselves through their speech and their actions, the way they dress or the food they eat or the jokes they make. In looking at the book we have judged it already to have two covers and printed pages, carefully numbered, an author or authors, a publisher, an editor, an agent. If it is a work of non-fiction, we will assume it will have a contents page and possibly an index, a list of references. A dedication: to my darling Emily, for Mum and Dad, in loving memory of. We could never imagine that we might open the covers to find a rose garden inside, spilling out into our hands, the smell filling our nostrils even as the thorns prick our fingers. That’s not what books are.

Neither do I want to suggest that people are “more” than their gender, “more” than their sexuality, “more” than their race, because—although people are, of course, all of these things—this plea for a utopian, post-identity-politics won’t pick up the drowned body of the sissy boy in the river. It will not heal the wounds of the victims of a thousand others like him. Gay people, trans* people, feminists: all of us have the right to rejoice in our identities and to speak up against prejudice and marginalisation, against anything less than full and total recognition of our humanity in all of its iridescent complexity. But I also want to suggest that we have to understand how our perceptions are shaped and our prejudices hardened by our desire to know people, and that the desire to know people in this way is essentially violent.

So, deal with this violence. Practice seeing human beings before genders, before you know someone in that violent way as inappropriately masculine for a person with breasts, or too fat to be wearing skimpy clothing. Practice using third-person, gender-neutral pronouns; practice saying “they” and “themself”. Practice wondering, for example, whether people like to read Marcel Proust or Natsume Sōseki or both, or whether they take sugar in their coffee or not, rather than wondering if they have a cock or not. Practice saying not “I don’t judge”– which implies that you could, if you wanted to; that you have the authority and the right – but rather “I don’t know” and “I can’t know”. Practice getting used to that. Practice not knowing.