My Gender Changed When I Visited India

I was standing in another queue before a walk-through metal detector. The sun was glinting through the thick, grey haze permeating the New Delhi sky, giving the sandstone walls of Red Fort an overbearing glow. Two lines, each with simultaneously menacing and lackadaisical police officers, posing one question: male or female?

For me, the answer I was expected to come to wasn't a difficult one. For others it is. For some, including me, it is not a question that seems necessary at all.

After a few minutes of shuffling forward slowly, I reached the front of the line. The person in front of me walked through the detector, put their arms out and was patted down briefly by a state police officer before wandering on. This is the relaxed process I had become familiar with in my time in India. The measures were not serious. I had walked though a security checkpoint previously with a box of matches in my pocket and found the security guard puzzled when I tried to turn them over.

It was my turn to walk forward and step up onto the wooden block to be searched. As with everyone, the metal detector let out a beep of panic met by the unfazed straight-faces of the officers. I stepped forward and stood with my arms out. The searching officer looked at me. They looked in my eyes. They looked at my body. They looked at my clothes; cotton trousers, a pink T-shirt and purple hoodie around my waist.

“Female?” they asked, with a smirk of insult and confusion.

“No.” I stood with my arms out.

The officer didn't believe me. I learnt this when I felt their hands grabbing and groping my chest and waist, unlike the relaxed process I had been observing the others in the line experience. I stood with my arms out. They gestured, now sporting a disappointed expression. I stepped off of the block and walked into the fort.

While in India, I encountered many situations exposing this peculiar point about gender. It is currently common to say as a criticism of gender that it is a social construct. This is true, but so are many things. Money is a social construct. Friendship is a social construct. Democracy is a social construct.

The important point about gender is that it is an unhelpful and increasingly unwelcome construct.

Standing in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, walking along a crowded marble pathway towards the grand mausoleum, a photographer walked past me. After knocking into my arm then turning around, an apology began streaming out.

“Sorry, Sir – um, Madam – um... ah, I'm sorry.”

With a face full of embarrassment, the local was clearly worried about causing offence and felt guilty for it. The genuine politeness and confusion I saw summarised the issue. The photographer was confused by me.

I am male by traditional labelling. I do not accept social genders and so consider myself non-binary, though I wasn't sure trying to explain this to the police officers or photographer would be helpful. I have long hair compared to the traditional male image. I have a youthful (read baby) face. I am just a human with hair and skin.

The photographer trying to apologise wasn't really confused by me, but in fact by the concept of social gender. The multiple police officers who questioned my gender while searching me were confused by social gender. The fact that I would be treated differently based on my perceived gender should confuse us.

While I was in India, it was as if the dividing line of binary gender was shifted in this different culture. I hadn't changed – bar my hair being slightly less buoyant in the humid climate. My gender identity hadn't changed. Yet somehow, the way I was seen and the way I was treated – from the groping in security lines to unwanted approaches on the street – changed completely. The absurdity of sexism and gender were both plain to see.

Why should a person be expected to be, enjoy, accept or do anything because of what gender someone else thinks they have? Why should an arbitrary label based on the things they are, enjoy, accept or do come with the expectation of certain genitals? Why should a person be treated differently because of an arbitrary label?

Importantly, if these expectations of gender can vary so much with time, with culture and by country so fluidly, how can it not be true that gender itself is fluid? My perceived gender can change between the grey pavements of Scotland and the marble temple floors of India. It could change between this year and last. It could change between the company of my friends and my grandparents.

Why should gender exist? And certainly, why should someone's gender not change by their personal wish?


Reading time: 04:06 Written by Graham Macphee