Last year was the first time I ever traveled on Christmas day. I went all the way from San Francisco, California to Richmond, Virginia. I went vulnerable, visiting my girlfriend’s parents’ house for the first time. And I went big. I wore a polyester Christmas suit. The full shebang—pants, sport coat, and tie, in a tasteful Christmas tree camo print. The suit was a gaudy reminder to myself to stay weird, bold and true while flying headfirst into a straight, conservative world. I am the first queer partner my girlfriend has ever brought home. Her parents have been “trying,” but accepting her queerness, and subsequently, me, doesn’t come easily to them. I thought that if I could own my shit enough to look ridiculous in a crowded airport, maybe I’d have a chance of standing in my skin for four days of family fun in the capital of the Confederacy.
I walked through the automatic doors into the San Francisco International Airport with my head up, determined to stand out with pride, but my grand entrance was anticlimactic. No one seemed to notice the 5’10” walking Christmas tree dragging a little black suitcase. Maybe being myself would be less painful than I thought. Uneventful, even. I walked toward the security line. Easy.
“Sir, sir,” I heard from somewhere behind me. I kept walking because it wasn’t for me. “Sir!” Just as I turned to look, someone reached out to touch me. “Sir, I love your…” They trailed off. “Oh.” We stopped. Stared. The bustling, beeping airport quieted. The person was close enough to see me clearly, their unconscious moment of certainty interrupted. I wasn’t a sir. Or was I? Oh, shit. They came to a sudden, formerly invisible crossroads, and swallowed the rest of their sentence, eyes wide, mouth open, but no words. The result was a visceral glitch, like a computer screen when it stutters and freezes.
At first, I was simply thrilled that at least one person in the airport wasn’t pretending they couldn’t see me. One person was willing to acknowledge, and even praise my loud presence. I wasn’t angry or embarrassed that this stranger unintentionally misgendered me. At this point in my life, I feel satiated when people are confused by my gender identity, but I didn’t always. A decade ago, on a hiking trip with my Peruvian ex-boyfriend, I was surprised and humiliated when the women running the bodega greeted me with, “Buenos días señor.” I darted a glance to make sure my boyfriend was out of earshot. I grabbed the water, told her to keep the change, and swore I’d never wear those zip off hiking pants again. What kind of woman was I if I was mistaken for a man? Who was I if I wasn’t a woman? I had a weak sense of self, and being a woman was the one thing I thought I knew. I relied on that truth. The bodega owner shook that certainty, and I had to make that moment disappear, make sure nothing like that ever happened again. I got yoga pants and ditched the bandana. A couple years after the bodega glitch, I moved from Peru to San Francisco. Poco a poco, I found queer community, and only then did I begin to peel back the layers of identity. Nine years living in a queer friendly city, within a beautiful web of chosen family, has afforded me curiosity and compassion. Now, in a society dominated by the gender binary, disorientation feels like an appropriate response to my gender fluidity.
If someone is trying to place me in the male or female category, somewhere I don’t belong, I want them to stutter and feel uncertain. What I loved about the airport interaction was that brief moment in which the rawness of not knowing was palpable. Moments like these are a glitch in the matrix of categories and classifications that we elevate to fact.
Our brains organize input so that we are not constantly immobilized by the multitude of, well, everything. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a multitude. Glitches remind me of the infinite possibility beneath every assumption, the mystery behind everything I think I know.
That’s a woman. That’s a man. That person is scary. That person is weak. This is an airport. This is breakfast. We consciously and unconsciously organize the world, and when that organization gets interrupted with something unexpected, our organizational system suddenly becomes visible as something that helps us navigate the world, as opposed to the truth, and definitely not the whole story. That “woman” on the bus is a hospice volunteer on her way home from a long night of holding vigil for a dead stranger. That “man” at the airport is getting on the airplane for the first time in thirty years to surprise his daughter. The “scary person” is jumping and shouting with joy in celebration of their best friend’s graduation. That “weak person” wrote down the license plate and called for help. This “airport” is the jobsite for 43,000 people. This “breakfast” is the last time a young child will see their grandmother, and the only memory they’ll retain of her for the rest of their life.
There is nothing wrong with filtering information. At the same time, we should recognize that underneath the categorizations exist nuance and ambiguity. We know far less than our organizing brains would have us believe.
The person at the airport categorized my existence as “man in a Christmas suit.” When they got closer, what they saw challenged their initial assumption. They felt surprised, and taken aback, and a visible, audible glitch occurred. We don’t always get to witness the glitch. Often, we don’t get close enough to others to challenge our assumptions. If the person at the airport hadn’t chosen to approach me, they would have just clocked me as a man and never thought twice. But instead, they chose to come closer, and so although uncomfortable, the connection we experienced was deeper and more intimate than anticipated. Together, we witnessed the gap between the brain’s automatic categorization and the actual reality. And that was raw, vulnerable, beautiful, and special compared with a typical “nice outfit” exchange at the airport. I long for depth and connection with others, and I was ready for it that Christmas.
No one called me “Sir” in Virginia, but there was a significant glitch. Riley, one of my girlfriend’s oldest friends, said they wanted to meet me. Their families have been going on vacation and celebrating birthdays and holidays together since before their birth. They’ve grown up together and the relationship between both families is still going strong. Initially, when my girlfriend told her family about me, no one asked any follow up questions about her new relationship. My girlfriend was hurt. Riley was the one who broke the silence, and suggested a joint family dinner so they could all meet me. I already knew Riley through old photographs, but this was to be my first time meeting them in person. When Riley arrived at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, I expected a hello and maybe a hug. I received some version of a welcome from everyone but Riley. They refused to look at me. Riley greeted only the hosts, rushed past me and into the other room. I stood still as the space around me emptied. In the reverberation of a glitch, this time, I wasn’t moved. There was no beauty. All I wanted was to erase myself from the entire situation. For a nauseating moment I was back in the bodega. Of all the guests, I expected to encounter an encouraging friend in Riley, but what I got was a distant, dismissive shadow. I felt confused and disoriented, hurt and offended.
In the airport, I felt pride in my presentation and identity. I welcomed a stranger’s confusion. So maybe I felt hurt by Riley because at least some of my pride in that moment was dependent upon their acceptance, and so I felt ashamed when I didn’t get what I desired and expected. I didn’t need the person at the airport’s acceptance. There, I provided all the acceptance I needed for myself. I wonder what might have felt different if I could have supplied all the love and acceptance I needed for myself in the interaction with Riley. Could I have appreciated the glitch at the dinner party like I appreciated the glitch at the airport?
In the moment, I was too consumed by my own insecurities to be curious about Riley’s experience, but now I see parallels in the two glitches. The person at the airport saw me and walked toward me. Riley walked toward me when they initiated the joint family dinner. Everyone else in both situations pretended like I didn’t exist, but those two chose connection. However, when they got close to me, their expectations dissolved, and they both scurried away.
Maybe Riley’s assumptions and expectations fell apart too. Maybe they experienced a glitch.
Through the glitch lens, I worked to stop taking Riley’s behavior personally, and instead, try to understand it. I can hold that another’s reaction to me might just be a glitch, and observe their response, instead of believing it means that I don’t belong. Just like at the airport, the glitch can be respected for the shift, for opening a new challenge. I can even feel gratitude. No one else asked to have dinner with me. Riley asked. Riley showed up to that dinner and gave what they could. I expected and wanted more, but maybe what I got was enough.
Being misgendered at random hasn’t always been a magical experience. Years, community, and devotion to self-discovery and personal development have allowed me to encounter such moments with curiosity and grace. I don’t have to be consumed by shame or anger. I can stay in myself, in my power, and learn something about the nature of humanity and the challenge of relating to others.
The beauty of the glitch is witnessing the collapse of assumptions, whether in the moment, or months or years later. The beauty is in that moment of truth. What does it mean when an assumption is wrong? Where am I in space and time? What do I do now? The moment is raw.
Usually, people try to erase the glitch. They feel wrong, want to do it again and get it right, or go back and not do it at all. What if we just stay? Feel the humility of not knowing what we are doing at all.
KJ seeks creative nonfiction recommendations, particularly those to which you would assign adjectives like, innovative, nontraditional, original, lyrical, queer, shapeshifting, and different. Previous on point recommendations have included: On the Mezzanine by Cass Donish, Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan, The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Calamities by Renee Gladman and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Please direct message yours to @kjviendo.