Question: Are You a Boy or a Girl?

SK asks…

What’s a culturally sensitive, easy-to-understand response to “Are you a boy or a girl?” that doesn’t completely erase your non-binary-IDed self?

I’m currently abroad in the Middle East, and I have no idea how to respond confidently to the taxi drivers, servers, etc., who ask me this on a regular basis. In the US I’m sure I’d just be like, “Does it *matter*?” but here I’m apprehensive that it’s a bigger deal than that, what with the strongly enforced gender segregation that seems to be a part of the culture. Even more than that, though, I think such a response would just confuse people.

It’s weird, and I don’t know what to do. Help?

Please post your response in the comments below.

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Posted by on April 3rd, 2010 at 08:00 am

Category: questions 29 comments »

29 Responses to “Question: Are You a Boy or a Girl?”

  1. nick

    I’m not farmiliar with gender norms in that part of the world. I usually also say ‘Why does it matter?’ or bounce the question back with ‘What do you think?’ and if they guess just laugh and don’t tell them whether they are right. Some will continue to ask though.
    The easiest would just be to say ‘I’m a boyish girl’ or ‘I’m a girlish boy’, whichever you feel is closest to the truth, but that does mean settling into a gender-binary to not confuse strangers. It’s a tricky thing.


  2. mashenka

    I would say that if you have a strong sense that the culture conforms strongly to a gender binary and that it might affect your safety to go against it, then adhere to it. It may seem counter productive, but I lived in a small town in a culture that is fairly homophobic and conforms strongly to the gender binary. Some of the comments there that I heard would have made me fear for my safety if I were to be out as a lesbian (and I look pretty traditionally feminine). Use your best judgment, but do keep in mind that as a whole the US and the west are a lot more progressive when it comes to gender and sexuality and what may be a very thought provocative and helpful way to challenge the binary here could be bad for you over there.


  3. Pi

    I’d answer with ‘yes’. Or maybe ‘no’, depending on the circumstance. :)


  4. Tualha

    Well, “no” is a good answer, but in most parts of the Middle East, unless you’re really eager to be the guest of honor at the next DoR, I’d recommend you just ignore the question, or laugh, or something.


  5. Kab

    My family are from that sort of area, best thing to do is pick one and stick to it. It’s a pain in the you-know-what but that’s the safest bet. That’s part of why I don’t see my family much…



  6. themarxistbagel

    I have to agree with Kab. Of course reinforcing the binary isn’t something you want to do, but you are dealing with something that could become a matter of personal safety or comfort (to an extreme).

    In some situations in can be better to just take care of yourself instead of taking a stand.


  7. genderkid

    Maybe you can get off the hook with “Where I come from, that isn’t considered a polite question.”

    Or maybe, “In my country of origin, there’s a third gender.” (although, as mentioned by above commenters, that might be very dangerous.)

    I’d take advantage of the fact that, as a foreigner, you don’t have to adhere to the local gender codes. I think people feel more menaced when a “subversive” element comes up in their own culture. With foreigners, they can dismiss it as a wacky exotic thing.


  8. SK (the OP)

    Thanks for the responses, everyone. Honestly ideas of “safety” and “danger” and that sort of thing never really crossed my mind — I think my concern more stems from the fact that I don’t want to be THAT AMERICAN, the one who thinks they can walk in like they own the place, ignoring cultural norms and social values — I’m worried that what’s nonconforming-in-an-educational-way in the states could be nonconforming-in-a-downright-rude-or-confusing way here, if that makes sense. Meh.

    @Tualha: what does “DoR” mean?

    @genderkid: yeah, your last paragraph is spot on, thank goodness. I’m not at all having a hard time looking/acting like I always do, it’s just … I dunno. I just get so confused/disconcerted every time I get this question.


  9. Tiara the Merch Girl

    Whenever I go back to Dhaka, where my relatives are from, I sometimes get asked if I’m a girl or a guy. And I’m a cisgendered female. I get that mainly because in Bangladesh women tend to wear certain fashions and men something else, and as soon as you put on a shirt & pants you’re a guy, that’s it.

    I’d say that in the Middle East you really DON’T want to be going around trying to explain the gender spectrum to them, because they’d be coming from a very different context than you and may have trouble trying to even comprehend the idea that anyone could not be a boy or girl. Besides, they’re likely people who aren’t actually interested in your story, but just in how much you fit their stereotype (as I face when people here in Australia ask me where I’m from – they’re not interested in me, just in whether I am actually Sri Lankan.)

    You don’t have to answer, or you can say that you were born X but am now Y, or you can just pick one at random – it’s not like they’ll doublecheck. I tend to just ignore passersby :P


  10. johanna

    Hi SK,
    I hear your concern about the difference of being non-conforming-in-an-educational-way vs nonconforming-in-a-rude-way. And and I would add maybe not just rude, but if you look white or “American” or “European,” perceived rudeness may likely mix badly with (not unreasonable) reservations about US and European policies in the region. Just to mention the war against Iraq.
    That’s why I’d caution against saying things like “Where I come from, this isn’t considered a polite question.” (Not to mention that this statement sounds like wishful thinking to me… Or where do you come from?)

    Also be aware, if you play the “I’m a foreigner, and that’s how I’m going to sell my gendernonconformity to them” card, this may well backfire against gendernonconforming people in/from the area. They can then be accused of doing a foreign thing, of betraying their culture, etc. Or in the best case, your educational efforts will simply prove to be of absolutely no use to them.

    Maybe try to reach out to gendernonconforming people in/from your area and see if you can get a discussion going with them about this problem?

    Good luck!


  11. Nicholas

    I’ve felt this way before. I’m just honest. It works for me because I’m not a normal-bodied person, so there really aren’t rules that govern who I am and how I should act. People are kind of shocked more than anything, and they see that I’m not really breaking “gender rules”, but I still look the way I do because I’m me. I just end up telling them “I thought I knew, but I’m not sure anymore. I’m looking forward to seeing the doctor to learn about myself.”


  12. Claude

    I admire your interest in finding a culturally sensitive response to such a socially crude question. It’s always tricky to answer such a question because if you do end up answering it by saying you’re a girl or a boy, you’re basically perpetuating the existence of the traditional binary and its normality. On the brighter side, though, the fact that you prompted them to question your gender by simply ‘being you’ implies that you have already broken some aspect of gender stereotypes and/or rules. Sometimes you can elevate the question with an existentialist response – “I am what I am now, just as you are what you are at this moment.” It’s a sensitive response, to the point, and unconditionally true.


  13. Tualha

    DoR = Day of Remembrance


  14. Alex

    I think it depends how much you pass normally, how comfortable or easy it is for you to assume either gender identity, and which is more effective to be in the particular situation…


  15. themarxistbagel

    I would have to agree with Johanna. Even if you’re not concerned for your safety, I encourage you to take cultural sensitivity and ease of living into consideration. I’m an American living abroad (admittedly, in Western Europe, but still with a cultural difference) and I would never dream of saying “Where I come from, that isn’t a polite question.” That’d be acceptable if you were only there for tourism, but I guarantee you that you WILL be “that” American if that is your response. If you choose to live abroad, you forfeit what’s acceptable where you come from and are expected to live according to the standards of where you’ve chosen to live.

    That doesn’t mean that I’m saying conform completely- by no means. I live happily and openly as an androgyne, but I do think you need to keep in mind that you chose to move to the Middle East knowing it has a stricter idea of gender binary. Unless you’d like to attempt a revolution (there may be people who’d support you, but you need to face the reality of danger with that) you’re better off just coming up with a canned answer where you’ve picked a gender to pretend to be. No one likes this, and you have my sympathy (although I’ve had to do similarly in some situations – you try to explain spectrum gender to 90 yr old Highlanders), but it’s not forever… You’re just abroad for a period of time, yes?

    Regardless, good luck. I hope I haven’t come across as too cynical, but I think you probably should be more pragmatic and less dynamic in this type of situation.


  16. epinards

    hey people– we don’t even know what middle eastern country the OP is talking about. I know some israeli gender-bending folks. The middle east is a diverse place.

    If you’ll be there for awhile then maybe you can find out if there are any local gender-alternate people and talk with them about it? People live outside the gender binary all over the world. It is a matter of finding them. In some places gender is so rigidly enforced that you will NOT be able to find them but that is not true universally in the middle east or in any other part of the world.

    For waiters and so on . . they may be trying to figure out how they can address you. One possible answer would be to answer a slightly different question: “you can call me male” or “you can call me female.” That way you are at least not having to lie about your more primary identity.


  17. themarxistbagel


    As I said, I don’t even live in the Middle East, I’m abroad in Europe and there is still a stigma of being a disrespectful American. As someone also very familiar with Israeli culture (and travelling the world in general as a third gender person), I agree with you to an extent, but it’s also about where in the country you’re at.

    Since the OP asked this type of question, it’s probable that they aren’t somewhere like Tel Aviv (where it’d be fine), but somewhere a little more conservative. There are places in Israel where it would not be acceptable, despite the counter culture of parts the country. I could call myself an androgyne in Edinburgh, but I’ll be damned if I’d do it to a stranger in the fishing village I currently reside. My neighbours and friends know, certainly, but I pick a gender (sometimes an arbitrary one) to the nice old lady I help across the street.


  18. epinards

    Right. That was the only thing I was trying to say. All these posts went straight to the question of personal safety. I can definitely see why, at the same time I don’t want to write out the fact that there are places in the Middle East where this question really is about ordinary managing of new situations and not about evading violence necessarily. The OP said that it wasn’t a question about violence at all. So my post just reflected a little worry about cultural essentialism. Americans aren’t the only people in the world with transgressive gender experience.

    In addition, most of us are not all that concerned about criticizing our own culture or making people in our own culture uncomfortable. Why should we be overly deferential to the cultural claims of someone else? I am not talking about being attacking or abusive or rude. I am just talking about being yourself, when or if it is safe to do so, despite the fact that you are in a culture that doesn’t like who you are. When I travel to southeast Texas (very much a different ‘culture’ from where I live) it took me a while to figure out that the fact that a lot of people down there are very fundamentalist doesn’t mean I need to stop being who I am. The amount of work I have done taking on my own culture means I try to act with respect, but also let go of the worry that I will be perceived as disrespectful just for being who I am. I am not about to let someone else’s culture create a claim on me that I don’t respect in my own. Again, I am not talking about being abusive or rude or truly disrespectful. It’s more that I don’t like to say things that aren’t true.

    I think the worry about being a disrespectful American is understandable. At the same time, the fact that (presumably) the OP is American doesn’t mean they have any less reason to be truthful about who they are as a person, if they are in a situation where safety is not at stake. It’s not always bad for people to be a little confused or even uncomfortable.

    One of my best friends is Australian and he came to spend time in the US during the Bush years. He had this whole idea that part of being a respectful tourist was to be respectful of Bush. That in order to be ‘tolerant’ as a tourist he needed to ‘live by our rules’ and those included interpreting Bush as a reasonable politician who must after all have something good to offer. It was infuriating. Being a tourist doesn’t mean you stop being a human being with your own first-hand responses to things.


  19. Meike

    I agree with epinards. Sometimes we just need to be ourselves regardless of how other people will take/interpret it. If it’s a matter of safety then obviously other steps would need to be taken, but as you’ve said that’s not really the issue here. If it’s a nonconforming-in-an-educational-way in the US, then why shouldn’t be anywhere else? You’re teaching another culture how some — albeit not all, but still a portion of the population — Americans are. And maybe you’re not the cookie-cutter-variety American, but so what? People are unique in every culture. Your nonconformity shouldn’t be interpreted as rude unless it’s breaking a strong cultural more/taboo, but those are the instances where safety concerns are necessary. So I say just be your normal, unique, nonconforming-in-an-eduactional-way self. And rock it. ^.^


  20. SK (the OP)


    thanks, Meike. solid advice.

    and @epinards: YES. i’m not in israel, but you’re absolutely right about the cultural essentialism stuff. haaaaaate how so many of the responses automatically jumped to the “omg those dangerous violent intolerant ay-rabs!!!!11” thing because that’s not it at all. i’m in a large city, and i’ve actually managed to find [part of] the underground gay scene around here, which is great. (sidenote: i hearrrrrrt femme-y boys who can belly dance, like no other. haha.) it’s just not knowing how to act in a new cultural situation that’s weirding me out, is all. in the states i’m rarely read as anything other than my assigned gender so it’s a new/confusing experience, and one that i don’t really want to screw up because i love it here and really really don’t want to offend people (unlike so many americans before me have undoubtedly done).

    I really like your second paragraph in your last post. The idea of “let[ting] go of the worry that I will be perceived as disrespectful just for being who I am” is an important one. Thanks.


  21. themarxistbagel


    I agree with you completely, actually, but I suppose I should clarify my perspective. I’m getting a PhD in perceptions of culture, how stereotypes form and how interpretations birth xenophobia. This isn’t saying I’m above making mistakes – I can, although I try not to, project stereotypes. However, I would never be so bold (@ SK) as to think “those dangerous Ayy-rabs”; my current work is fighting to unravel how and why people do that. To think that way never even crossed my mind.

    Any culture can be dangerous (I also think you’re reading too much into my version of “dangerous”. I’m not saying “You will get lynched”, I’m saying “Your quality of life may deteriorate due to unnecessary persecution.”) when you go against the grain. Take France for example. They are extremely far-left in the global political sphere, and it is generally advised that many in Middle Eastern countries and other right-oriented cultures take caution when visited for fear of unnecessary (and largely unjustified) persecution.

    Of course, being yourself is what any of us who read genderfork would want you to do. But I disagree that most people feel perfectly fine disrespecting their own culture to be who they are. Maybe I (who is just about as far-left socialist as you can get, btw) am just personally very overly aware. I do not force my gender on those in my area, and have already mentioned that if I travel to a more conservative region, I tone down. Also, I’m not just “studying abroad”, I live in a different country from where I was born – permanently.

    I do think that there’s been a bit of knee-jerk defence here. People respectfully told you to be cautious, and I guess that wasn’t what you were expecting, so you took offence. No one here is particularly conformist or conservative, so I think you should take the advice in stride.


  22. SK

    @themarxistbagel: Yikes. I’m not trying to be combative, and I didn’t take offense at people’s statements — I was just genuinely shocked at how quickly the discussion turned to ideas of “safety” and “danger” when I was only thinking about awkwardness and cultural sensitivity. And as a student of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, I admit, I do tend to have a knee-jerk reaction when I perceive people linking ideas of violence and intolerance with the region and the people here.

    I think we all know and agree that obviously one has to alter one’s behaviors based on context, and I’m certainly not trying to fight that. I’m just looking for a way to resolve that, you know? Really sorry if I came across as disrespectful or dismissive in my previous comment. I think at this point we’re all agreeing on the same ideas and just somehow moving in circles…


  23. themarxistbagel

    @ SK

    No worries, no harm done. I get defensive when accused of cultural xenophobia since I spend 8-12 hours of the day trying to research how cultural xenophobia occurs. When you start talking about identity and lifestyles everyone gets touchy, myself included. So I, too apologise.

    I think you’re probably justified in your defence of the subject you feel passionate about. I just did it, and I don’t study one particular culture. I personally didn’t mean to imply that I thought someone was going to be physically violent with you and I certainly hold no dislike or distrust towards any region in the Middle East. My personal philosophy is that while you should always be who you are, not everyone deserves to be given (or have explained) every aspect of you. Sometimes you owe it to yourself to just have some privacy. That’s universal, not region-based.

    You’re right, we are going around in circles. I again apologise if I came across as intolerant, that certainly wasn’t how I intended. I hope you have a good term abroad and find solace with this situation. :)


  24. epinards

    SK– so if you wanted to, you could come back to this thread in awhile and tell us some of what you actually came up with and have been using. I’m pretty curious. I’m also curious how the friends you’ve made over there deal with this situation.


  25. Corvus

    Hi there. I have not been to the middle east but once I was talking to a Palestinian guy online and in the middle of our convo he asked “But are you a boy or a girl?”

    I am assuming binary gender roles are similar there to how they are in various areas of the west being that the binary is what is common and respected and nonadherence to it is strange.

    I told him something like it’s complicated but my gender is sort of varied. My body is female sometimes but my brain is usually not.

    He didn’t say much but was not offended or anything. Of course, I think it’s much easier to say something like that online than it is in person.

    I think it is impolite to ask the question in the first place unless one is trying to figure out the pronouns someone prefers but perhaps over there it is a common question. If it’s not though, I would reply with the same thing I often reply with in person in the west “Sometimes I am but usually not.” :-)


  26. Corvus

    PS I also think it would be very important to mention the country and part of country you are referring to since the middle east is very diverse.

    To everyone jumping to the conclusion that you’ll all get murdered for telling the truth, I’ve had very openly GAY male friends spend years in the middle east with no issues. I also know of folks who have gotten lynched in good ol’ US of A. So you gotta watch your back everywhere but I find most folks prefer to hear an honest response than a lie. But judge the person when you meet them. If they seem vicious, you might not want to answer at all and remove yourself from the situation.


  27. Kris

    I usually go with “It’s a secret.”


  28. Jessco



  29. kendall


    “Gender isn’t a dichotomy,” I say. “Sometimes a baby’s born and it’s a boy, and sometimes it’s a girl, sure, but sometimes a doctor is in the background behind one of those pull-around curtains, flipping a coin. Sometimes the mother says “Is it a boy or a girl?” and the doctor really does say “Yes.” That isn’t the punchline to a joke, Mrs. Hubert, it’s the punchline to the whole misguided notion that the concept of boy or the concept of girl are anything more than constructions.”


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