“A Chardonnay, please,” I said, smiling. I was wearing an age-appropriate button top and black skirt, along with smaller hoop earrings and a couple silver bracelets. I wasn’t gorgeous—by any stretch—but certainly the look was totally feminine.
A minute later, the bartender returned with a full glass in hand.
“Eight dollars, sir,” he said.
Instinctively, I reached into my wallet and started fishing for a $10. As I grabbed the ten spot, my brain caught up with my ears. Still, I pulled the bill out and handed it to him. As he turned around, I asked myself, did I hear him right? I was going to make sure.
I took a quick breath, and as the bartender was working the cash register, I inquired, “Excuse me, Mr. Bartender, but did you say sir to me?”
The bartender turned around with my change. “Yes, I did,” he said unapologetically. He then handed me two $1 bills. A dozen alarms went off in my head as I felt anger, hurt, and a flight response all at once. Still, I had to say something to this asshole.
“Do you see me?” I blurted. “Do I look like a sir?”
The bartender crossed his arms and grinned. “What did I say wrong?” he asked idiotically.
I sensed a looming lost battle, and scooped up the change and wine and stormed back to my table and friends. I tried not to let the incident get to me, but it did.
I’ll admit it: I have a deep voice. When I was still a man and practiced law, I used my voice as a blunt object, injecting fear into trial witnesses, which often made them admit things they didn’t want to admit. My closing arguments were a storm of voice inflections to convince jurors that I had the better case.
Now my voice has become a weapon used against me, my own personal Achilles’ heel, something that occasionally takes me down. There’s some real irony there, when I think about it, but I try not to.
It’s not like I haven’t attempted to deal with it. I took speech therapy every week for a year, which helped get my pitch from the subbasement to something a bit higher. It still wasn’t good enough. At least once every couple months, someone calls me “Sir,” or refers to me with male pronouns. Once, after overhearing me in a restroom, a woman even yelled from a stall, “Who’s the dude in here?”
And forget about the phone. My standard line is, “Yes, it’s a deep voice but I’m a woman.” Sometimes, the caller still reverts to “Sir.”
I’ve become excellent at the art of smiling and pointing. Too bad I can’t smile and point my way through life.
Many of my friends think I’m taking things way too seriously. “Ellen, I love your voice, “ one of my friends has said more than once. My girlfriend doesn’t seem to mind it either. To her credit, she’s never shirked being with me in public.
I’ve never seen her wince even once.
But then again, maybe she needs her hearing checked.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I did the hard work of being transgender—multiple surgeries, learning how to dress and use make-up, and that damn speech therapy. I moved away from my home of 20 years to a brand new city. I figured that would be enough to give me a fresh start as a woman. Of course, all of that was important, but if you’re transgender, the whole goal is passing. Most of the time, I pull it off, but it’s those odd moments where things don’t work which get to me.
I’m human, after all.
I did get some justice with my bartender friend, though. When a server came by for the next round, I asked if he shared tips with the bartender. When he said, “No,” I gave him the two bucks. “This would have been the bartender’s tip if he hadn’t been so mean,” I told him.
Insensitivity has a price, I thought. For a brief moment, I felt better.