The Numbers Game


Passing as a boy is highly dependent on context. Adult restaurant – not a boy. Coffe shop alone with my laptop – not a boy. Macy’s boy’s department – boy, until I pull out my credit card and am asked for ID. Regular clothing store – half and half, until the sales clerk realizes why those jeans he offered just don’t fit me quite the right way.

My all-time favorite is the airport. I never fail to elicit the pitiful glance of a security guard, thinking, poor kid, travelling all by himself. Sometimes my ID is requested, and my stomach cringes as the look of unexpected surprise glides down their face. Just recently, coming back from my surgery, I was scolded when I showed my airline card because I “did not look like a [insert feminine real name].” I guess people with that name are supposed to look a certain way? Needless to say that the continous stream of apologies from the guy behind the counter after I showed him my real ID and credit card did not make up for the initial rudeness.

I’m getting younger everyday

An interesting concept that keeps cropping up here is age. When I pass as a boy, I’m usually passing as that, a boy, not a man. A very young boy, with the usual guess hovering around the magic number of 14. I used to think it was context – back home I’m always with my parents, so naturally they’d assume I’m younger. Turns out this is not necessarily the case; I can pass as a young boy even alone in an adult setting. The exception does not disprove the rule, but certainly renders the hypothesis unstable.


There are rare occasions when gender surpasses age, but they’re so rare I can only think of one at the moment. It was at one of those networking-to-get-a-job-and-schmooze tech startup parties here in San Francisco (that I sadly only attended for work-related reasons). There were no teenagers here – ID’s were checked at the door, you had to be 21 to get in, so everyone in there was at least that. Curiously enough, I got hit on by a few gay guys, and about half the time people I introduced myself to either avoided gendering me, or straight up referred to me as he.

I was smiling on the inside – I had passed as a boy AND an adult. Furthermore, it proves that I can be perceived as an ambiguously gendered adult. It’s actually possible! All hope is not lost that one day I’ll stop being the weird teenager who confusingly has a credit card, or the (very handsome) dyke, and start being whatever I’d like to be – the young man, the old boy. Or better yet, the confusing ambiguously gendered but awesomely spunky person over there.

18 thoughts on “The Numbers Game

  1. Aah, that’s so great! I sympathize with the pitying or confused looks. I think people age me around 13 or 14 as well; I was carded for an alcoholic beverage here in Germany, where the legal age for drinking is 16. As a 21.5 year old, I was less than pleased.

  2. I think the age thing depends on cultural factors, like “passing” (or rather, perceived gender & age interact).

    Even before T, I was almost always read as a boy, even in “adult” settings, because people with short hair and baggy clothes are assumed male in my society. Every time I entered a university classroom, people would whip around to stare, or even ask if I was a genius child or something! It’s interesting how expectations around gender trumped those around age.

    Have you noticed that in Mexico? (when you’re not with your family?)

      1. I do remember that post (that’s why I brought up the issue, actually), but I was wondering specifically about the age thing (if you’re still seen as a boy in adult settings, over there).

        Sorry for wording the question in a confusing manner! But now my question has been answered! πŸ™‚

        1. Yeah in more conservative areas I’m usually seen as a boy, *even* in an adult setting, or rather, despite the strictly adult setting. For instance, when I was in the Philippines we went to a bar/club, and people there thought I was a 14 yr old boy looking for some action. Yeah, I’m that cool…. they kept warning me about STDs… err…. “don’t do drugs kid”

          Don’t worry, I word things awkwardly too sometimes…

  3. I’m excited about being able to do that one day, and knowing that it’s possible — being able to pass as an adult and not appear to be a girl.

    It makes me wonder what people will think of us (me after I’ve had the surgery) but we’re like, 45 or 65, though.

    1. That’s something I think about a lot too, how ageing changes things.

      When I was in my early 20s, I seemed to get read as an androgynous person in their early twenties, I’d get a pretty equal mixture of female, male, don’t know, but people generally thought I was roughly the age I was. I don’t know why 10 years later I’ve now apparently got younger and generally more boyish in most people’s eyes, but I assume it’s something in the way I’ve aged.

      I’d like to say it’s that I changed my hairstyle or lost weight, but I was getting seen as a student aged teen boy before I had it cut or dropped a clothes size. So what happens 10 years on from now? Will most people think I’m a queer woman as my face gets more lined?

      1. Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to get my top surgery until my early 20s are gone, but it’ll be interesting to see how my late 20s are read.

        I wonder that too. How do people distinguish older faces? I don’t have as much knowledge or experience in that area. It’ll be interesting to see, I guess.

  4. I really relate to this, although I’m relatively tall (at least in the average overlap zone between female and male heights). I swear these days I’m more often treated as a teen boy than anything else, although I’m told that even when people are reading me as androgynous, trans or female, they still have my age out by 10+ years.

    I think people think I’m 17 or 18, judging by all the questions about if I’ve ‘started uni yet’, although I’ve had someone say 16 then revised it down to 15 when my friends laughed, and there was that time my work colleagues were asked if they were my parents (they’re 3 and 7 years older than me).

    Funnily enough just today someone at a queer event told me they couldn’t believe I could possibly be old enough to have been to an event 10 years ago, then looked gobsmacked when I gave my age. Maybe I should start introducing myself with ‘Hi, I’m Nat, a 30-something transgender person, how are you?’ πŸ™‚

    Actually what I’d really like to do is get a full description of everyone’s first impressions on meeting me, so I know for sure what everyone thinks. I usually don’t find out they thought I was X gender or Y age until long into a conversation when it randomly comes up (or next time I see them they call me by a lengthened gendered version of my name I don’t actually use). Occasionally they’ll tell me later that they used to be mentally panicing about not being able to gender me whenever we met, but eventually decided that it didn’t matter. If only everyone thought like that πŸ™‚

    1. This happened for me too – my guessed age used to be around 17, but now I cut my hair really short and lost a bit of weight and now I’m aged at 14 (well, I have been asked if I am older than 12…). It’s possible that my face is less round so I look more boyish.

      I am also very very short (5’0) which doesn’t help the situation. If I were even 4 or 5 inches taller I think I’d pass considerably more often in adult settings, and I’d pass as an older teen. And the one bad thing about living in a liberal gay/queer area is that I’m defaulted to dyke.

      I can’t wait till I’m 30+, I’m sure I won’t look much older than I do now, so they’ll be 15+ years off and not just 10. But I’m freaked out for when I’ll be 40 or 50 – I think I’ll just look like a really freaky version of Benjamin Button.

      Another factor I just thought of that is crucial in passing is race. I’m racially white, and it’s uncommon for white males to be this short and not have facial hair, while it’s not uncommon to see, say, male Asians or Mexicans that are my height and have no facial hair and smoother faces.

      And yeah I’ve gotten the “is that your son” with friends, coworkers and even professors in college. Someday I’m going to call my company out on their child labor πŸ˜›

  5. I like this post. I keep trying to come up with more articulate appreciations, but really, that’s what it comes down to. This is a well articulated, nuanced analysis.

    Other than that, I always wonder how (binary oppositional) sexism plays into assumptions about age. For example, I know people assume that I’m a woman by the pronouns they use for me unless I correct them. I also know they think I’m about eleven years younger than I am. I wonder if some of the assumption that I am young has to do with a cultural devaluing of the category of women, which necessarily effects people who are not women, but assumed to be women, as perpetual children. As if the only people who can be adults are cisgender men, with deep voices and beards/stubble. I’m sure there’s more to that, but I’m not certain exactly how to tease it out.

    1. Thanks Oscar.

      I’m going to guess that women are more “ageless” than men because their face is less telling of age, and people look primarily to the face for age cues. For example, almost all men after age 20-ish develop facial hair and their face becomes pronouncedly more angular. Women on the other hand never have facial hair, and they also retain some of that chubbiness even after their teenage years, so a girl can be 15 or she can be 25, or 25 and 35, and still look pretty much the same.

      That said, there is something in being female-born and presenting as male – even when being read as female – that the guessed age drops dramatically.

  6. Thank god my hair is graying now. Up till early last year, I had the same age problem. Two birthdays ago I had the waiter check my ID three times before writing down my order for a Mai tai. And the guy in the next town over Ai refuse to go to anymore because he almost always tries to deny me alcohol bc he thinks I “look” too young. If my ID looks legit, I don’t look drunk, and I am not under any no-alcohol orders from the judge, you have no right to deny me a sale.

    1. I don’t drink alcohol usually, which just adds to the illusion of youth. Especially when out with friends who are drinking, aka my new parents πŸ˜‰

      1. Not as bad as when being 16 at a nice eatery in Hawai’i, and in front of a crowd of people loudly bring asked if I wanted the kids’ menu. I was red with embarrassment. Because, like you, I also happen to be short (well, 5’3″ in a family where most are 5’10” or taller :D) and have been since junior high

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