Sometimes I get mistaken for a female, and for years have explained jokingly that this is because ‘I have a girl’s aura’.
When I was a teenager this happened fairly often. I remember once being at a David Bowie concert in London (part of his Glass Spider tour). With my hair spiked (in a homage to Aladdin Sane) and eye-liner I guess it wasn’t that surprising that the blokes sitting behind myself and my (female) partner remarked; ‘Cor look! lesbians!’ However only a few years later I found myself walking with another girl friend in Cumbria and something similar happened. Striding up the hillside towards Grisedale Tarn (which I always imagine as the kind of body of water beneath which a Cthuloid God may well lie dreaming) we were met by a gentleman walking the other way. Despite the fact that I had short hair, no make-up, probably stubble, a men’s waxed Barbour jacket, combat trousers and boots (as did my companion) he still greeted us with a hearty ‘Good morning ladies!’
And it’s not a phenomenon limited to a western English speaking cultural context. Once when passing through airport security in India, having gone through the metal detector, I stood in front of the male security guard and lifted my arms for a pat down search. Despite being taller than the guard (I’m 5 foot 8 inches tall) and us being face-to-face (me wearing jeans, t-shirt and no make-up or other insignia usually thought of as feminine) he directed me elsewhere. ‘Ladies to go here please!’ he remarked, indicating that I needed to be searched by the female guard (as would be appropriate were I a woman). I’ve also found these misreadings are also not age dependent; there have been numerous occasions in which I’ve overheard a child taking about ‘that lady’, meaning me.
While clearly not a banner-headline masculine type (I’m rather far from the Pipe Bear phenotype) the majority of the time these situations have arisen while I’ve been dressed in ‘traditional’ male clothing and had short hair. It’s interesting to consider these misapprehensions in the light of the fact that I do identify as a bisexual male, who likes a spot of crossdressing, and the somewhat fay Goth style (in my defense, I did do most of my growing up in Britain during the early 1980s). It’s also interesting to note that the misinterpreting person often ends up profusely apologising – as though mistaking me for a female is something I’d find offensive – itself a fascinating observation.
Of course there’s much one could explore about these misapprehensions. Firstly are they actually mistakes? Are those folks who ‘misunderstand’ me as a girl actually detecting some of these ‘feminine’ aspects of who I am, even when they are not being overly signaled by context, dress etc? More broadly these ‘mistakes’ make me aware of, and call into question, the relationship between genetic sex, genital identity, cultural norms and so on. The issues that this misinterpretation raises are subtle, fluid and multiple.
I guess for me I take these misinterpretations of my gender as a compliment. Generally I find women more attractive (at least visually) than men and so I’m always a little flattered by these ‘mistakes’. More generally there may well be some kind of cultural feed-back loop from my apparent ‘female side’ or social role (I often get to be ‘honorary girl/woman’ etc at various female-only events, for example Hen Parties).
As a magician I’m interested in these experiences because of the significance of the androgyny in pretty much every esoteric tradition. Whether it’s the dual form of Ardhanarishvara, the appearance of dual-sexed imagery in alchemy, or its modern re-visioning in the chimeric sexuality of Baphomet – the notion of both genders being present in one body is a central motif in many occultures.
I like to imagine that these misapprehensions of my apparent gender spring from what one might (in a positive sense) describe as my being ‘a bit ergi‘. This was a term of abuse in Viking age culture and was applied to men who engaged in seiðr; practices of which we know little but many conjecture to have included magics of a dark-feminine, spiritist, sorcerous (perhaps manipulative) sort. In some respects ergi seems to be much like the complex modern word ‘queer’. Today we might say we’re talking about ‘receptive’ qualities; the ability to listen to others/the unconscious/the spirits, and indeed to take the gods inside ourselves (with the obvious sexual imagery) in trance work and invocation. These seem like essential skills for the well-rounded magician, whatever their gender. (If you want to explore a more nuanced analysis of ergi I recommend reading Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic.)
So perhaps it is indeed my ‘girl’s aura’ that foxes people about the set of chromosomes I carry; maybe they unconsciously register the currents of my magical work (consisting as it does in large part of a chaos-Baphometic-witchcraft which, franky, is pretty ‘queer’), or maybe it’s just that I’m a lot more camp than I generally notice. And then there is the complex issue of whether camp behaviour is in any way intrinsically linked to the behaviour of women, or something else entirely…