“Sir” for the Holidays

There is nothing unique about what I’m about to say. I am not the first queer person to have an awkward relationship with her heterosexual parents. I am not the first masculine-of-center female person to be misgendered by strangers. And I am certainly not the first human person to dread going home for the holidays. I’ve heard stories much like the ones I’m sharing here time and time again, from community members near and far, in all the soul-bearing corners of the internet or painfully hip coffee shops or shabby Women’s Center living rooms where such conversations are born.

These stories are always delivered in that half-confessional, half-exaggerated eye roll sort of tone that serves well to turn painful things into good jokes. We queers are masters of that particular brand of humor. “My great aunt is going to ask me if I have a boyfriend yet. It’s a holiday tradition.” “I wish I could wear my new tie to Christmas dinner, but my mother would declare World War Three.” “The priest looks at me funny during Midnight Mass. Maybe I’ll give him a wink this year.” “Thank Gay Jesus for spiked eggnog.”

The mystery of the whole season is why we – or at least, I – keep going home for the holidays, despite the fact that “home” is now less “place where I grew up” and more “interrogation room decorated with tinsel.” Part of the reason is that, despite being a devout atheist, I love (secular) Christmas and will probably one day turn into a butch version of Clark Griswold, risking life and limb to staple 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights to my roof. I also love Thanksgiving because, I mean, food is my favorite.

The other part is that very famous and inaccurate “definition of insanity” – that is, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Maybe this year, there won’t be any fighting about my haircut. Maybe this year, my mother won’t start crying about never having grandkids. Maybe this year, I can finally wear that awesome tie. Somewhere deep in my brain, there is an unfinished Norman Rockwell painting of familial holiday bliss and I am, apparently, determined to get it framed.

Thankfully, I have over the years perfected my method for handling seasonal strife at my parents’ house (the key is to distract my mother right off the bat by asking about the latest drama in her workplace, thus ensuring that the conversation will have nothing to do with me for the remainder of that day; repeat for as many consecutive days as necessary). The real challenges are those in-public moments of awkwardness and, well, “Sir”-ing.

I’ve gotten so used to being mistakenly called Sir, Mr., Brother, Man, or any other testosterone-based honorific that I am actually more surprised when strangers get my gender right. Not that I enjoy being called “Ma’am” (which makes me feel like a spinster), or “Miss” (which makes me feel like school girl), but hey, at least those people are paying attention and are not completely unable to process the notion that one can be simultaneously masculine and female without rupturing the time-space continuum.

While my daily misgenderings are par for the course for me, they are a source of supreme humiliation for my mother. I’ll never forget one particularly torturous dinner out when the waiter, an older mustachioed man, referred to me as “Sir” for the duration of the two hour meal. This awkwardness was compounded by his compulsion to end every single sentence with either “Sir” or “Ma’am.” A solitary “Sir” could perhaps go unnoticed, but after the 20th one, neither my mother nor I could pretend we didn’t hear. My father, who is half-deaf, was blissfully unaware of this entire situation and enjoyed his meal while my mother’s face tried on every possible hue of red and I seriously considered escaping through the kitchen.

A few years ago, my parents decided that cooking a big meal was too much work for just the three of us, so we began having Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. There are a few advantages to that plan for me. One: blowout arguments are discouraged in public settings. Two: No clean up. And three: While my parents have a dry house, the restaurant has a full bar. (Hello, pumpkin martini.) There is one big disadvantage: See above horror story. And so for me, Thanksgiving quickly replaced Christmas as Most Stressful Holiday Involving Family.

I started this past Thanksgiving dinner with a panic attack appetizer after discovering the restaurant’s tradition of giving each female diner a rose after dinner. Besides being sexist, antiquated, and just plain weird, this policy put me on edge because I knew that the peace (or lack thereof) of our drive home would be determined by whether or not I got one – that is, whether or not my mother was publicly embarrassed by her giant butch dyke offspring. Thus, I sat there sweating and wondering desperately if I would receive a rose that evening, like the weirdest Bachelor episode ever.

I was calmed somewhat by our waitress, who in her infinite grace and wisdom did not use a single honorific during the meal. She was also quite cute and thought I was funny (or at least, was paid handsomely enough to pretend to think I was funny). Nothing soothes frazzled nerves quite like a pretty girl laughing at your jokes.

The meal went by smoothly and gluttonously enough, and soon it was time to face the flowers. I had cobbled together a plan between bites of pie, but I would have to time it just right. While my parents were putting on their coats and the hostess, giver of roses, had her back turned, I slipped past them all and triumphantly held the door open.

Success! I had foiled the hostess’ insidious, gender-normative plans while simultaneously appearing to be well-mannered. My mother was none the wiser, as she had also missed the opportunity to be flowered, despite her extremely obvious womanhood, and my father was just happy that the biggest debate on the way home involved what to do with the leftovers. And so there was peace on that Thanksgiving evening. A temporary peace, as Christmas dinner looms larger on the calendar, but peace nonetheless.

Let’s all just take it one holiday at a time.

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15 thoughts on ““Sir” for the Holidays

  1. As a femme, I have to say that while I am not able to identify with the problems you encounter as a masculine looking butch, but I can sympathize. But, I also must say that I absolutely adore a butch and wish there were more out there. My ex is 6’2″ butch who has never been called mam. Every where we went it was “Sir”. She normally had no issues with it because it just did not bother her, but on the rarest of occasions it would push a button and she would be hurt by it. These times generally occurred when out with her family because they would insist on making the “my sister” or “my daughter” comment at every possible opportunity. It is very hard for the women of our community that have family that just can not accept them for what, who, and how they are. I wish it would be different. Maybe one day it shall be.

  2. This was so wonderfully written. I appreciate the awesome, sarcastic humor. I’ve been very lucky, parentally speaking. My Mom is great and my Dad just asks jackass questions like, “What will you do if your son ISN’T gay?”…..Gee, Dad, we’ll somehow manage to deal with it, lol.

      • You are very welcome. We fight the evil heterosexuality of our son on a daily basis, lmao. My Dad even asked me if we were going to dress him in girl clothes when he was a baby. I thought my ex, kiddo’s other Mom was gonna choke him. Damn shame. If we are out in public and my Dad sees a butch, he’ll nudge me and ask, “Family?” Oh the insanity that is our parents. I hope that your Mom realizes what an amazing daughter she has no matter what you wear or cut your hair, etc, etc, etc. You should anonymously share your writing with her.

  3. Though I am not butch, everyone can relate to the tortures of visiting the family for the holidays! I giggled, I eye-rolled, and I facebooked.. Love it! and she’s right up there… Everyone loves a mannerly butch girl! Best of luck this year!

  4. Good reading! I’ve been called Sir since I was 13. Like Denise’s ex, it doesn’t really bother me. Except when someone tries to stop me from going into the ladies room by yelling “Sir, you cant go in there.” I know how to read and if not, there is usually a picture. I just turn around and ask them, “what.. am I having a bad boob day?” I’m a big’un (6’3″). No hiding them bad girls (though sometimes I wish I could). I can see my dad cringe when we are in public and someone calls me sir. He is old school country (not that I am making any excuses for him) so I get that he is uncomfortable. But it’s not like I call the person out, I just go with it. So dammit Dad, go with it. My mom did have an issue with it but now has a girlfriend (husband too but that a different topic) that looks like a 12 yr old boy so she gets it finally. Funny, both of our GFs (I’m separated right now 😦 so I get where you are coming from with a previous post on 8/27 you wrote) names are Stacy. Anyway, catching up on previous posts and looking forward to more good reads 🙂

    • Thanks, buddy. I’m a short’un (5’3″), which makes the “Sir”s even more perplexing. I guess folks just see what they want (or what’s easiest the process), eh? Best of luck to you; I hope things get better for ya.

  5. I learn my lessons quick – it only takes once and I usually never make that mistake again / avoid the people in question. Family is a strange phenomenon in that it belies all rational sense, and every time, somewhere deep down, a) I hope things will turn out differently, and b) I care, despite not wanting to.

  6. Bren,
    Wish we had a network like you seem to have in Boston. We need some good butches, like yourself in DC! If you have a fun weekend event coming-up you should let me know. Would love to have a good excuse to take a weekend trip to Boston! I would love to know more……:)

  7. Bren,
    I wish we had the same kind of butch/femme network that you seem to have in Boston. We need some good butch women, like yourself in DC. If your have any great weekend social events please let me know. Would love a good excuse to make a trip to Boston. I enjoy your posts and would like to know more about you…..:)

  8. Ah, the joys of being mis-gendered in front of family. That’s happened to me a few times, and my mom always gets embarrassed. I rarely mind, unless I’m having a particularly bad day or something. The one time I did get “sir”ed, I almost started crying. In my defense, though, I had only just gotten used to being called ma’am and I might have been on my period. So yeah.

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