"Five Times I Was Not a Woman" by Kit Jamison Young

Kit Jamison Young

Kit Jamison Young

Kit Jamison Young is a writer, editor, and MFA student from the Midwest. Kit has taught composition and ESL at U.S. universities and abroad.

Five Times I Was Not a Woman:
A Travelogue of Intimate Spaces

1. August 2017

Busan, South Korea

I glimpsed the woman’s reflection in the mirror as she stepped inside the restroom, halted, backpedaled. Her eyes flashed upward to check the sign on the door. Yeoja, it read beneath the stick figure with the triangle skirt.

I shook the water off my hands, grabbed a paper towel, and swabbed at my face. I was about to depart from South Korea, where I’d been teaching for the last year, to travel for three months on a shoestring budget.

The woman in the mirror caught my eye again. She was short and round, a middle-aged ajumma, and she clutched her purse protectively to her chest as she continued to hover in the doorway. She was looking at me, and I saw her lips move in the reflection. I didn’t catch what exactly she said; I took in her posture, her wrinkled brow and her slightly open mouth, and understanding struck me like the palm of her hand.

“Jeo neun yeoja yeyo,” I said, the words tangling on my tongue. A panicky heat flushed through me. “Yeoja.”

I am a woman.

Around us, other travelers disappeared into stalls, checked their makeup, and pretended not to notice our exchange—or maybe they weren’t pretending. Could this woman be the only one who had read me as an interloper? Or had everyone else collectively, silently agreed to ignore me until I went away?

I glanced around, hoping a younger woman might come to my aid and explain to the ajumma that it was all a misunderstanding, that I belonged there as much as anyone. But no one met my gaze.

“Yeoja yeyo?” she repeated, her purse still bundled beneath her collarbones.


The grate of anger in my voice shamed me. It wasn’t the ajumma’s fault that my appearance confused her—but it wasn’t my fault either. It was true that my hair was cut short, and I wore no makeup, but my jeans and shirt were both technically women’s. I had never tried to look like a man, though I hadn’t minded being mistaken for one occasionally—not until that moment, in that place.

Tossing the paper towel into the trashcan, I shouldered my massive backpack and bolted out the door, turning my whole body away from the woman. I couldn’t stand to be looked at any longer, to be inspected and examined and found wanting.

She stepped aside to let me pass.

2. September 2017

Rome, Italy

After the incident in Busan, I rationalized what had happened: it was because I was wearing baggy travel clothes. It was because I was a foreigner, and the older Korean woman wasn’t used to seeing people like me. Maybe she wasn’t wearing her glasses that day. It was a one-off situation, a fluke.

Until it happened again.

I was in another airport bathroom—this one in Rome and packed with women, the line snaking out the door—when I heard a British-accented voice cry out: “There’s a gentleman in the ladies’ room!”

I froze, the woman’s voice like a claw on my shoulder, holding me in place. I stared at my dusty sneakers and envisioned myself the way everyone else must have seen me: boyish hair, plain face, wearing a t-shirt and knee-length cutoff shorts, more than a little wrinkled and greasy overall. As a precaution, I’d removed my sweatshirt before joining the line to the bathroom so that the shape of my body could answer any questions before they arose. But, clearly, it wasn’t enough.

Irrationally, I thought this woman with Judi Dench’s voice must have known what I’d hidden at the bottom of my backpack, and that was why she had singled me out—to punish me.

The first time I had bought men’s clothes was only a month earlier, before I left Korea. It was hot, and my long-sleeved shirts were suffocating on the subway ride to school. I’d resisted all summer long, but by July, I could no longer stand teaching with pit-stained polyester plastered to my back.

The department store was cavernous and mostly empty, lined with racks of cheap clothes that I ducked behind every time I saw another person. After a few minutes of trying frantically to be casual, I snatched up two short-sleeved button-downs, too harried even to notice that one of them was printed with tiny skeletons riding surfboards. In the checkout line, I rationalized to myself that these clothes could easily be for a brother or boyfriend, that it was totally normal. But then the cashier asked if I wanted to try them on and gestured to the dressing rooms behind him. One was labeled with a stick figure in trousers, the other in a skirt—which one did he expect me to use? I shook my head, sweating worse than I ever had on the subway, and practically threw my debit card at him.

Back at my apartment, I showered before trying on the new shirts, unfolding them with reverence. I slipped my arms into the sleeves like they were made of lace and carefully fastened the front; the buttons were on the right instead of the left, and my fingers fumbled. Then I looked at my reflection.

The person in the mirror stood up straight and didn’t smile or soften or shrink inward.

Later, I put my new clothes away and didn’t take them out again until I packed my backpack to leave Korea.

Those men’s shirts were buried deep in my backpack that day in Rome, but I thought the British lady had somehow seen them anyway—that she had known me anyway.

Unwillingly, I looked behind me and connected the posh accent to a small woman with a gray bob, a sensible, wrinkle-resistant travel blouse, and a brown leather purse worn across her body instead of over one shoulder, like the guidebooks advise to deter thieves. Her head swiveled this way and that, birdlike, as she said to no one in particular, “Should we tell someone about the gentleman in the ladies’ room?” She spoke like someone unaccustomed to being ignored. But, to my relief, no one else in the line acknowledged her distress—at least, not in the few seconds I allowed myself to look before I sank down into myself and glued my eyes to the tiles on the floor.

Yeoja yeyo, I whispered to myself again and again.

My body was telling me to escape, but I forced myself to keep my place in line, use the bathroom, and wash my hands before I left. The whole time, I thought furiously about what to say if the woman approached me. I’d demand to know what her problem was. What she saw in me. How she’d known, even from a distance, that I didn’t fit.

3. October 2017

Florence, Italy

It had been summertime when my trip began, and there were still enough warm days left that I hadn’t exchanged my short sleeves for sweaters yet. By the end of a long day of exploring, though, it was cold and windy, and I was tired—but thanks to a mishap at my Airbnb the night before, I didn’t want to return until I was sure my host had gone to bed. I settled in at a café and ordered a hot chocolate and a pistachio cannoli (or cannolo, as a tourist corrected me from the next spot in line).

Inevitably, after an hour of reading and scribbling in my notebook, the cups of hot chocolate did their work. The café was mostly empty, and the bathrooms were single-use, one for men and one for women. So despite my new and abiding dread of publish restrooms, I thought it might be safe.

There was, however, a line. A young woman who looked to be in her early twenties stood waiting outside the door labeled Donne in curling pink letters, and when I stepped up behind her, she turned to me with a smile.

“Hi,” she said. An American.

She was a talker, and I can handle talkers as long as they’re willing to do most of the conversational heavy lifting. We chatted about the weather (cold), the hot chocolate (so much better than anything in “the States”), where we were from (her: California; me: somewhere in the middle). It had been a long time since I’d had a conversation with another American, and I found myself enjoying her warmth. It felt, if only a little, like home. After a minute or two, a child emerged from the men’s room, his hands dripping with water.

“Lucky you!” My new acquaintance congratulated me. “Go ahead.”

My face must have been uncomprehending, because she gestured toward the now-open door.

“The men’s is free.”

I could feel my brow furrowing, embarrassment and confusion curling in my stomach like the letters on the bathroom door.

“I can’t go into the men’s room.”

The words emerged rough-edged from my mouth, and I wished I could take them back, smooth them over, and repeat them gently, a clarification rather than a scolding. But then the pink door was opening, a woman was emerging, and my acquaintance, with a befuddled laugh, hurried inside and closed the door.

As soon as she was gone, I returned to my table, cleared my dishes, and grabbed my backpack. I would have to find somewhere else to shelter for the evening hours, because there was no way I could look that girl in the face again.

Crossing the piazza, I repeated the conversation in my head and wondered what, exactly, she had taken me for. I knew my own voice. It had previously served as my best defense against people who might otherwise have ejected me from women-only spaces. A few words had always been enough for hackles to relax, for busybodies to avert their eyes like they’d been staring down someone else all along. Could the girl have read me as a teen boy whose voice was late in dropping? Or perhaps as an effeminate gay man?

Neither of those options was unpleasant to me, and in fact both gave me a brief fizzle of pleasure, the origins of which I didn’t allow myself to analyze.

But still, I couldn’t understand how she could possibly have read me as a man. Every day, I stared in the mirror at the softness of my cheeks, the curves of my body that my clothes didn’t quite conceal. Every time I answered the phone or ordered a meal, I cringed at my alto voice even as it relieved me of suspicion.

That interaction tortured me for months.

What could I do to ensure it never happened again?

But also: What could I do to ensure that everyone else made the same mistake?

4. October 2019

Somewhere in Colorado

“Why, thank you, sir.”

I was driving back to my new home in Kansas after presenting at a conference in Denver. By then, I was a graduate student, and so much had changed since the incidents in Korea and Italy. I used a different name socially, wore a binder, and owned a wardrobe of clothes I actually liked. Though I’d never explicitly come out, the people in my new life seemed to know without having to be told, like there was something about me that I couldn’t hide even if I wanted to. Still, the old woman’s words startled me when I opened the gas station door for her.

She smiled at me as she went inside. Her clothes were tidy, her iron-gray hair permed, and I imagined grandchildren pressing their faces against her soft belly and clutching at the papery skin of her hands.

Did I pass? I wondered. Even as the prospect thrilled me, my chest tightened with anxiety—because even if I passed with her, that didn’t mean I passed with everyone. I still hadn’t figured out how to act in this kind of situation, even though it had become a daily occurrence in recent years. Shouldn’t I be over this by now?

Hovering by the door, I watched as the woman made her way across the gas station, holding my breath as she approached the restrooms in the back. If she went inside, I would have to wait until she had come back out before I could sneak in myself—that’s how I thought of it, as sneaking.

At the last second, however, she veered to examine a selection of snacks, and I turned my head like an owl so she couldn’t see my face as I slid past her.

Inside, I bore down on my bladder like I was birthing a baby to make it empty faster, listening all the while for the old woman’s footsteps.

I pictured an O of surprise on her lips and a quick backpedal when she saw me emerge from my stall. Would she speak to me? Call out for help?

Barely taking the time to grab some toilet paper, not daring to wash my hands (pre-Covid, of course), I burst out of the bathroom as if pursued and made it to my car without raising my head.

There’s a gentleman in the ladies’ room.

5. Before the Plague, 2020

Somewhere in Texas

At dinner with my colleagues one night, I started when the server returned my debit card and thanked me by my birth name—a name I hadn’t used willingly in more than two years. I glanced around the table, wondering if anyone else had noticed. They hadn’t, or at least they pretended not to.

We were traveling together for work, which entailed a lot of going out to eat and talking to strangers. Inevitably, I was called “ma’am” by the security guard who asked to see my credentials before allowing me into the convention center. “Here you go, miss,” the man at the grocery store said as he handed me a receipt. “Young lady” was the worst, and it happened again and again—maybe it was a Texas thing, or maybe I was looking particularly ladylike in my conference apparel of black corduroys and button-downs.

I tried to find humor in the fact that, after years of confusion and soul-searching, I had finally embraced my masculinity—only to have people go out of their way to point out my femininity. Yet within minutes of someone calling me a young lady, someone else would jump or stare at me when I entered the women’s bathroom. I was too masculine to be a woman and too feminine to be a man.

Existing in public spaces was a constant battle, and by the end of the trip, I had resigned myself to being whatever people wanted me to be, with no energy leftover to want anything for myself.

On the long drive back to Kansas after we’d wrapped up the conference, my colleagues and I stopped at a gas station. The old dread was still there, but I resigned myself to it and lined up outside of the women’s bathroom—a single-person unit with a locked door.

Five or ten minutes went by, but no one emerged. In the meantime, the men’s room stood empty.

If I passed better, I thought, I would go in.

If I had already started hormones, I would go in.

I remembered all the times I’d been called sir, the stares and dirty looks, the confusion, the suspicion, the outrage at my mere presence. The Korean ajumma, the British matron, the California girl. Dozens of others before them and after.

And then, I got tired of thinking and tired of waiting. So I stepped inside the open door and locked it behind me with hands that only shook a little.

While using the men’s room, I imagined the look of surprise on an aging trucker’s face when he saw me emerge. Would he say something? Grunt? Shake his head in disapproval or dismay?

There was no one waiting outside.

I walked back to the car without cringing or hiding my face, and no one noticed me at all.