Not long ago, I had a user on Scarleteen’s live chat who seemed really nervous about starting a conversation with a volunteer and had a question for me before she wanted to talk further. The question was “are U a guy?” and to be honest, it really threw me. I don’t quite know how to answer this question even in the context of a space where someone might expect a complicated response, and even by my “gender paragraph” standards, that response has felt increasingly complicated lately.
While I didn’t want to lie to the user, a yes or no answer wouldn’t be entirely honest, either. And clearly, this wasn’t an appropriate time to say “well, it’s complicated” and make the discussion about me. After a brief pause, I gave a kind of wishy-washy “yes” (I think I said something like “I suppose you could say so” but I don’t remember the wording exactly) but also said that I feel like I am able to handle questions that apply to various genders. The user didn’t want to get into her issue with me after that; she was sweet and said it wasn’t about me but that I “wouldn’t understand.” She was going to leave chat altogether, but I was able to transfer the discussion to another volunteer who was on shift at the time.
I did check the chat log later, and it looked like she was dealing with an issue of sexual assault that she wasn’t quite ready to name or talk about much yet; I do not at all blame her or judge her for making the decision not to talk to me. My job on chat is to help users, and if I can help them best by passing them on to someone they’re more comfortable with, then that’s what I need to do. I’m not the best person to help every user, and that’s fine.
But I won’t lie – it hurt. It really hurt. I don’t know if I was just having an emotional day, or if it’s just that I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately about identity and spaces I do and don’t feel comfortable occupying, but I was really upset after that chat. I cried a lot.
I’m sad that there are people who might not want to open up to me if I say I’m not a woman; a lot of my self-identity is related to being compassionate and easy to talk to, and I’d like to think that I am able to be a friendly ear to people whose genders and experiences are not my own. At the same time, though, no one owes me their trust, and I live in a world where not wanting to have a conversation with a man (or someone perceived to be a man by virtue of being not-a-woman) about sexual assault is really understandable. And I think that’s the real tragedy here.