"Let the young man go first," a mother tells her little boy, despite the fact that I am heading into the women's restroom.
It's been an uphill battle to convince strangers that I am female, and it's all because of my hair.
It's been cut short out of necessity more than preference, since it's thick, and I have a hard time taking care of it when it's long. That's why I've only grown it out twice in my life. But the drawback is that people automatically assume that I'm a guy, a young boy, or a gentleman.
This was never more apparent than on a family vacation to Mexico a couple years ago. I was called a boy almost from the start, at the airport. Though, I was wearing lipstick and foundation, I also wore a plain, gray hooded sweatshirt and navy wind pants. They were comfortable clothes, and I was about to be on a plane for hours.
So, maybe it's not all because of my hair. I gravitate naturally toward earth tones, and own precious few pink items, simply because it doesn't look good on me. So, in Mexico, in addition to make-up, I carried a purse and wore a pink watch. But these were small details.
My parents were really offended by these strangers repeatedly mistaking my gender, but I took it in stride. It was about as common as someone mispronouncing my name, or assuming I was much younger, based on my petite stature and (probably) my pitifully small chest. It was pointless to take the time to point out my feminine characteristics just so that my parents wouldn't be upset that someone they didn't know thought their daughter was their son.
The night before we were to leave Mexico, we spent time as a family. For some reason that I've forgotten, we were supposed to bring a dress outfit. There was even a special shopping trip for it beforehand, and I ended up picking a black summer dress, with bright floral designs. It even had some kind of ruffles at the bottom. Since it was a little chilly, I brought out my trusty gray hoodie again, and wore it half-zipped. We had a great time watching the weird tourist-type Gladiator show.
Bright and early the following day, we prepared to leave. Once we were at the airport, and I was wearing my airport attire - blue baseball-style cap, blue tee shirt, gray sweatshirt and khaki capris - I was prepared for the gender-confusion to begin again.
And sure enough, it did. Only I didn't catch on at first.
Since I took my wheelchair through the airport and onto the plane, I was invited to see the cockpit at the front of the plane.
It wasn't until I was standing there with Mom, and heard the way the captain was explaining where things were, that I realized this is what they did with the young kids. Took them up to the front of the plane, to show them how it worked.
If the captain gave me pilot wings, I decided, I would be horrified.
But the next question was just as bad.
"So, what's the young man's name?" he asked.
And for a split second, I thought he must be talking to somebody else.
But he was waiting, polite and expectant. Staring at me.
"Oh, I'm not a young man," I tell him calmly. "I'm 25."
I didn't even bother telling him that in addition to being wrong about my age by at least 15 years, he was wrong in assuming I was a young man.
My mom, of course, was mortified. "Tonia, you need to start dressing more feminine."
"Mom, I'm wearing make-up. I have a purse, and my watch is pink! What more do you want?"
She thought about this. "You need a pink hat," she said, as if that would fix everything.
I sighed. Then I decided to tell her how it really was.
"You know, at the Gladiator show last night? I was wearing my dress, and a guy came up to me, punched me in the arm, like guys do, and said, 'Hey, bro.' Trust me, a pink hat wouldn't make a difference."
Mom had nothing to say to that.
The truth is, no matter what I wore, some people would look at me and assume I was the opposite gender. It had been happening since I was very young. And I knew it wouldn't change, because people saw what they wanted to see. Gender is a big deal, but it's a line that's blurred all the time. So, instead of engaging in the uphill battle, both ways, barefoot, I decided that sometimes, it's okay to stand still.