Identity problems apparently unsolved by trip

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Getting mistaken for a man over the phone is one thing.

A woman might have a deeper voice, the person on the other end might be too busy to listen for subtle intonations, and the next thing you know, that woman is being called "sir."

Happens to me all the time.

I seldom bother to correct people who do it. After all, if I say my name is Heidi and they still say, "May I transfer you, sir?" it is unlikely any small detail about me -- like my gender -- actually matters to them.

But the other day, in a family restaurant, I was visually identified as a male.

Granted, I had just been to the gym and was wearing sweat pants, a T-shirt and my ugly glasses. (Last year, an optometrist put some drops in my eyes and then said, "Why don't you pick out your frames while we're waiting for your pupils to dilate?")

But I still had several telltale signs of womanhood. Breasts, for instance. Generous hips. Long bangs.

The incident began when I walked up to the podium where a person who I immediately identified as female was taking names for the restaurant's waiting list.

"Sir, your last name?" she said.

I couldn't believe it. "First of all, I am female," I said. "I realize I'm not wearing any lipstick, but I am a woman all the same."

The hostess looked put out with this correction.

"Your name?" she repeated.

"Hall," I said.

"Paul?" she asked.

OK. Now I was really insulted.

"Noooo," I said slowly. "Hall. As in 'Kids in the Hall' and 'Deck the Halls.'"

She scribbled something down and scurried off. But it was too late. My pancakes carried the taste of total humiliation.

I felt a little better after my friend Marilyn -- clearly a female with a traditionally female name -- explained how the Social Security Administration listed her as a man in the computer system. She found out when she went to the administration office in person to discuss her husband's disability benefits.

"I'm a woman," Marilyn explained.

"You'll have to bring us proof of that," the government employee said.

Marilyn resisted the urge to pull up her shirt and instead opted to return with a birth certificate.

But even after hearing someone with a more mortifying story than my own, I didn't feel feminine enough. Maybe I am too masculine, I thought, with my short haircut and preference for sensible shoes and odd appreciation of professional wrestling. (Although much of that has to do with The Rock. Yummy!)

During a recent four-day trip to Arizona, I insisted my friend Mel take me to the vortexes near Sedona. Apparently, these places of magnetic energy have masculine and feminine powers. I'm not sure what that means to the average visitor, but I figured it couldn't hurt me in the gender department.

Maybe I'd leave with an insatiable desire for manicures and jewelry. Or at least larger breasts.

Apparently, they don't mark the vortexes with big neon signs, so I had to get an unofficial map from a friendly Arizona resident I met at a tourist information stop. One suitable vortex looked to be closest to the highway, so I picked it.

After a two-mile hike uphill, I arrived at the vortex site and felt the following sensations:

1. Hungry, because I skipped lunch.

2. Thirsty, because I stupidly left my water bottle in the car and was in the desert, for heaven's sake!

3. Dirty, because Mel and I had inadvertently kicked red dust on each other on the way to the vortex.

4. Bloated, because my bladder was about to burst.

So maybe I just wasn't meant to be overly feminine. Maybe more and more restaurant workers will mistake me for a man.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I always say.

Call me Henry.

Heidi Hall is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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