Freedom from gendered norms will bring us closer to building welcoming and inclusive societies.
No borders, no genders, no nations, no profits.
by Mina Tolu
Illustration by Nastia Finkel
I‘ve been asked, “How do you know that you are not a woman?”
I ask, “How do you know that you are one?”
So then it’s stated, “This means you are a man.”
I’m at a picnic in a park in Berlin with some friends. Checking my phone, texting a lover. My friend’s three-year-old demands, “Papà, get off your phone!”
When he’s four he asks his mum “Is Mina a boy?”
She tells me “It’s difficult for me to answer and it’s uncomfortable for me to explain.”
I tell her “You should tell him to ask me.”
So, he does.
“No.” I say. “Neither boy nor girl.”
A few months later, I am referred to as ‘Onkel (uncle) Mina’.
I wonder, why can’t I just be Mina?
Later on holiday in Estonia. I’m at a café and want to use the toilet. But I need to pick up the key at the bar. I go to the bar, I ask for the key. They say it’s occupied.
I don’t know what gender they have assigned to me. After a while, I go back, and I ask for the key. They give me one. I’ve been trying to keep track of who’s had the key before me. To know now whether I should go left or right. I hope the key would give me a clue about how I’ve been classified. But it has no marker. It’s a 50-50 chance.
A day earlier. Another four-year-old, after hanging out for some time, asks someone else, “Is Mina a boy or a girl?”
Yes, I do get this question often. No, I do not always mind it. What I do mind is others deciding how to answer this question for me. I’ve been in Berlin for three years now, living weird parallel worlds. Within most queer and feminist spaces my gender is mine and not questioned, we share a common language around expressing ourselves and are free to explore. And then, there’s everything else. Spaces where I fear how my gender identity is being constructed by others or assigned according to assumptions based on my gender expression. Spaces in which language might decide whether you can be something other than male or female. Spaces where I cannot always be myself and I feel that I might need to choose between being me and being safe.
In some everyday situations and places it is easy to choose safe. This looks like going to shops and pretending to buy clothes for a boyfriend, a girlfriend, anyone else but me. Avoiding changing rooms, hoping for gender neutral toilets. Or learning to cut my own hair.
I am envious of the sharp perfect fades created behind the magical doors of the barbers that are found every 100m on the main road of my neighbourhood. I walk by them often. Day-dreaming about walking in there confidently and asking for a fade-cut.
This summer I walked by them again. I stop in front of a smaller one ‘for men and children’, checking the prices that are listed outside. Hesitating to enter, a friend accompanies me and helps me work up the courage to do so. After just a minute lingering outside, the barber himself comes to the door, looks at me and says “Please come in, I’ll be with you in a moment”. He brings us some sweetened tea in small glasses. Then I’m sitting in a chair. Clippers buzzing, scissors flying. He asks me why I’m in Berlin, if I like the cut so far, whether I’ve been in the city long, and in turn answers my questions about his own story of Berlin. When he’s finished styling my hair, he looks at me through the mirror and says “you look fantastic”. As I pay, I am handed a business card. A clear invitation to go again.
I walk out and think about this small window into a world where the only borders that exist are constructed between my skin and my hair. Where we connect through what we have in common, be it fade cuts or having moved to Berlin from somewhere else, or speaking a Semitic language. Where my gender was never assigned, and where, also outside of queer and feminist spaces, I was entitled to be me.
The spaces and communities that I am part of, which are created by and for queer, trans, and non-binary people, are magical spaces. We can be ourselves without judgment. We are affirmed for who we are. As someone who has Maltese documents, my gender is also affirmed legally, because I am now allowed to choose an ‘X’ as my gender marker. This ‘X’ denotes an unlisted gender, many options, another gender, simply the freedom to be me.
Being part of queer spaces and having a gender-affirming passport allows me to grasp at a future that could be just within reach. In this near future, everyone explores who they are outside of the confines of gendered stereotypes. It is a future that will have no need to assign genders at birth or mark them in documents. And the questioning of norms will bring us closer to building welcoming and inclusive societies. No borders, no genders, no nations, no profits.
Would you live in this world with me?
Mina Tolu is a trans, queer, feminist, and green activist from Malta. They have over 8 years of experience in local and international queer activism and organising, with a focus on communications and campaigns. Mina currently lives in Berlin, Germany where they work at Transgender Europe (TGEU), an organisation which advocates for trans rights in Europe and Central Asia. Mina has also worked within broader feminist and green movements.