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Miss Manners by Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin

Turn Probing Comments Into a Teaching Moment

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a young man in my 20s, and I am currently attending university and working as a teaching assistant while I get my master's degree.

I am very small-framed and soft-spoken, and appearance-wise, I look to be about 16. As a result, when I am on campus or in an adult-dominated environment, I am often mistaken for a woman, even though I dress and behave like a fairly typical male.

When students and classmates refer to me as a woman, and I inform them that I am male, I am sometimes met with, "I know someone who has gone through the sex-change surgery, too." Or they ask me, "Are you having surgery to construct a penis?"

My friends have told me to respond with "It's none of your business," but I feel like this implies that I am in fact having a surgery to change sex, and it would stir rumors.

I completely accept people who do undergo sex reassignment, but I believe it is rude for others to make assumptions about another person's circumstances.

Some friends encourage me to be hostile. I do not want to be hostile to my students, and I know that they are just trying to be open-minded and supportive. How can I politely, but firmly, respond to questions and assumptions like these?

GENTLE READER: Being the instructor has some advantages, one of them being the ability to instruct others without being thought rude.

Your assumption that they mean well is gracious and perhaps correct. But if those trying to advance the cause of gender tolerance can agree on nothing else, they generally acknowledge that one of the things they are fighting to overcome is people making incorrect and unwelcome assumptions.

"If you are interested in the gender identity question," you can answer, "this is a really good lesson. I was born, and live as, male. It is dangerous to make an incorrect assumption based on appearance."

This may change their behavior in the future. And it will give you a brief respite while they absorb the news, which, if you do not want a longer conversation on the subject, is a good time to slip away.