Identifying gender when you're blind
It is sometimes difficult to determine somebody's gender by sight but what if you're blind and only have their voice to go on? Mike Lambert, who is totally blind, describes a recent experience and how he resolved an awkward situation.
I have a day off work to attend a course on equality and diversity.
Not being familiar with the venue, I allow bags of time to get lost and arrive ridiculously early. The trainer gets me a coffee and seats me at a table with three other early-birds. The woman to my right is in the admin section at Cambridge, the man opposite is head of plumbing at a Welsh college, and the man to my left teaches media psychology somewhere in the Midlands.
I've never heard of media psychology and ask a few questions about it. The man's halfway through telling me about his work, when the trainer interrupts. The course is about to begin. To get to know one another, we're to interview the person sitting next to us, then introduce them to the whole group.
I'm put into a pair with the media psychologist and realise I don't know his name. He can see my name-badge, but I can't see his. I point out my difficulty - glad for an excuse to mention my disability - and he tells me his name is "Nina".
Nina? I must have misheard. Maybe it's short for some male name I don't know?
I decide my confusion doesn't matter and listen on. Nina's describing the formation of an LGBT group at work, and this leads us into a discussion about gender identity.
So, maybe that's it, maybe Nina's transgender. Although, just because a person's interested in LGBT issues, doesn't mean they're LGBT. Maybe, I'm just making a lazy assumption, to dispel my discomfort. Because, in truth, I'm starting to feel uncomfortable. As a blind person, I'm used to dealing with a lot of additional uncertainty, but this not knowing if I'm talking to a man or a woman is something new and disconcerting.
I listen hard to Nina's voice. There's something soft and tentative about it - but the pitch is unmistakeably male.
Interviews done, I sit back and listen as people on the far side of the room start introducing their partners. I mentally review what I've found out about Nina, feeling increasingly nervous as my turn approaches. I tell myself that any concerns I have about Nina's gender are a thing of little consequence. The whole point of the day is equality and diversity, and I shouldn't get so hung-up trying to slot people into neat pigeon-holes.
And then, I'm struck by a horrifying thought. How am I going to get through more than a couple of sentences without committing myself to he or she, his or hers? I can't keep saying, "Nina does this", "Nina does that". It would soon sound ridiculous. It's no good thinking I can just float along in glorious uncertainty - this matter of pronouns will be my undoing!
It's almost my turn and I'm in a state of near panic!
Just before it's my time to speak, I lean across the table and ask Nina, "which pronoun do you prefer?"
"She", Nina replies very nonchalantly.
Later, over mid-morning coffee, Nina finds me. "I liked your question about pronouns", she says. "I've sometimes had that happen on the phone. I mean, people not being sure. But, let me tell you - if you could see me, you'd be in absolutely no doubt."
We both laugh and resume our conversation about our work and the course.
At the end of the afternoon, I ask if anyone's walking back to the station and if I can take an arm. Nina offers and, as we exit the carpeted building onto the street, I immediately catch the click of her heels.
Neither of us expected this encounter, but, with a little honesty and humour, I think it's turned out to be a valuable and thought-provoking experience for both of us.
Listen again to Mike Lambert on Radio 4's In Touch.