Written by Jen Brister


All woman

For Jen Brister, being mistaken for a man is nothing new. Here, the comedian reflects on encounters with spluttering baristas and wonders why owning a uterus isn’t enough to prove her womanhood.

An illustration of three women outside the ladies' toilets

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Did you hear the one about the lesbian who walked into a public toilet and was mistaken for a man? No? Well, WELCOME TO MY WORLD.

Look, I know I’m not the most femme of women, but I like to think my vague androgyny isn’t synonymous with MAN. For crying out loud, I have breasts! Admittedly they’ve emptied out a bit since my twenties…but what about my face? When I’ve had a full wax it’s fur free. Not to mention my hips; what man has hips like these? Ok, apart from Eamonn Holmes.

Initially I took the constant double takes as a compliment. Clearly that woman recognised me. I’ll be honest with you, when you’re as popular as I am it happens A LOT. Well, twice, and each time by members of my family in the Asda down the road from my Mum, but that’s the price of success, people.

Perhaps these women are gawking because they’ve seen something they like? And who could blame them? I have great bone structure and providing you never see me naked I could pass for 35.

But no. Instead, almost all of these women have either passive-aggressively hissed to a friend, “What is that BLOKE doing in the ladies’?” Or they’ve taken a more direct approach, i.e. “Er, excuse me but I think you’ll find the gents’ is next door.” Thanks very much. I’ll let you know how I get on with squatting in a urinal.

I didn’t realise that to be recognised as a woman I’d need to grow my hair, slip on a pair of ballet pumps and slap on some makeup. Personally I think having a vagina should be enough, but that’s me, plain old crazy.

Unfortunately, owning a uterus and couple of fallopian tubes isn’t enough to prove my womanhood. I need to amend my look to fit a more ‘feminine’ ideal if I want to stop being called ‘sir’ every time I order lunch.

It happened in a service station on the M4. I had a long drive ahead of me so I stopped for a coffee to keep me awake. The young guy serving behind the counter took my order with the words, “What can I get you, sir?” Sometimes I choose to ignore such mistakes, but on this occasion I felt a correction was in order. “I’m not a sir, mate,” I said. I could see his bewilderment, so I thought I’d help him out.

“I’m a woman.”

He panics. “Sorry, mate! I mean madam! Madam!” I watch his face slowly crumple as he tries to swallow his laughter.

“So can I get a coffee, please?”

“I didn’t realise that to be recognised as a woman I’d need to grow my hair and slip on a pair of ballet pumps.”

He bends over in an effort to control the waves of mounting hysteria but it only makes it worse. He stands up again, tears streaming down his by now bright pink face. Meanwhile I’m standing at the counter waiting for someone, anyone, to take my order. The humiliation of being mistaken for a man and then laughed at is trying my patience.

“Look,” I say. “I’m sure this is very funny to you, but can someone please take my order?” A concerned-looking middle-aged woman appears from a door behind the counter. Seeing the look of frustration on my face, and the state of her hysterical colleague, she turns to me and says,

“I’m so sorry, sir, have you been waiting long?”

Suffice to say I didn’t get my coffee.

My girlfriend has always maintained that I’m prone to exaggeration and has never really believed me when I tell her about such incidents. That was until one balmy summer’s day at the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath. While standing with my girlfriend waiting to use the bathroom, two elderly women confronted me and very politely but firmly asked me what I thought I was doing in “a women’s space”? Didn’t I know it was exclusively for women, where women could get semi-naked with other women in a spiritual circle or something? It was only when my girlfriend intervened and explained that I was in fact a woman that the ladies, both shocked and embarrassed, apologised and left. Unsurprised and unperturbed by this incident I could see that it had in fact upset my partner.

“Don’t worry about it, it happens all the time,” I said. “I’m used to it.”

My girlfriend looked at me in disbelief.

“Jen, I wouldn’t have minded so much if it weren’t for the fact that you’re wearing a BIKINI.”

You can’t come back from that.


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Written by Jen Brister

Jen Brister is a stand-up comic, writer and comedy actor. A regular performer on the UK and international circuit, she has also written for BBC Scotland and presented for BBC 6Music.