misgendering trans folk

What you are saying to us when you refuse to acknowledge us

First published on Medium on Feb 10, 2018

It would happen a lot. It would happen at least once at every event, every gathering.

I have been part of a sexpositive community for nearly four years. In general, it’s been a great experience. I had made many lasting friendships. However, inevitably, at every event — every gathering, someone would eventually misgender me.

At one point it got so bad that I stopped going to events in general. What’d be the point? I was no longer enjoying the two hour gathering, the three-hour evening; I’d be cringing, awaiting the inevitable “he” or “him.”

For a trans woman, being misgendered is not an annoyance. It is a direct blow to the heart, a jolt of negative current to the brain. Have you ever had the dream that you’re at a public event and suddenly you realize that you’re naked? That. Times one thousand.

Being misgendered means that how you saw yourself, just a woman casually discussing a TV show or a movie, suddenly gets stripped away and replaced with “…but of course we know you’re really a man.” It’s nightmarish.

It means that all of the other people who have been saying “she” might have been just “playing along.” nodding and smiling, mollifying the crazy person. The ONE person who misgenders you makes you question ALL of the times anyone has respected your true gender. With one monosyllabic word, they turn your life into a Black Mirror episode.

At a recent gathering, a woman I had known for three years -let’s call her Laura- was chatting with me, catching up. I had come to the event dressed as an angel, and was wearing a long light-blue dress, wings and a halo. I had makeup on, earrings, and my hair done up. Not one inch of my physical appearance signaled “male.” I had just mentioned to Laura that my ex-spouse and I were having a serious disagreement in our co-parenting journey. Laura turned to her husband and said, pointing at me, “he’s been having trouble with his ex-wife.”

The world slowed down. The music muted. My skin felt different. I froze, and stood in that spot for a few seconds. Then I felt my eyes tearing up. I hurriedly excused myself, found my purse and my coat, and headed for the door. Within minutes I was in my car, on the freeway, on my way home.

Have you ever had the dream that you’re at a public event and suddenly you realize that you’re naked? That. Times one thousand.

It’s Not “Annoying”

At Christmas, I drove my kids to San Diego to visit my mother. It was a visit fraught with challenges and conflict. We all tried our best to avoid confrontations. On the second day of our two-day stay, we were playing cards together and, for the space of over an hour, my mother kept using the pronoun “he” in reference to me. I kept quiet. At one point my 16-year old son softly interjected, “she.” At another point my 11-year old daughter openly said, “Cassie is a girl, Grandma.” We kept playing cards.

Twenty minutes later, my mother once again said “he” and this time I gently said, “Mom, please use ‘she’ pronouns when talking about me.” This brought on an impatient, defensive tirade. “Well, you have to give me time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It won’t happen overnight. I’m trying my best.” Basically, the entire repertoire of her tried-and-true excuses of the four years of my transition. At that point, I tensed up. “Mom, please… don’t.” I said. My mother threw her hands up in the air and walked out of the room.

A few days later I wrote my mother an email. In it, I wrote:

“I wasn’t annoyed, Mom. I wasn’t annoyed that you misgendered me. It’s normal, and understandable that you might stumble on the ‘she/her” and default to the ‘he/him’ instead. Even though it’s hard on me, I acknowledge that you knew me for many years in a male format, and that habits die hard.

What I’m not sure you realize though, is that it hurts every time. Every time, it hurts.

Still, I can cope with it. And cope with it I do, Mom. Because I love you and I can be patient.

But you have a defensive habit that I find intensely more difficult to process. Each time I correct you, politely, gently, there is a perfect, simple solution. Just say, “sorry,” and move on. Instead, I get this long string of excuses, this long paragraph. I need you to stop using that paragraph. Time is passing. This is not news anymore. I came out to you seven years ago. I’ve been actively transitioning for four years. It’s not sudden news anymore. Thank you for listening.”

She bristled at the notion that I was trying to correct her, claiming she’s my elder. I replied I wasn’t trying to disrespect her.

I explained to her that it has nothing to do with something “annoying” me.

Along with transgenderism, I carry a condition the medical profession describes as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is tied to a number of symptoms, including depression and suicidal ideation. Gender dysphoria (as best I understand) is the discomfort (which can vary from mild to severe) caused by the misalignment between one’s gender -as defined by one’s brain- and one’s biological sex -as defined by one’s genitalia and body characteristics.

I tried to convey this to my Mom.

Mom, if someone you know had diabetes, or suffered from alcoholism, or war-related PTSD, you’d make adjustments for their sake. You might not offer sugared donuts to the diabetic. You might not serve wine in front of the recovering alcoholic. You might not put on a war movie in front of the PTSD-sufferer. You’d do this out of decency, out of human kindness.

I suffer from gender dysphoria. Misgendering me hits at the heart of my dysphoria and causes me harm.

To this, I got a simple email response: “I’m sorry that I hurt you.”

And this was all I had needed to hear.

Malice

An immediate question that arises in my mind when someone misgenders me is, “is this an act of aggression?” My mind then searches for context, to try and decode the situation, the relationship between the other person and myself, evaluate their potential mindframe and motives. It is an exhausting mental exercise.

A few months ago I was shopping for business attire, as I was interviewing to find a job. I went to Macy’s. I was wearing a blouse and a skirt, with pumps. Full makeup on. Jewelry jangling on my wrists. In the women’s clothes section, I approached an employee — a woman in her early sixties — and asked her where I could find a business suit. She looked me up and down, frowning. Paused. Then said, “you mean a men’s suit?” “No, of course not,” I replied, incredulous. “a woman’s business suit.” She disdainfully pointed me in a vague direction. “try that way.”

According to PinkNews, three in five people who misgender someone are doing so as a willful sign of disrespect.

In a recent Ipsus report, findings show that, out of 27 countries, the United States has the highest percentage of people believing that transgenderism is a mental illness (one in every three people in the U.S — compared to approx. one every ten people in Japan, Italy, France, Spain and Argentina.)

As Samantha Allen points out in the Daily Beast, after Danica Roem won her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, the Republican Majority Speaker introduced a move to stop using the terms “gentleman” and “gentlewoman,” in an obvious attempt to avoid acknowledging Ms. Roem as a woman.

The National Review published two articles, one entitled “Laverne Cox is Not a Woman,” one entitled “Bradley Manning is Not a Woman.” In both cases, the author delights in using “he’ pronouns throughout.

Last year, as the case of transgender student Gavin Groom’s access to the boy’s bathroom hit the Supreme Court, journalists repeatedly referred to him as “her” in their articles.

Some trans folk misgender other trans folk as punitive action, when they don’t agree with their conduct or views. I think that’s egregious — we know how much this hurts. This is internalized oppression.

What You’re Saying To Us
Queer blogger Sam Dylan Finch sums it up nicely. Read his piece – but here are some bullet points:

When you misgender me, you’re saying:

  1. That you think you know me better than I know myself.
  2. That you’d rather hurt me repeatedly than change the way you speak about me.
  3. That my sense of safety is not important to you.
  4. That my identity isn’t real and shouldn’t be acknowledged.
  5. That you want to teach everyone around you to disrespect me.
  6. That offending me is fine if it makes you feel more comfortable.
  7. That you can hear me talking, but you’re not really listening.
  8. That me being who I truly am is an inconvenience to you.
  9. That you’d prefer it if I stopped being honest with you.
  10. That you’re not an ally, a friend, or someone I can trust.

Amelia Galpin has a similar list here.

What to do if you accidentally misgender someone

I was asked to add a trigger warning. Ashley does not believe misgendering someone is an act of violence. However, for many TPOC (especially TWOC) being misgendered -or outed- is received as a violent act.
Non-Binary activist Ashley Wylde says this best. There are exactly TWO steps to follow when you accidentally misgender someone.

→ a) You apologize for misgendering them
→ b) You go back to treating them like a regular human being.

There is no need for drawn-out overcompensating. There is no need for a lengthy defensive stanza on how cool you are with trans people. There is no need for trying to back out or gaslight us by denying what just obviously happened. Just a) apologize and b) move on.

Resources for Trans Folk

Autumn Asphodel has a good blog post with tips for coping with misgendering. I don’t agree with her 100%, but I liked some of her advice.

There’s also a thread about this on Susan’s Place.

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