I’ve been noticing a lot of talk about misgendering lately. And I’ve been contemplating why it happens. There are several scenarios I can think of that might lead to someone using a past name or the wrong pronouns and I wanted to break them down and explain my stance on the issues. While it’s easy to get upset when someone misgenders us, it’s not necessarily fair to get angry. Then again, sometimes anger is a reasonable response. So how should we react when it happens? That depends on the situation. So stop and think before you freak out. When a non-trans person has an unpleasant interaction with a Trans* person, that only perpetuates the belief that we should be avoided. It’s an unfortunate fact, but each Trans* person is a representative for the entire Trans* community and your behavior as a Trans* person reflects on us all. Now, I’m not saying that’s fair because it’s certainly not, but it is the way things are and it’s never going to change if we keep overreacting (or under reacting in some cases)…
So, someone misgendered you or used the wrong name, what do you do? Let’s look at why it may have happened.
- You’ve encountered a bigot and they are simply being a dick.
Well, you have a question to answer before you react to the pronoun/name issue. Are you safe? Is this person a physical threat? If you’re about to be assaulted, get the hell out of there and don’t worry about whatever they may have called you. Your safety isn’t worth risking, you aren’t going to make anyone use the correct terminology while they are busy bashing your face in. Give up that battle before it starts so you can live to help us fight the war! If you aren’t in physical danger, then by all means speak up! But remember, you are acting as a representative for an entire community so you need to do your best at being diplomatic. Screaming and yelling, flinging insults or threats, and generally making a scene are probably not the best ideas. Correct the person, say “it’s him, not her” (insert preferred pronouns as needed) or “my name is _______, not _______. Please respect that.”
Chances are you aren’t going to get the respect you deserve from a bigot, it’s an unfortunate fact of life. No matter what you say or how you say it, the offender is probably going to keep up the behavior. So stick up for yourself, but don’t take it too far and let them pull you down to their level. Be the better person, say what needs to be said and leave it alone. There is no use arguing with a fool.
- You have a friend or family member that just will not accept your transition and refuses to use proper pronouns and your new name.
This is a hard situation to be in. On one hand, it’s probably someone you care about and it hurts when they don’t acknowledge who you truly are. On the other hand, you start questioning why you care what they think when they don’t seem to care about or respect you.
There are a couple of reasons I can see this happening and you need to be able to figure out which reason it is.
If it’s someone extremely close to you (parent, sibling, best friend) it may be that they are mourning the loss of your former self and resisting that loss. While you and I know that you are still the same person, they may not realize that. It’s important to be open and reassuring in a situation like that. Let them know that you are still you and will continue to be, regardless of names and pronouns. Give them a chance to see that, maybe they will come around.
If the offender isn’t in the above group, or you have tried to reason with them, then it’s possible that they just don’t respect your transition in which case I think the best option is to be firm and clear, and be prepared to cut ties if necessary. I think it’s fair to say “My name is ______, and I am male/female. Address me as such and be respectful of my identity or you can choose to not be a part of my life.” and be prepared to back that up. This gives the person you are having a problem with the choice and whatever happens is on them. It’s clear and shows you are serious about your transition. But before you decide to start telling your friends and family to say out of your life, consider number 3 in this list…
- You have a friend or family member that misgenders you or uses the wrong name but isn’t being malicious.
I honestly think this happens a lot and we as Trans* people overreact. Even I have been guilty of misgendering someone who recently came out as Trans*. How long have you been out to this person? Has it been 3 years or 3 months? It takes time for people to adjust to new names and pronouns. When you are used to things a certain way, change can be hard. Have you ever had a favorite restaurant that changed its name under new ownership? How many times did you call it the old name and get strange looks from people who didn’t know it was ever called that? It’s the same concept. I know, I know, no one is going to judge the restaurant or beat it up because of its old name so things are a little different but be patient with people. It took my mom a year to get it down. She tried, but was so used to my birth name that it would slip. She wasn’t trying to be disrespectful and I couldn’t get mad. I would gently correct her by casually saying my name or pronoun when she messed up, and I would let her keep talking. Now she doesn’t even have to think about it. If you throw a fit and get upset in these situations, it’s going to be hard for anyone to want to be respectful of you. Consider how much time this person has had to adjust, consider their motives.
- The person you have encountered genuinely doesn’t know you are Trans*.
This happened to me a lot over the years. I’d be out at the store and the cashier would say “have a good day ma’am!” and I’d cringe. At the risk of upsetting people, the problem is generally that you simply don’t pass. I hate to break it to you, but it’s true. We have become a society that is overly cautious in the wrong ways. To those cashiers (and various other people) who misgendered me, I looked like a very butch lesbian. Plain and simple. These people were clearly proud of themselves for not accidentally calling me sir. To them, they did the right thing. Gender roles and stereotypes suck, the binary gender system is a load of crap, but the reality is most people were raised to believe these things and don’t know any better. You can and should correct these people politely, but don’t start raising your voice and having a tantrum. If you don’t pass well, give it time, you’ll get there. But don’t be that asshole who expects people to randomly know the large breasted, feminine faced person in front of them identifies as male. I wish society didn’t make gender assumptions, but they do. And while we work to change that, try to cut people some slack.
So that covers how I feel we, as Trans* people should deal with misgendering. But there is another side to this coin. So I’d like to address the non-trans folks now.
- You are a bigot and are simply being a dick.
This happens a lot and it needs to stop. I don’t care who you are or what your beliefs are, you have no right to misgender someone or use their old name. Here’s the deal, if you don’t understand being Trans*, you don’t believe that being Trans* is a legitimate thing, being Trans* goes against your religious or moral beliefs that’s fine, you are more than entitled to those beliefs regardless of my personal opinion of them. You can believe anything you please, but you cannot force those beliefs on others. If you think being Trans* is wrong in some way, then maybe don’t transition. You don’t get to tell other people your beliefs are the only correct beliefs, you don’t get to abuse another human being because you disagree with them. Lets pretend for a second that you are a devout Christian . You go to church every Sunday, you attend bible studies, you pray every night and you follow every rule set forth by your religion. You’re completely true to your faith in every way. Now pretend for a moment that I am Muslim (note: I have no religious affiliation and complete respect for all faiths), and I am equally true in every way to my faith. One day we meet, and I notice you are reading the bible, maybe you have a t-shirt on from your latest church retreat. I decide that your religion is wrong, that your beliefs are flawed, and I follow the only true religion. I believe that deep in my heart, and I approach you to enlighten you on the matter. I tell you that you can’t be Christian because it is a fake religion, I tell you that your beliefs are destroying this nation, I tell you that your existence is offensive and wrong. You need to convert immediately!! And from that point on I do not acknowledge you as a Christian. I tell you that you are a Muslim, and you need to dress and behave as such. I am fairly certain you would not only be offended, you would be furious! What right would I have to tell you your beliefs are wrong?! How could I think Christians are destroying this nation? You are a good person, your church does great things in the community! How could that be bad? Why do I care if you are Christian? It doesn’t affect me, I don’t even know you! It’s one thing for me to disagree with your religion but now I am calling you a Muslim and telling you how to dress! Where do I get off? What right do I have? And that’s exactly it. You are welcome to disagree with my beliefs, you are welcome to believe anything you wish about Trans* people, you don’t even have to associate with me. But you have no right to tell me what I should believe, how I should behave, what I should wear, or what label(s) I have. If I want you to address me by a certain name or pronoun then you need to do so. It absolutely does not affect you in any way to show me that respect. You can go home and talk all the shit you want, but you don’t get to tell anyone else how they are supposed to live.
- You have a friend or family member that is Trans* and you just will not accept their transition and refuse to use proper pronouns and their new name.
You need to ask yourself a few questions if this applies to you.
- Why are you resisting this change?
- How does it affect you to adjust to the way you address this person?
- Is your choice to not address this person properly worth losing them or getting them killed?
I know it can be hard to suddenly start calling your son a daughter, or your sister your brother. I also know it can be hard to remember a new name and the old pronouns seem to flow easily off your tongue. No one should expect you to get it right every single time at first but are you at least making an effort? If you aren’t, then ask yourself why. Are you afraid of losing the son/daughter/sister/brother/best friend you have come to love so dearly? I think this is often the case and there are a few things you need to understand. You are not losing anyone. A Trans* person is still the person they always were, just happier and more comfortable in their own skin. When I started my transition people were worried that I was going to turn into “one of those asshole guys” but here’s the thing, I wasn’t an asshole before, I was never a particularly “manly” man, and my body doesn’t dictate my personality. I am exactly who I was before transition, just in a different package. It’s no different from a candy bar brand redesigning the wrapper. “New look, same great taste!” You might not recognize the packaging, but as soon as you get home and open it up you realize it’s the exact same candy bar you have always loved. And pretty soon you don’t even remember the wrapper has changed. Imagine for a moment that your birth name is something you HATE, maybe you were named after an abusive parent and it brings back horrible memories so you decide to have people call you something else because hearing that name just hurts too much. I think most people would understand and be respectful of that choice. If people love you, they don’t want to hurt you so why not adjust to a new name? It doesn’t change who you are, it just eases the pain a little right? It also doesn’t hurt anyone else to call you by a different name. It’s your name, not theirs. This is the same concept for your Trans* friend or family member. Respecting their wishes and making an effort to adjust to a new name and pronoun will not hurt you, it won’t change their personality, but it will help ease their emotional pain. And wouldn’t we all do anything we could to ease the pain of our loved ones? So give it a chance, you’ll get used to it, I promise.
So what happens if you choose to not use proper pronouns and preferred names? Well… a lot happens. First, you make that person question the love you have for them, you make them feel unimportant and disrespected. You make them question the respect they have for you and why they continue to keep company with you. You also cause pain, tons of it. It hurts when someone you love doesn’t respect you enough to make this simple adjustment. It hurts to be referred to as a gender that isn’t what you identify with. It’s disheartening to be called by a name you reject. Imagine you used to be super fit, you were stunning, had an amazing body…just perfect good looks but life took a turn, you gained 100 pounds and you beat yourself up about it daily. You probably don’t want people coming around and saying things like “You used to be so beautiful!” Or “Remember when you were super skinny?” You just don’t want to think about the person you used to be. It’s the same for us. We don’t want to be reminded of the way things used to be. It hurts to think about it. It hurts so much in fact that people take their own lives because of it! Do you think its worth losing someone you love over a name and a pronoun? What if you insist on using the wrong name/pronoun and some bigot overhears. Is it worth having someone you care about be the victim of a violent crime? It’s a simple thing to do, using proper pronouns and names could quite literally save a life. If you love someone, truly love them, then this should not ever be an issue. If you can’t adjust to this simple change in words then you either do not care about that person at all or you are utterly and completely selfish. End of story.
- You have a Trans* friend or family member that you misgender or you use the wrong name but are trying to make an effort.
Suddenly changing the words you use to address someone you have known for a lifetime can be very difficult. It takes some getting use to and Trans* people need to understand that. If you are making an effort then a slip up should generally be overlooked. Just keep trying! If you are in a private and safe space when the slip happens, simply apologize, correct yourself and keep going. “Tom…Shit, I’m sorry, Jessica, do you want to grab lunch?” that’s perfectly acceptable in my book. Now, If you are in public it’s a bit different. You don’t want to accidentally out someone in an environment that is unsafe, so its especially important to be aware in these situations. If you use the wrong pronoun, try saying something like “she? i meant he, sorry I was thinking about my daughter/sister/friend” Likewise for using the wrong name. You must have been thinking about someone else for a second right? Don’t stammer, don’t over apologize, and just keep talking. I’ve accidentally called my girlfriend “he” because I was thinking about a male friend I need to call back. We have all done things like that so just play it off and keep going.
If you are making the effort that’s what matters. If you get it right most of the time, then any rational person will overlook a few mistakes. And over time, you’ll adjust. And thanks for making the effort and being a good ally!
- You genuinely didn’t know the person you encountered is Trans*.
Look, sometimes its hard to know a person is Trans*. As a society, we typically gauge gender by observing various things about a person. Hair style/length, breasts, Adam’s apple, stature, voice…. I wish we didn’t have a binary gender system and I wish we didn’t use these things to define gender but it’s been ingrained in us. We are taught as children to identify the differences between boys and girls in these ways. So if you happen across a Trans* person that you haven’t met before and you misgender them, simply apologize and try not to do it to them again. There are some Trans* people who will overreact, and I hope you will understand that they are not representative of the entire community. You might just be the final straw for them on a day full of painful misgendering and dysphoria. There is another side to this though… If, for example, you encounter an MTF, wearing dress and makeup and looking beautiful but you happen to notice a bit of stubble on her face at the end of the day, you don’t get to use the “I didn’t know” excuse. If someone is clearly trying to present as a specific gender, be respectful! If you don’t know what pronoun to use, then just don’t use one. You don’t have to say “have a nice day sir!” Simply saying “have a nice day” is perfectly fine. Mistakes happen, and we try to understand but don’t use that as an excuse to be a dick!
There are always two sides to everything, and I strive to consider both of them in every situation. I don’t always succeed, and all of this is my own personal opinion, but I try. The message here is simple. Be respectful. Whether you are Trans* or not. Be respectful.