“Here you go ladies.” Every time I hear that phrase, I cringe, resisting the urge to die a little inside. There are times when I just let it roll off my back. There’s are other times when I contemplate not appearing in public with women until after my top surgery is complete. Unreasonable? Probably. But I can’t deny thinking it.
The truth is, we really can’t control how others perceive us. No matter how tightly we bind, how masculine our haircut or how many layers of clothing we put on. People may still call us she/ma’am/ladies/gals. We cannot control their response to us. What we can control though, is our response to them.
Of course, this is no easy task.
How do you resist the flash of anger? Or that sinking feeling of sadness?
One of my favorite quotes is from Victor Frankl. He says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I think of this quote often, not just when I’m misgendered, but in any situation where I know that my initial reaction is going to be hurt or anger. I’ve used this quote to foster my own growth and to mend or maintain relationships that might otherwise be destroyed if I responded from a place of anger or hurt.
Taking what Frankl says in the context of misgendering, we can think about it this way:
You and a couple of friends head out for lunch. You are met by the host, who asks, “What can I do for you ladies today?” There’s that stimulus.
You now have that space in which to feel your reaction and decide how to respond. In that space, we often feel hurt, sadness, anger, frustration, any number of emotions that can end up ruining the mood, or worse, the whole day.
At this point, you have an infinite number of potential responses. You could shrink down, wonder what “gave you away” and spend the rest of the day wallowing in the emotions of your initial reaction. You could roll your eyes and mumble under your breath with an exasperated tone “not a lady” and feel indignant throughout lunch. Do these responses make you feel good though? Do they make you feel seen? Or do they steal your power?
While it may not be entirely evident all the time, we do have other potential responses that can lead to not only our own growth and freedom but also to the growth and freedom of society as a whole. You have that kind of power, and it all depends on the response you choose.
I’m not saying that you should not feel anger, sadness, or frustration. You are entitled to feel any way that you wish and it takes courage to acknowledge and sit with those feelings when they come up. I am saying is that the emotion does not have to control you or the situation.
Here’s what I mean by that.
Let’s say you’ve made it to the table and the waiter asks “what can I get you ladies to drink?” You’ve just been dumped in the lady pile again by a complete stranger. Your friends look at you uncomfortably, wondering if they should stand up for you or keep quiet.
I’ve got a couple of girlfriends that would straight up tell the guy, “I don’t know who’s been spreading those rumors, but none of us here are ladies!” That always lightens things up and brings some space to say, “While what she says is true, I use male pronouns, so please address me as he/him/guy, or if you’re feeling really SoCal, dude.”
Sometimes, I’ll even start misgendering them if they’re still not catching on. Maybe it’s not the friendliest way to communicate, but I’ve found it fun and effective.
While misgendering is not a laughing matter, injecting humor into the situation can change the entire vibe and get you what you want: the respect of being addressed by your chosen gender pronouns. It also provides a non-threatening way to tell the server or other strangers about your pronouns without making them feel like an idiot.
Embracing The Messy With Cis People
A few months ago, I was sitting in a theater in Glendale, and a cis guy in front of me said, “hey man, is that seat next to you taken?” I said no, quietly cheering that I had “passed.” Then he turned around again and apologized for calling me man. And then immediately seemed really confused. It was hard not to feel sympathetic. He was endearing. Then he started talking about his transgender brother. Then apologized for assuming I was trans. It was messy. A little awkward. And totally authentic. What’s cool about that situation is that, while messy, it opened up a space for us to talk about the messiness. We are friends to this day.
Talking with many cis folks from different backgrounds, I get a lot of feedback about their responses to transgender people, gender in general and especially pronouns. The overarching message from them is that they want to be respectful, and a lot of the time, they don’t know how to do that. As a result, they either freeze up or revert to gender stereotypes in their attempt not to offend. Most people don’t do this intentionally, it’s just something that has been culturally conditioned.
Categorizing people and things is a habit ingrained in our society. While useful in some situations, we know how harmful it can be in others. Until we can get society to change its’ stance on the gender binary and accept that many things in life are more fluid, we are best served by working together to get through this awkward stage of gender evolution. This can be accomplished by a number of approaches, one of which is to understand where many of these cis folks are coming from and not making them feel like asses when they call a masculine looking cis woman “he” and a more feminine looking transman “she.”
Using humor to lighten the moment while standing up for your pronouns is an effective way to educate others on gender identities. In that way, you’ve just given yourself the freedom to be “he” and provided an opportunity for this stranger to grow.
Changing your responses to misgendering doesn’t happen overnight. Like anything worthwhile, it takes practice. Little by little, misgendering situations become more of an opportunity for mutual growth than a buzzkill for your entire day.
Becoming the Stimulus
In the meantime, there are some ways that we can flip the script and become the stimulus, to be the initiators of the gender conversation by not giving others the chance to misgender you. One option, is to don a T-shirt or other wearables that say things like:
- “Hi, I’m _______, [He/Him/His] (or better yet, They/Them/Theirs)
- “Dude! Not a lady!”
- “Ask me about my pronouns”
- “Question your assumptions”
Of course, this approach assumes that we are comfortable “transmitting our transness.” In some situations, this can be dangerous and I get that a T-shirt may not be enough to inspire a revolution of thought. For some trans-activists, this may be a great way to get your point across to a diverse audience.
One experiment that I would love to have go viral is to get everyone introducing themselves with their name and pronouns, yes, even cis people! Making it the norm to proactively affirm your pronouns in any setting can ultimately eliminate the habit of assuming others’ pronouns.
Along those same lines, I try to avoid gendered pronouns altogether. I know people have hang ups about using they/them/theirs due to alleged grammar rules. The thing is, grammar is just another construct that can be reconstructed, and has been throughout time. The death toll for any language is an inability for the language to change. The English language is still alive. Over 600 new words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year alone. English has the capacity to eliminate gendered language. It just takes time. For now, I just try to address people as “friend, love, people, humans” and hope I can encourage others to do the same.
Take Back Your Power
In every situation, you have the power to decide how you are going to respond. You can respond in a way that makes you feel smaller and leaves the world an ignorant place. Or, you can respond in a way that empowers you and educates others along a path of positive social change.