On misgendering and authenticity

September 26, 2013 § 20 Comments

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while (and too busy with music and writing to make much time for blogging – my bad) – I haven’t really known how to write it, or if I should – and then I just plain didn’t want to.

 

In many respects I’ve had a fantastic summer but, for whatever reason (and god knows I’ve driven myself crazy trying to work out a reason) it’s involved a lot of misgendering. Not just the simple failure to use unisex/gender neutral pronouns (‘he’ doesn’t totally work for me but I can live with it), but lots of ‘she’ and ‘her’. Specifically within LGBT spaces. Specifically from other trans people – trans people who, unlike myself, are able to use ‘man’ or ‘woman’ to describe themselves. After they’ve already agreed to use correct pronouns. I do feel somewhat traitorous posting this, and I want to make it clear that this isn’t a passive-aggressive way of making people feel bad – but how is it going to get better, if we don’t talk about it?

 

Nearly every person who’s done it – sadly, as a performer, they usually misgender me to my audience – has been apologetic in private. But the line that nearly all of them qualify their apologies with – “It just came out on automatic. I mean, you just look so…” – I’m always surprised that they’re able to speak those words and not see the hypocrisy, the irony of it. When it would be appalling for me to turn to a trans woman and say “Oh, I just called you ‘he’ because you’re so much taller than me and I can see your stubble and body hair – it was just my automatic response to the body I know invalidates who you are to the majority of the world, and I let it invalidate you to me too, despite your request that I don’t do that – so that’s alright, right?”. Do they think that I don’t know what my smooth face and alto voice mean to most people? Do they think I go to trans spaces in order to be reminded of that?

 

There feels like an assumption that misgendering is far less serious when it’s done to someone who isn’t (or isn’t straightforwardly/exclusively) a woman or man – that it’s to be expected, that it won’t hurt so much. Yes, there are genderqueer people who aren’t bothered by pronouns/descriptors – but, for many of us, it hurts a great deal.

 

The first part of that assumption appears to come from an idea that ‘other’ trans people don’t experience dysphoria – or don’t experience it to the same extent – which is patently untrue, as is obvious to anyone who’s ever bothered to listen to us. There are people like myself, who as well as being genderqueer would readily accept that there are aspects of the traditional transsexual narrative which describe my feelings about my body to a T (no, I can’t help myself) – and others who have needs just as pressing as any ‘true transsexual’ in terms of medical transition – but in ways which haven’t received as much attention and validation. I’ve heard a fair number of trans men and women talk about misgendering as an unpleasant phase to be gone through as part of medically transitioning  – something which adds to the sense of being betrayed by your own body, but something that (hopefully) will ease with hormones, surgeries and other therapies. I’ve never seen the additional acknowledgement that for people (like myself) who can’t access all of the medical treatments they would need to approach that place of peace, the sense of betrayal, of shock and pain, can be a never-ending prospect.

 

And even if someone doesn’t experience bodily dysphoria – what about the social dysphoria, the disrespect, the need to speak the truth about themselves that made them come out and clarify who they are in the first place? What is it about being genderqueer, or neutrois, or androgynous, or any variation/addition thereof, that makes it okay to disregard the authority of our interiority? Because the people doing it have bought into the false assumption that being something other than male or female is a new idea? Because they think we’re making it up, or being gender hipsters?  I can’t help but think about a recent Lesbilicious article which illustrated this assumption perfectly – that we’re being unhelpful, assuming an identity to make a political point (as though a person’s political self is not an expression of who they are). Sometimes I feel like there are LGBT people, other trans people, who look at me and see a sulky teenager who’s chosen to call themselves by the longest, most pretentious name they could find because it embarrasses their parents and makes them feel ‘special’. Calling me a ‘person’ rather than a ‘woman’, using ‘they’ – if it’s done at all it’s done in the manner of adults placating a difficult child, and only when they’re in earshot  – it’s not real, of course, but you don’t want to deal with a tantrum.

 

I realise that this will probably read as an angry post, and as though I don’t understand that mistakes happen – neither of which is true. But god knows I’m tired of attending/playing events where I should be able to let my guard down and knowing that I can’t afford to, because I can’t afford to be open to the (sometimes it feel inevitable) misgendering that takes place. I want people to up their game. Specifically, I want other trans people to up their game. I want community events to be for all of us – and I want to be understood as just as real, just as authentic, as anyone else.

 

 

 

 

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§ 20 Responses to On misgendering and authenticity

  • helgurney says:

    Perfectly put. Thank you. x

  • Ann Domoney says:

    Yuk. I’m sorry that’s happened to you. That’s horrible.

  • Charlie says:

    Wonderful. Not angry…..it’s well reasoned and eloquent 🙂

  • nim says:

    This really resonated. Thank-you for articulating it so eloquently.

  • womandrogyne says:

    I know the feeling – and I get the “autopilot” apology a lot from people too (yes, I’m tall and I have a deep voice, but make the effort, ferchrissakes).
    When I first began transitioning, I naively assumed trans people would all be open-minded and aware, trala… but as time has gone on, this rather obvious fact has dawned on me: trans people are first and foremost just *people* – so the normal rules apply, about people in general often being unaware and/or prejudiced, depending on their prior conditioning. Having gender dysphoria doesn’t in any way automatically bestow awareness or empathy, sadly.
    I still get trans women who think I’ve only just begun transitioning, because I don’t do dresses-and-makeup – and worse still, are clearly surprised that I’ve got a straightforward go-ahead for my gender surgery… because I clearly don’t “deserve” it. They also rarely seem to “get” that I’m transitioning in order to stop being gender dysphoric, not to stop being genderqueer. I’m very happy with my archipelagic gender identity – it’s just my anatomy that’s the issue.
    The trans world is still very binarist and gender-stereotyping (and often heterosexist too), just like the world in general. We have to be willing to be visible and audible (and patient), if we’re going to help people to see gender as the cosmic probability field it really is.
    (Sorry, this ran away with me a bit – but your post stirred my passions…)

    • micah says:

      That’s exactly what I was going to say, but much less eloquently.

      Trans people (and the LGB community in general) are subject to the same ignorance, cultural/social biases, and unwillingness to learn, as anyone else. Our mistake is to expect them to know better, or at least make an effort…

  • S says:

    I remember the one time I saw you perform in a not explicitly queer space, one of your co-performers did that, and I physically winced.

    I’m sorry that people have been doing this, particularly other trans people. Without any desire to defend it, I suspect that some of the failure comes not from seeing genderqueer identities as less valid, and more from the unfamiliarity of the singular they and gender neutral pronouns. I must admit that for a short while after we first met I did occasionally find myself correcting from ‘he’ to ‘they’ between brain and mouth, even though I’ve never thought of you as simply male.

    Not, I hasten to add, that the unfamiliarity is any excuse for fucking up, and especially for not making an effort to get it right. Nor, I imagine, does it make it suck any less.

  • Well said and beautifully written. Thank you.

  • Adrian says:

    This. . . I’ve been struggling with this too. It’s pretty hurtful to me to see how judgmental even trans people are to other trans people.

  • […] On misgendering and authenticity – C.N. Lester speaks movingly about exactly what the title says. […]

  • fliff says:

    I absolutely agree with previous commenters that this is well-written — and sucky that people are doing this to you. I think that it would not invalidate anything you have written (and absolutely would not invalidate your experience and feelings and everything!) if you were angry about this stuff happening to you, though. I’m not wanting to imply that you “should” be angry, or not. Just…

    If you were, that would also be a completely understandable reaction.

    You have as much right as I do to expect your preferred pronouns be used, and to be gendered in the way that’s most comfortable for you. As a trans person, I’ll be more vigilant about this in the spaces I occupy — this is an issue I was already aware of, but as you said…

    how is it going to get better, if we don’t talk about it?

    • cnlester says:

      Oh, I do get angry 😉 But I usually try to let it simmer down before I write – less swearing that way. Not that there’s anything wrong with sweary anger.

  • KaeLyn says:

    As a queer cisgender person, all of us can do better in queer spaces. Being authentically queer means dealing with your own gender shit, even if you are cisgender. I feel like queer people get extra defensive when we mess it up, because we are SUPPOSED to know better. We hold ourselves to higher standards. But when you are a real ally (or supporter or friend to or whatever), you own your own cisprivilege and you own your own issues and you just apologize. No explaining/cisplaining. “I’m sorry. That was totally fucked up and I really mean it.” Period. Done.

  • I have to admit that, many moons ago, I found it very difficult not to misgender genderqueer people. I think, in terms of language we are too accustomed to using ‘he’ or ‘she’. However I decided that I would work at it, and I find I rarely do it now, if ever. It felt, for me, a bit like “muscle memory”, in that using either of these words is so ingrained that it has become a reflex action. However any reflex action can be changed and this has happened because I decided I wanted to change it.

    I understand how you feel because I am regularly misgendered by colleagues at work, but not often by students. I think that is because most staff knew me as male, before I transitioned, and find that reflex action hard to change, whereas most of my students have only known me since I transitioned.

    However some colleagues, most notably those who have friends/relatives who are trans or who have done work in gender studies, tend not to misgender me, so I suspect it is down to the awareness of the individual and decision to make a conscious effort that they are not going to misgender, however even then it has taken time for it to become automatic. I think the problem here is that pronoun use is usually pretty much a subconscious action but to change it is a conscious act, and most people are not aware enough that they need to make that conscious decision, or can be bothered to do so.

  • HLD says:

    I think what makes the whole thing so much harder on people is the English language. Currently, we don’t really have any pronouns for genderqueer people. We have males, females, and inanimate objects. The closest thing we have to gender neutral pronouns is “you,” “they” and “It”, so guess which one seems to be the closest fit if you’re talking about a genderqueer person, even if it’s the grammatically incorrect one. The only other option is to risk insulting the person by using the comfortable “he”s and “she”s.

    It’s beyond just individuals who have trouble removing themselves from the binary gender ideas, the very language we speak doesn’t offer a place for genderqueer people, which is kind of silly since English is one of the most flexible languages in the world. I’m not trying to make excuses for these people since they already have their own ready-made excuse, but it is one of the reasons. We have no pronouns for those outside the binary, and the pronouns people try to use are little more than hand-me-downs from your overweight sibling, they don’t fit and kind of stink.

  • […] On misgendering and authenticity (cnlester.wordpress.com) […]

  • Nic says:

    I hope to write this comment in a way that comes across as supportive and that it is taken as a desire to be supportive and an attempt to further educate myself.
    I have always been uncomfortable with determining one’s gender on the visual only. I find it difficult and quite presumptive to assume gender based on how a person chooses to present themselves physically. I would love to know how that person identifies themselves but it seems awkward and inappropriate to ask someone when I meet them what pronouns I am to use. Born a female, identify as a female, and I think dress and speak in a way that may identify me as female, I think I might be hurt if someone didn’t assume I was female. So when I meet someone that “reads” as female to me (even if there are things suggesting they were not born with female genitalia) I refer to them with feminine pronouns (and vice versa). Without asking some extremely personal questions of a new acquaintance, how am I to know if they are pre or post-op or, for whatever reason, are unable or do not desire the procedures? So, for me, this post leaves me concerned I am being offensive when I really don’t mean to be. I am not close enough to anyone genderqueer to ask them how to handle the situation. Do you have any advice?

    • cnlester says:

      The quick fix that seems to be working well for me and my friends/social circles/activist circles is the very neutral ‘names and pronouns’ when introducing a large group of people (everyone says their name and their pronoun and voila! The group is introduced) – and when it’s one on one I tend not to ask unless I have to address them in the third person – at which point I’ll say ‘can I just check which pronoun I should use?’. No problems so far, so fingers crossed?

  • Arek says:

    The post reminds me of a small but significant incident, which for some reason I feel moved to share.

    When I knew even less about gender than I do now, I was once talking to a man, who during our conversation corrected me by saying ‘I’m not a gay man, I’m a trans man’. This led to a moment of confusion for me- I was quite unable to cover up my sense of disorientation and I found it really hard to pick up the thread of the conversation. In this case, I hadn’t had any particular opinion about his sexuality (clearly not my business) and yet it did feel like he really needed a shift in my perception about his gender somehow, but I just couldn’t grasp what that was. Looking back and having had some time to process that moment now, I understand that I was perplexed about how ‘trans’ changed that perception of ‘man’ from his perspective, so that I knew how to relate to him. I think I was also confused about what blunder I had made in the conversation to need to be corrected. After an excruciatingly long time, I finally came up with the question ‘What are your pronouns?” to try and get a sense of what it was he wanted me to understand. Asking about pronouns felt incredibly risky (are we taught that it a significant and unforgivable social mistake not to know?) and I also felt stupid and embarrassed asking. I was actually glad that I asked, because in some sense it did seem to be the right question. The particular cadence and tone of his answer (a very emphatic ‘he’) let me know how centrally important the right pronouns were for him. I am trying to make sense of what it was that shifted in my understanding because of the meaning he conveyed in his answer. That conversation and meeting was specific to that person and me and so it is both limited and particular, but I came away from that meeting pondering thoughts such as into how important relatedness is to human beings; adjusting to a sense that a person might need to be seen as they experience themselves, and considering how much people need that sort of reflection of themselves back from others; I was left to make sense of a lingering perception that the alternative, not being seen, is profoundly risky, that it might lead a person to feel like they were slipping away from themselves and becoming intangible….so I think that it would be very difficult for me to misgender someone, as whether the thoughts that I was left with are on the right track or not, what I did get was some sense of how much it matters. This might not seem lie a huge shift in understanding, but it did seem like a quite profound shift from my perspective.

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