Practical advice for the non-normatively gendered
June 15, 2015 § 8 Comments
As much as I write about trans issues, particularly those outside of a binary framework, I realised recently that the majority of that writing is about education, media, specific activist events or frameworks.
Not that I think any of that is a bad thing – but it does leave out something that I, and a lot of other trans people, do in our day to day lives – we swap advice on the practicalities of living in a cissexist, transphobic world.
So here’s what I have on navigating the world as someone who does not (or does not primarily, or straightforwardly) live as a man or a woman.* If you’re new to this, I hope it helps. If you’re an old hand, I’d love to hear your advice. It should go without saying that no one should feel obliged to act as I do to have their gender recognised. But this is what works for me.
1. Legal status and the filling in of forms
First step for everyone – find out your legal status, and any legislation that can, or could, cover your human rights. Know your rights – where they end, begin, and the name of the legislation/laws that cover them (if any).
UK – enormous thanks to the people who compiled these fantastic resources:
(Nonbinary.org is an excellent resource with information on several other countries)
The Transgender Law Centre has a fantastic paper from 2013 applicable to the USA
There is also some information and links for further reading on Wikipedia under the title ‘Third gender’.
With that relevant information in mind, and from my personal experience – there are some questions about gender, and some forms, that are probably safer to navigate in a ‘traditional’ way, or with preparations made for a fight. I would rather campaign for a change in gendered passports than battle with the passport office or airport staff in person. I’m not saying that my choice is the only option – but, if you do want to take on the larger governmental/legal entities in person, please do so with every bit of knowledge and support you can muster.
However – there are many, many forms, and organisations that issue them, that that do not need you to misgender yourself, and who will be open to amendments. When presented with a form that gives only ‘M’ or ‘F’ I tend to draw my own box marked ‘Other’, tick that, and then explain in greater detail below. This often requires further verbal explanation with whoever is accepting the form – usually a receptionist – and I’m sure that acquiescence is usually a mark of not wanting to deal with a ‘difficult’ client, rather than because they agree with me. It doesn’t always result in a change to my official entry – occasionally it has resulted in rudeness and further misgendering. But sometimes it works. At the very least, they know that the options they present do not reflect all the people they interact with, and that’s worth it for me.
To the best of my knowledge, these are the organisations I’ve amended forms with – success rate of around half and half, and the ones that have misgendered me have usually left a note to explain further.
- GP surgery
- NHS hospital intake form
- Any and all questionnaires/market research/information given voluntarily
- Libraries (The British Library gets massive thumbs up)
- Courts service for jury duty
With services that do not require a tick box for gender, but do require a (usually gendered) title, I have a three-tiered plan that’s worked exceptionally well:
- Request the gender neutral title ‘Mx’. More and more institutions and organisations are now offering it. Organisations that don’t are sometimes amenable to adding it, emailing a request to add it, or leaving the title field blank.
- Where there’s no option to avoid a title, or use or add ‘Mx’, I chose ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ and then request the details of the person I should speak to to discuss gender neutral options. When speaking to said person I’ll let them know of the other organisations/companies that have successfully done away with needing a title/needing a gendered title.
- If there’s no one to talk to, no option to avoid a title and no gender neutral option then I tend to pick the most outrageous title on the list. If the organisation has a problem with that, they can contact me directly and we can discuss including opinions that I could legitimately use.
2. Dealing with officials, administrative staff, retail…
…and anyone else you’ll be coming up against who thinks that they have a right to enforce their interpretation of your gender onto you.
The approach that’s worked the best for me is kind but firm. I make it clear that we are not talking about my preferred gender or pronouns, but the correct ones. That’s not just not me making a stand about my own validity – it’s something that lends validity to my argument in the eyes of others, and helps me to get what I need. If I ask someone to include my preferred information, then they’re the ones doing me a favour. If I update them as to the correct information, then I’m helping them avoid an error. If we hit an impasse, it feels as though there’s an expectation that I’ll fold: “okay, I was wrong, that isn’t a real gender/pronoun”. Holding firm and asking them to check both the system and with someone higher up helps here – as do (particularly if it escalates):
- The magic phrase: “What’s your company’s policy on transgender customers/clients and compliance with the Equalities Act?”
- Getting the complaints line and email address
- Getting the name of the person you’re dealing with
- Mentioning that, in addition to writing the incident up, you’ll be blogging about it, sharing the story on social media, and seeking the advice of an LGBT organisation (now that Stonewall covers trans issues, they’re a good one to mention in terms of name recognition).
The fact that this approach means I have to keep a handle on my temper leads me to my third piece of advice…
3. Sometimes what you want to achieve is more important than how you feel about it in the moment
Which is never to suggest that how we feel is unimportant, or that we have to be unfeeling automatons who should/are able to cut off our emotional reactions to the world.
But it is acknowledging that, in some situations, a trade off can be worth it – and that acknowledging and agreeing to that trade off to oneself before it happens can make it much, much easier.
Caveat: no one but you gets to decide what you will and won’t accept, and whether or not it’s worth it.
For example: if I’m doing official trans outreach, I can mentally prepare myself for the invasive questions, misgendering and cluelessness that are the initial responses to most educational/training/consulting drives. Knowing that I’m choosing to go into that situation, that I’m willing to feel emotional discomfort and distress because of the pay off (greater trans awareness, more people who support trans rights, an understanding that gender is more than M/F) – not only does it feel worth it to me, but it actively diminishes the pain engendered by those behaviours.
Knowing and staying true to my overall goal makes the struggles along the way easier to handle. There are things I will not accept – outright abusive language, deliberate cruelty, active threats to my safety – but there are some things I can accept in the course of my work because it is my work. And one of the reasons I can do it is because I…
4. Have a support system and process in place
You will need it.
It’s hardly controversial to say that most of us need people with whom we can drop our barriers and share love and support with in safety. For people who are constantly being judged, questioned, delegitimized, threatened – then our relationship support systems become crucial.
I don’t think that we can afford to be passive in our relationships – with friends, lovers, with our wider communities. It’s a hard world, and we need to support each other. Knowing that there’s a wider online trans community I can call on for advice and solidarity when things get really tough – or when I need to share an in-joke to get through a day full of transphobia – is a gift. Having other genderqueer friends I can go out with, knowing we have each others’ backs (and a stock of excellent ripostes) when the inevitable misgendering happens means that I CAN go out, when I’m feeling too dysphoric and depressed to want to leave the house. And having a close core of inner friends who I can trust to never hurt me with cissexism or transphobia – that means the world.
This isn’t meant as a boast – I’ve had my share of shitty relationships, and I’m sure I’ll have a tonne more. But we have to fight the notions that we don’t deserve healthy relationships, or that healthy relationship somehow just happen. They take work, and effort, and respect – and we are worthy of them.
As to a support process – it would be foolish to wait to buy plasters until after you had an accident in the kitchen. In our society, people deemed non-conforming will be harassed, will be misgendered, will be discriminated against – and often then count ourselves lucky that it wasn’t worse. I hope that things are getting better, and I’m working to try to make things better, but I still think it’s sensible to plan for the worst. I recommend:
- Someone who knows that it’s an emergency if you contact them out of hours/after letting them know that you’re going to be in a riskier than usual situation.
- Finding out your local/national LGBT/trans groups in case you need their advice or support.
- Having a stockpile of comforting things you can do if/when something upsetting happens.
- Getting into a routine of dealing with constant, low-level cissexist/transphobic stresses. I get misgendered a lot during classical music work – it’s not the worst thing that could happen, but it’s unpleasant, particularly when it comes with a side order of rude/mean assumptions and questions. Cooking, gaming, playing some furious Beethoven – I need those things to be able to cope. Applying them as soon as possible, automatically, helps a great deal.
5. Conversation practice
In the fifteen years since I came out, I can’t say I’ve had much variation in common questions/responses:
- What even are you?
- So, what’s between your legs?
- But what are you really?
- That doesn’t exist
- You can’t make up a gender
- There are only two genders/sexes because Science/God/commonsense says so
- You need to pick a side
On the more pleasant, but often still difficult side of things:
- I’ve never met anyone like you before
- Are you sure?
- That sounds REALLY hard. REALLY hard. Wow. REALLY HARD.
- That’s so exotic!
- So, you know…do you…
For both types, I recommend practicing several stock responses so that you don’t need to give any more of your time or attention to something which is, at best, tiring and, at worst, abusive.
When people are asking in bad faith, I believe that anything that shuts the conversation down as quickly and as safely as possible goes. Also, if you’re in the mood, something that makes you feel better. Wit helps me, as does turning the question around.
For more polite, but still intrusive questions or assumptions, one of the most useful phrases I’ve found is: “I talk about this stuff all the time for work, and I’m trying to relax /concentrate right now – if you’d like some more information there’s plenty on my blog.” If someone then tries to continue on from that with more intrusion, I’ll deliberately change the subject in a way that acknowledges that they’re not going to get anything else out of me. It doesn’t work all the time, but it works a majority of the time in my case.
Just for the record, this isn’t about tone policing, or suggesting that anger isn’t a suitable response in many cases. But, in my experience, I can’t afford to give that amount of time, attention and care to everyone who behaves inappropriately/ignorantly/cruelly about my gender. Very often I am going to be hurt by others’ behaviour – and, in those cases, I take best care of myself by shutting things down as quickly, charmingly and, in some cases, as safely as possible.
6. Not ‘winning’ every battle doesn’t make you wrong
And you might have to actively work at believing that.
Our society, in the broadest and biggest sense, is often incredible stupid about gender. Even fast change feels slow when you’re caught in the midst of it.
We haven’t ‘failed’ when someone disbelieves, discredits or disrespects us. Someone’s internal, fabricated view of how I appear to them is not the same as all that I am, can be and will be. It’s not right that they try to push their version of ‘me’ onto me – but their pushing doesn’t change who I am.
Someone refusing to respect your truth does not make that truth invalid.
It also doesn’t mean that you’ve ‘failed’ to win someone around. Most people find it hard to change their minds – even harder to admit to doing it, and hardest of all to admit all of that to the person who just changed it – or sowed the seeds of change further down the line.
You simply cannot fight every battle, let alone ‘win’ against people who will never admit that you’re right and they’re wrong. So don’t try to – save your strength for when you need it, and your energy for the things you can change.
The world at large (in its most normative aspects) doesn’t tend to throw many parties for us.
So let’s throw them for ourselves – for our friends, for our communities – a private party for one person. Online or offline, with candy or wine or music or whatever.
We come out because we can’t live a lie. At the end of it all, we should honour our lives in all the ways that we can.
What did I miss? Please add your advice below – and all good luck to you.
*Disclaimer: I live in London, am young, white, thin, and my disabilities are mutable/not visible to most. I’ve been out for more than half my life, and look visibly androgynous in a commonly understood way. I have things a hell of a lot easier than many other people, and so a huge caveat that this advice might not be helpful for all. Feedback very welcome.