Note: this post will have loads of links in it… later. It’s the middle of the night now and I’ve a busy day of hospital appointments tomorrow so I’m going to publish first, add links in a few days.
A thing that cis people frequently seem to misunderstand is why misgendering trans people is a problem. Often they’ve tried imagining or remembering someone calling them by the wrong pronoun or calling them miss instead of sir or vice versa and thought to themself “Well, that wouldn’t be so bad really, just a bit annoying I guess”. And while that might seem like a good way to try to understand, it misses the point almost completely.
“Misgendering” or “degendering” is the word for when someone uses gendered or non-gendered words in such a way as to state or imply that another person is a different gender than they are. It is possible to misgender a cis person but the misgendering I want to talk about is the misgendering of trans people as this is both usually more harmful and more prevalent.
Trigger warnings for examples of both intentional and unintentional transphobia in this section
Some examples of misgendering:
A. Mr Thompson is a teacher. He says “Your son is doing very well at maths” to Mr Patel whose *daughter* Rubina is a trans girl. This is misgendering. Even if Rubina is not in the room and even if Mr Thompson believes that Mr Patel does not support Rubina’s gender – unless Rubina has specifically requested that she be referred to as though male to her father, she should be referred to in the same way as any cis girl.
B. Angelica accidentally calls her friend Tamsin by her pre-transition name. This is misgendering whether or not Tamsin is in earshot.
C. Beth meets Chris in a cafe and can’t tell what gender Chris is. Instead of asking, Beth guesses that Chris is a woman and says “I’m sitting with the lady by the window” to the barista. Chris is a trans man and is really hurt by Beth’s assumption. This is misgendering even though Beth thought she was using the correct pronoun.
D. Bradley sees a trans woman in the street and yells “You’re a guy!” at her. He later refers to her as “he-she” and “it” when telling his friends about his day.
End of examples, end of trigger warning.
So, what’s the big deal? Why is misgendering trans people so hurtful and why might cis people not understand that it’d be a real problem?
The thing is, when someone suggests I’m a woman and not a man, that’s not an isolated thing. It’s another act in a series of acts that started before I was even born, reminding me again that the world generally doesn’t see me as a man but as a woman playing pretend. We all live in a society that denies trans people’s lived reality constantly whether that’s demanding the right to decide our genders for us, making our stories all about the effect of our existence on cis people, demanding to know what our genitals look like, debating our right to use public bathrooms or to play sports or just completely ignoring our existence to the extent that thousands of us grow up without the knowledge and vocabulary to express our experience of gender. And on top of that, street harassment, homelessness, domestic abuse, sexual assault and hate crimes including murder are typical trans experiences at the hands of cis people specifically because of the idea that we are not really the gender we say we are.
When someone calls me “she” or “lady” or calls a trans woman “he” or “sir” or uses the wrong pronoun for a nonbinary person, they bring the weight of all that systemic oppression of trans people crashing down on us – whether they mean to or not. Sometimes, I can brush it off and get on with my day but I feel pressured to *always* ignore it and I just can’t.
People have tried to compare it to being mistaken for your brother. Or to being mistaken for a child when you’re a short adult, being mistaken for a Christian when you’re Jewish or being assumed to be gay when you’re actually straight. While I appreciate the attempts at empathy, where this falls down is that when you correct people about these things, they generally won’t argue. They will probably apologise . They won’t demand extremely personal information as “proof” that you are really Keiran and not Angus. They won’t try to argue with you that no, you really *are* a Christian and you’re just confused about this Jewish stuff. They won’t claim that looking like a child means you are a child even if your passport says you’re 29. And while they might joke that you should dress differently if you don’t want people to think that you’re gay, they generally will more or less believe you when you tell them you’re actually straight. They and you are not living in a culture that says that some people only “believe” they are Jewish / 29 / straight when they actually aren’t.
When people know or suspect that someone is trans, they often try to convince them that they are actually a member of the gender they were assigned at birth whether they want to be or not. People straight up tell me that I am a woman no matter what I do or think or feel – and often follow this with deliberately using she pronouns and the wrong name for me (up to and including just making one up because almost no one I know has even heard my birth name).
People who know I’m trans but keep “accidentally” calling me “she” or “girl” or “it” because it’s so hard to remember that I’ve transitioned also come across as trying to somehow passive-aggressively misgender me back into the closet.
So when people make legit, honest mistakes? It can hurt as though they’d told me “Liam, no matter what you say or do, you’ll always be a girl whether you like it or not”.
And because I too grew up and live in a systemically transphobic world, the constant microaggressions from well-meaning, clueless and actively hostile people actually DO make me waver and think to myself “Am I a real man? Or just a facsimile, almost but not quite as good as the real thing?” I know I’m a man and I try damn hard to be proud or at least okay with being a man who is trans but sometimes I can’t feel okay about it. Sometimes my day is ruined by three too many people misgendering me or by yet another trans character being played by a cis actor of the wrong gender or yet another death or hate crime filling my twitter feed.
It all starts with misgendering, I think. It all starts with the idea that any given cis person knows better than me (or any trans person) about what gender I am because cis people’s genders are somehow more “authentic” than ours.
This got long so congrats if you’re still reading but suffice to say: don’t misgender people. If you do, apologise and try to do better. If you misgender someone and their response seems over the top, just remember that you’ve accidentally brought up a load of societal transphobia and they might have strong feelings about that.