As a kid, lice seemed particularly attracted to me. The bugs infested my head all the time, meaning that throughout most of my childhood, I had a very short haircut.
So, from age six to 12, I was constantly misgendered.
I remember the first time it happened and how devastated I was. I had just survived my first lice hair chop and my mother took me to a store where I opened the door for an elderly woman who said, "what a fine young gentleman."
She meant it as a compliment, but I saw it as something else. Being referred to as a boy reinforced the idea that something was visibly wrong with me - my weight, my face, my haircut, my style, my sexuality - and that I was an outsider in the world of the feminine.
I tell you this story because there are millions like it from similar people who don’t quite fit into the boxes placed around our ideas of gender (or sexual orientation, which I discussed in my last article).
I tell you all of this because I want you all to stop gendering people automatically.
We all know that assumptions hurt, but we still make them daily. We live in a world that likes to categorize. From a young age, we are taught to put people in gender boxes and we are told what those boxes are supposed to look like: Girls line up on the left, with pink dresses and Barbie dolls. Boys line up on the right, with blue shoes and G.I. Joes. But when you fall somewhere in the middle, like many people do, it’s hard to pick a side. And it can be traumatizing, especially at a young age, to have that side picked for you.
By not assuming someone’s gender, you can save them from embarrassment, shame, frustration, anger and fear.
My partner, Alex, is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, has a shaved head and is very handsome. When Alex goes out in public, people panic about a boy being in the girls' bathroom, and they make a big deal of calling Alex "sir." Then, when they realize Alex is female, they try to justify their assumption by placing the blame on her looks, and saying horribly rude things like, "Well, can you blame me?".
For this reason, Alex hates going into bathrooms, through airport security and often out in public in general. If people asked, they would find out that Alex mostly identifies as genderqueer and mostly uses female pronouns, but also is fine when respectful people use whichever pronoun they see fit.
The problem for Alex isn’t that people think she’s a man - parts of her are masculine and she does feel and look like a man sometimes - the problem is that people make a large to-do over her gender, making a point to choose one or the other, calling it out in public and trying to make themselves feel better while making her feel worse.
The situation could be made easier on everyone if people would simply use gender-neutral language when dealing with strangers.
It’s actually easier than you think, once you get the hang of it. Here are some tips on being gender neutral:
- Instead of "woman" or "man" use "person"
- Avoid "ma’am" or "sir." There are plenty of other ways to respectfully refer to someone.
- When you don’t know someone’s preferred pronouns, "they" and "their" work great, even in the singular
- "Guys" or "people" can often be used to refer to a group of people whose gender you don’t know
- Avoid "it." While you may mean nothing by using that term, it can be dehumanizing
- I have been, and will continue to be, an advocate for embracing the gender neutral terms "ze" and "zir," and using them for everyone
Someone’s gender presentation doesn’t always dictate their preferred gender pronouns, so always ask.
Below are some ways to ask someone’s preferred gender pronouns - without sounding like a jerk. (For ways to ask someone’s identity, check out my post on that).
- "I never assume someone’s gender, so I was wondering what your preferred gender pronouns are." Prefacing it as something you always do - which it should be - helps make it less about the person you’re addressing and more about a general respect for gender variation.
- "Hey, Bobby, do you by chance know which pronouns Suzy prefers? I don’t want to assume anyone’s gender." It’s always best to ask the person about whom you’re talking, but sometimes that’s not always possible. Here again, you’re making it about everyone, not Suzy.
Look the person in the eye and give them the space to discuss their gender with you, versus just quickly looking for a box in which to place them. Some people’s gender varies based on their mood, so you’ll want to keep checking in to see which pronouns to use.
When choosing pronouns for yourself, don’t be afraid to play around with language.
Gender is fluid, so the terms you use to identify your gender should be as well. Feel free to play around with terms like "ze" and "zir" or the other gender neutral variations in the English language. You can even make something up if you want to!
I hope that over time, the English language will evolve to include terms for multiple kinds of gender in common-day vernacular. Until then, using gender-neutral terms for strangers and politely asking people what pronouns they prefer is the best way to go.
With love and light,