A reflection on gendering, where it goes wrong, and what happens next…
At the family vacation in Moab, everyone is doing their best. It’s not enough, and my day is peppered with the wrong name and pronouns. I hide in my room through dinner so they won’t see me crying.
Gender is strange and elusive. Sometime we attach it to genitals, and sometimes we attach it to boats. In Spanish, I can misgender my table. Every day we gender each other, even strangers — at a glance, on instinct, with very little to go on.
Some gendering is obvious — from pronouns (he/she/they) to honorifics (sir/ma’am), and gendered nouns like ladies or gentlemen. Things get more subtle when we talk about groups (hey guys), or the way servers (should I say waiters or waitresses?) are trained to serve women first and bring men the check. No matter how we see ourselves, our existence is constantly gendered (and misgendered) by the people around us. I notice every instance.
I’ve been misgendered most of my life, usually by accident. As a child, I was only gendered correctly with insults. Looking back, “long haired african girl” seems a bit on-the-nose. I had long hair, was born in Lesotho, and now I discover I’m a woman. Three for three! How is that insulting?
Now that I’m mid-transition, the gendering (and misgendering) has taken on a new flavor — a sense of personal success or failure added to the experience. I don’t mean to imply that the goal of transition is always to be properly gendered, but wouldn’t it be nice? When people assume I’m cisgender, life is simpler and safer — if lacking the nuance of queer diversity. Even condescending and sexist phrases can feel refreshing — at least I’m being gendered correctly.
People rarely misgender me these days, so the sting is worse when it happens. Strangers on the phone, old friends on occasion, or someone just discovering that I’m trans; but mostly family. The people who have known me since birth. And when it happens, someone is always there to say: well, it’s hard.
I’ve misgendered people too, used the wrong pronoun, or even a deadname in my worst moments. It’s an accident, of course, and I feel terrible about it — most of us do. Intentional misgendering is violent verbal abuse, but accidental misgendering is more complex. And more painful.
Gendering is instinct, learned at a young age — deeply ingrained, subconscious, and instantaneous. We use names and pronouns without thinking, and get them wrong without noticing our mistake. Sometimes it means we haven’t shifted our perceptions of a person and have work to do. Often, we’re just bumbling our way through every child-and-dog-name in our heads before we get to the right word. My aunt flips through all her children and my deadname before she gets to Mia. It would be funny if I wasn’t already hurting.
Brains are strange and language is fragile. When people tell me (over and over) that it’s hard, I know what they mean. It is hard for all of us. I know. We know.
But when I’m misgendered, none of that matters.
The room becomes a sudden minefield and time slows down. Everyone seems on edge, unsure what happens next. One person is feeling bad for their mistake, aware that they’ve hurt me, and everyone can relate. There, but for the grace of various gods… All eyes are on me. I’m not thinking about the semantic slip or the person behind it, I’m trying desperately to hold my fear and self-loathing at bay.
I never wanted to be trans. When I look in the mirror sometimes, it’s all I see. Then I have to leave the house — go out in public, where my existence is so offensive they pass laws about it. I’m a national threat. I get my own special TSA patdown and papers-please potty regulations.
I’m not fragile, and I don’t want pity or condolences. I have a good life, with supportive friends and family. I’m not depressed, and I’m not in constant or unbearable pain. But the othering and double-standards wear me down. The shame becomes ingrained and internalized.
Can I go outside? Can I use a bathroom? Who might attack me? Will I ever date again? What if I’m a pathetic joke everywhere I go? Is everyone laughing behind my back?
If the misgendering were intentional, I could brush it off more easily. Being an asshole reflects poorly on the offender, not on me. But when it’s an accident it feels personal, like it’s my fault. I brought this on myself. I’m asking too much of the people around me. I look too trans, or speak too deep. Maybe people are only humoring me, and the ruse is up. Now everyone feels bad because of something I did. My trans pain is upsetting these people I love, and I’m responsible.
I imagine people are thinking about my genitals, or my deadname, or my years as a ‘boy’. I know I am.
There’s no time to take care of myself. Everyone is anxious, alert, and watching me. If I fall apart, I look fragile. If I get upset, I’ll make it worse. Simply pointing to the mistake can make people defensive, and I’m seen as the aggressor. If I brush it off, people think it doesn’t bother me — not like the others, thank god. I don’t want a confrontation. I don’t want anyone to be sorry, or feel terrible, or lose sleep over me. I don’t want a conversation, and I don’t want a reminder that it’s hard not to hurt me.
Being misgendered is not like being offended — not intellectual, but emotional. In that moment, I’m not mad or insulted — I’m sad and lonely, discouraged and afraid. I feel bulky, masculine, and in the way. My mind is racing, and I need a way out.
When we misgender people, we tend to focus on the shame of our mistake, and how bad we feel for causing pain — or how hard it is to change our gendered instincts. We jump to long-winded apologies and explanations that only take us away from the opportunity to make things better…
Back in Moab with my family, I post a note to Facebook knowing my trans friends, at least, will send me support — and they do (along with others). My brother also senses the problem, and he’s ready when I come downstairs. In the kitchen, he slides up beside me and says the one thing that actually helps: