The actress Laverne Cox said, in response to misgendering of a trans murder victim during a vigil remembering her life, “I know as a trans woman, and I think so many trans women in the audience understand, that when we’re misgendered, that is an act of violence for us,” she said. “It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.”
It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.
It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.
This is not rocket science. It’s not hard to refer to a woman as a woman. And before you object that “well, you can’t always tell,” (hint: that’s a pretty horrible thing to say to a trans person) or “it takes me a while to get used to someone’s new gender” (another hint: it’s not their new gender, it’s their gender period), let me say I’m not talking about a one-time slip that you learn about. And before you say that was the problem at Islan Nettle’s vigil, let me mention that someone speaking at the funeral of a trans person, particularly someone representing an LGBT group, is expected to at least read some random Trans 101 – I even have one targeted towards people who want to be allies on this site.
Too often, it’s that people simply can’t be bothered (or don’t want) to recognize someone’s gender. I’ve seen parents 15 years after their child disclosed their gender who still use the wrong pronouns and names for their child. Are you really telling me that you can’t love someone enough to change after 15 years? Now, I’m talking about supposedly supportive parents – that is, people who consider themselves supportive of their child’s identity. I’m not talking about the other group of parents, the group that refuses to recognize their child’s gender out of some sort of misguided idea that this was a bad ethical choice.
I’ve seen other people who don’t change and say, “I’ve known him for a long time, so it’s hard to see him as a girl” or similar nonsense. No, it’s not. It might be some work on your part, but if you truly care you’ll do it. If you say a person is your friend, that you would go out of your way for this person, then fricking go out of your way and respect them. It’s a lot easier than helping them move to a new apartment, after all (something you probably wouldn’t hesitate to do for a friend).
I truly think part of this is how wonderfully willing most trans people are to give people who seem even slightly supportive some space and time when they first come out. They know there are patterns of speech that might take a bit. But sometimes people take advantage of this, and just use it as an excuse not to change. And it’s hard to tighten the reigns. That’s why so many parents of trans people refer to their son or daughter with the wrong pronouns, while their child is right next to them! The (likely adult) child doesn’t want to lose the relationship completely over this, but at the same time, the parents are doing this incredibly hurtful – even violent – thing.
I’ll tell you a secret about most of the trans people I know: most don’t want to live their whole life as a “trans” person. They want to be respected and accepted in their gender. They don’t want to be different. They want to be the same as all of us.
So it is an act of violence. It reinforces the idea that trans people aren’t really the gender they say they are, that there is something weird going on, that the person isn’t quite who they identify as. And that’s the excuse people who use physical violence do.
Now, I can hear the objection: using the wrong pronoun isn’t like a physical attack. No, it’s different. That doesn’t mean it’s more or less violent though. You can be emotionally or psychologically violent – not just physically violent.
And for the next objection, heard from the person using the wrong pronouns: “I wasn’t intending to hurt.” Maybe, maybe not (someone who was trying to reinforce the idea that someone’s gender wasn’t as they said would likely say this very same thing). But even if you weren’t, you did. And if you did so after correction (yes, a mistake here or there is okay), and it’s not intentional, it’s just not caring. There’s this thing that is really, deeply important: who the person is, and the wrong pronouns deny that person’s existence, erase it, trample on it. You don’t need to mean to do it – you can do great harm by just not caring.
And, finally, the last objection: you might have a friend/brother/sister/parent/etc that doesn’t mind when you use pronouns that don’t match their identity. Let me let you in on a secret: most trans people who identify as a man want to be identified as a man. And most trans people who identify as a woman want to be identified as a man. A failure to lash out at someone who is inconsiderate and hurtful is not the same as being happy about it – nor is it proof it isn’t hurtful. Too many trans people have few relationships with others, so the ones they have, even if they are hurtful, may be better than absolute loneliness. It’s better than the alternative. That said, it’s a sick person who doesn’t care enough about their friend to worry about whether “well, this relationship is better than suicide or loneliness.” We should be better than that. We should be someone who affirms our friends and family members, who affirm the core of their being. So even if your friend/brother/sister/parent/etc doesn’t seem to mind when you use the wrong pronouns, you’re an ass if you don’t find a way to use the right ones.
And you know what? You already know this. Want me to prove it? Quick: What do you think the reaction would be if you told the jock in High School that he “looked like a girl out there on the athletic field?” Depending on how much the jock liked peace, you might end up with a black eye or bloody nose. So you already know this. What is the insult hurled after women who succeed in their career? “She’s more of a man than most men!” So you already know this. Yes, these examples are also very misogynistic (and I’m certainly not defending them), which is equally bad, but it is clear that most people want to be referred to as they are. You know that.
In summary, what pronouns should you use? The non-violent ones. That is, the ones that the person themself would have you use of them, whether that’s pronouns like “he” or pronouns like “she” or pronouns like “ze.” Once you know, you have a choice to make: take the little bit of effort to use the right words *or* be an ass. The choice is yours.