So You Misgendered Someone…

Recently, the Ontario Association for Chiefs of Police released a document on how police departments can respect LGBTQ people. Overall, it’s a good document, although it has the same minefield that a lot of documents have when it comes to pronoun usage.

As a general rule, use the gender pronoun that matches the way a person is dressed and other  cues of gender expression (hairstyle, makeup, shoes, name, etc.), even if their presentation does not match the sex designation on their identification documents.

Let’s say someone tells you their name is “Jo” or “Joe” (they tell you verbally, so you don’t know the spelling).  Let’s say this person looks to you as if they might have very small feminine breasts, although their baggy clothing makes it hard to tell. This person has short hair. This person has a tattoo on their arm, maybe evidence of a couple of hairs on their face. They are wearing jeans and a baggy T-shirt, but you can’t tell from the cut of the clothing if they are masculine or feminine cuts. There’s nothing overtly feminine in the clothing. It doesn’t look like the person is wearing make-up.

If you go by the general rule the chiefs use, it’s going to be difficult. Now, granted, most of us are a lot more obvious than this, but plenty of women dress in non-feminine ways, wear hair in non-feminine ways, and may not have prominent chests. That certainly doesn’t make them men, and it won’t be surprising if some of them react badly to being called “sir” – particularly if they are members of the lesbian or bisexual communities, where being told “you want to be a man” is an insult directed towards their sexual orientation.

On the other hand, if this person is a man, calling this person “Ms.” on the basis of possible breasts would also likely elicit a less-than-positive response.

I know what the police chiefs were trying to do – and it’s good.  If you see someone wearing a dress, carrying a purse, wearing long hair, going by a feminine name, etc, don’t call them “sir.” Even if you think they might be trans – they are clearly presenting as a woman.

They do get something right, though – a lot of time, people are told, “If you aren’t sure of the pronoun, just ask.” While that’s better than getting it wrong, it can still be hurtful and a reminder to someone that they don’t fit in the world, that they will never fully be just seen as who they are. They say:

For most people, questions about their gender can be distressing; therefore, questions about a person’s gender identity should be handled with great sensitivity and caution. Such questions should be asked only on a need-to-know basis (not because you are curious).

If it is necessary for the task at hand, you may try an indirect question, such as “Can I refer to you by your first name?” or “How would you prefer that I address you?” hoping they indicate a title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., etc.) or a pronoun that gives you a cue on which you can act. While some people will be upset by a direct question, if you are gentle and non-confrontational, most will understand that you are doing your best to be sensitive and respectful.

Certainly, when you know someone’s preferred name, just use that if you aren’t sure, unless you really have a good reason to know their gender – they get it right when they say curiosity isn’t sufficient reason to humiliate someone. But if you do need to know, as the Chiefs recommend, instead of “Should I call you Mr. or Ms.?” you may want to ask, “How would you like us to address you?” If done respectfully, it can preserve the dignity of the person (whether or not they are trans).

But let me make one thing clear – what isn’t directly mentioned above is the most important thing: if someone tells you they are a man or they tell you they are a woman, it’s disrespectful to do anything other than respect that statement. We’re all human, and humans come in tons of diversity, without always following clear-cut lines (nor necessarily even two genders). So, when someone tells you who they are, listen – and chances are you’ll be able to move past embarrassment.  Here’s a few things not to do:

  • Don’t say, “Well, it’s hard to tell.”  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But that’s not at issue. What is at issue is that you got it wrong. YOU got it wrong. Not them. So don’t tell them that it was hard to tell. Say, “I’m sorry,” and move on using the proper gender terms.
  • Don’t say, “This would happen less if you <wore a dress/wore makeup/cut your hair/wore a wig/talked differently/etc>.” Again, it’s not them that misgendered themself. It’s YOU that did the misgendering. They don’t need dressing, makeup, hair, or voice lessons from you.
  • Don’t try to correct it by telling them how brave they are, how much they really do pass, or how beautiful/handsome they are. Existing isn’t brave. And they might be beautiful or handsome, but they are not feeling it right now after being misgendered – and telling them they are right now will just feel like a lie. I’ll give a couple hints on telling someone they look nice: first, it should be appropriate to the situation. If you wouldn’t tell someone who wasn’t trans or misgendered that they look nice in that situation, it’s probably not an appropriate situation. Second, it needs to come in a genuine way, not as an apology.  Just fix your terms you use for them and move on.
  • Don’t disagree with them. Yes, I’ve seen trans and non-trans people both told, “You’re not a woman! You’re a man!” and then the person insists on sticking to that. NO, don’t do that. They told you who they are when they corrected you. LISTEN.
  • Don’t avoid gendered pronouns and terms. If someone says, “Uh, it’s sir, not ma’am,” don’t then just use their name or refer to them as “this person.” Refer to them as “sir!” If you refuse to use gendered terms after they tell you they a member of a particular gender, you are saying, “I can’t bring myself to call you by terms that match your identity.” In other words, you don’t respect their identity. It won’t go unnoticed.
  • Don’t explain why you misgendered them. It doesn’t matter. You did, and that’s all that matters. Apologize and move on.
  • Finally, don’t expect a blunt statement. Expect something subtle. They are trying to let you save face and avoid humiliating you by giving a you really blunt response. Don’t make them give that blunt response (and if you do make them give that blunt response, it’s your fault, not theirs, and, no, they weren’t rude).

I do applaud the Ontario Police Chiefs for working towards respectful policing – something that is absolutely necessary – and I think they get tons of things right (including, for the most part, pronouns). But it is a minefield if you aren’t willing to politely and respectfully take correction when you make the mistake of misgendering someone.

Discomfort vs. Identity

Recently, California passed a new law that clarified existing law – it didn’t actually do anything new, but it made the interpretation of the existing law a lot clearer.


A mail-in ballot (From Wikimedia, Public Domain license)

This law, AB1266, is short and easy to understand.  This is an advantage over the other non-discrimination law that doesn’t directly answer questions such as, “Do schools have to recognize the gender of a trans student?”  Instead, the other law simply says they can’t discriminate against a trans person, but doesn’t explicitly say lack of gender recognition is a form of discrimination.

AB1266 added to existing language in California that requires schools to treat the sexes equally (the existing language required schools to do things such as providing career counseling that included occupations outside of gender stereotypes.  The new, trans-specific language is very short:

A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.

And that’s where the issue is.  It makes it clear that a trans girl could play girl’s basketball and use the girl’s locker room.  And you don’t mess with two things in America: you don’t mess with sports or nudity.  It’s our God-given right to have as many lethal firearms as we want, to have easy access to alcohol, to allow people to die of treatable illness if they can’t afford good medical care, and to invoke the name of God in school even if it offends some students (note however that this only applies to the Christian God – don’t try to invoke the a deity from another religion!).  But, if a teenage girl finds out a penis exists…well, then it’s all over.

Of course I’ve written before about the need for privacy in bathrooms and locker rooms – and how it’s only a minority of people that the right wing cares about protecting in bathrooms.  If adults want safe places for our children to pee and shower, they can start by getting rid of non-private facilities.  Seriously.  That would be legislation worth having.  Too many people are abused in the current facilities.  Including trans people, but not only trans people.  If you want your kid safe from having to see a penis, give them both a private place to do their thing!

Unfortunately, the same people that funded much of Prop 8 are behind a new move to repeal AB1266.  These include the National Organization for MarriagePacific Justice Institute and Calvary Chapel.

The various groups behind this  also used the same tactics.  Like conjuring out of thin air not one lie, but two – they found two instances of girls being harassed by trans students in the bathroom.  Yes, both were lies.

The first one was a girl from Colorado.  Here’s a report, including audio conversation with the school, that shows one of the other organizations behind this initiative, the Pacific Justice Institute (a right-wing Christian political group) made up the accusations about harassment.  The falsely accused girl?  She’s on suicide watch.  If this doesn’t demonstrate the need to protect the rights of trans students, I don’t know what does.

The second lie was about a girl from California. This was by a Calvary Chapel of Temecula ministry – Salt and Light Ministry.  Again, the story was about a trans girl that was harassing students in the bathroom.  Just one problem: it wasn’t true either.

Now, I don’t think there is actually a commandment against trans people (maybe someone can find that for me).  But the 10 I learned did talk about bearing false witness. It also stirs up hate and violent sentiment towards trans students.

Back to present time, however. There are several groups that want to repeal AB1266, and they’ve been collecting signatures to put it on the ballot.  It looks like they’ve met that goal – they claim over 600,000 signatures, when just over 500,000 are needed.  Now, it’s certainly possible that 20% or more of the signatures won’t be valid, but I’m not holding my breath.  I hope they are.  As I see it, that’s about our only chance, because the possibility of educating people about trans people is just not realistic for 2014. And an initiative like this, funded well by the right wing, would do damage not only erasing the law, but worse in stirring up hatred and violence. And there’s a solution that meets everyone’s needs: private facilities. Yes, it would cost money. Aren’t our kids worth that?

If the signatures are valid – and, again, I pray to God there aren’t enough – then this will go to the voters. And we’ll see who the true allies are among the LGB community. Sadly, I think some will stand on the sidelines while their T brothers and sisters are thrown to the wolves. And discomfort around trans people (the “ick” factor) will win over logic and identity.


Remember Stonewall, Police Abuse, and Presumption of Guilt

NYCD Police Department Patch

NYCD Police Department Patch

In the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, in NYC, it is commonly known that the NYC gay community stood up and said, “This is not okay.” They stood up to both the police department, who used humiliating and abusive tactics, and also against the laws of the time which were designed to punish homosexuality.

What isn’t as commonly known is that this may have been less about gay rights than about trans rights. While it was true that gay men (and sometimes women) were arrested for pursuing relationships, it was just as often – if not more often – about the gender expectations, specifically clothing, worn. It was easier to arrest someone for cross-dressing.

Lesbians and FTMs wearing “male” clothing (various ordinances required a certain number of supposedly gender-appropriate clothing) or males wearing women’s clothing were in violation of the law. Of course an officer would verify your sex matched your gender expression in exactly the way you would expect a non-enlightened officer to do so.

Stonewall was frequented by drag queens and transvestites among many others. So it isn’t surprising that when the raid began in the early morning of the June 28, 1969, with these clothing verifications taking place, people got upset. While this was hardly an unusual occurrence, people had finally had enough. And the drag queens were right out in front. As were the other groups. That’s probably one of the things that made Stonewall so significant: it wasn’t just one group of people who faced abuse (such as trans people). It was many, and involved intersectionality between gender, sexual orientation, and poverty.

So, you would think the home of Stonewall would have progressed, and that other departments would have policies and procedures that take this into account. And somewhat, they do. There are policies in most major police departments that call for the fair treatment of trans victims and suspects, albeit often not as progressive as we might want to see.

Earlier this year, the NYPD was accused of profiling trans people who happened to be carrying condoms – something perfectly legal and done by many law abiding citizens every day. Yet, this was seen as proof – because the person was trans or otherwise appeared to be a member of some group the police officer believed to be associated with prostitution (blacks, for instance) – that the person was out looking for someone to pay for sex. And when it came time to stop the city’s “Stop and Frisk” program (where people are frisked based on officer intuition and bias), which disproportionally affects innocent trans people and LGBT people of color, the mayor vetoed the change.


Of course NYC isn’t the only place that treats LGBT, and particularly T people, badly, although NYC of all places should have the resources to not only understand the profiling issues, but to go further and lead the nation in what positive policing should look like.

But let’s look at some of the other incidents in America. In California, a police officer is accused of raping a transwoman. While on duty. From the Gay Star News article,

According to the complaint, the officer pulled up to the victim and demanded to know what she was doing. He then ordered her to lean into the driver’s side window of his police car.

When she leaned forward, the officer groped her and asked if she was ‘a nasty shemale’.

After she responded that she was transsexual, the uniformed officer allegedly lead her to a secluded area and attacked her.

A condom which was reportedly used by the attacker was kept by the victim to use as evidence, and has been handed over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

It’s not just rape (and the above case was not the only recent rape of a trans person by a police officer in the US).  It’s also how we treat people locked up.  From a story on trans immigration detainees in Women’s E-News:

“I don’t think it is difficult to gauge the level of risk for transgender detainees,” said Keren Zwick, the managing attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center’s LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative and Adult Detention Project. “I have never met a transgender detainee who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual harassment, at the very minimum, or being propositioned for sex or being called names. Never once.”

Now much of this is not committed by officers, although officers certainly should be watching detainees.  But the article cited above also talks about harassment and abuse by immigration officers, including threats of solitary confinement for continuing to take medication, retaliation for reporting abuse, and even being forced to drink semen by an officer.

Something’s not right here. This is happening too often.

The statistics back this up too – in the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ report on LGBT Hate Violence in 2012, they found that trans victims of violence were 3.32 times more likely to face violence from police than non-trans (but LGB) people.  In Injustice at Every Turn, a survey of trans people, 22% of trans people reported harassment by police – that is, nearly 1 in 4 trans people say that police have harassed them. It’s more than 1 in 3 when trans people of color are surveyed.  6% reported physical assault by police and 2% reported sexual assault.  As a result, 46% said they feel uncomfortable seeking police assistance. Imagine that.

After all, who wants to be laughed at when they report a crime? Who wants to be the subject of officer chit-chat about what weird freak the officer had to deal with that way? Even more significant, different is often seen as dangerous to an officer – and the police response may be quite disproportionate to the need – multiple officers with backup, for instance, when a victim is reporting a crime (and there is no evidence of active violence). Why do the officers need backup when they don’t for other situations? Simply because the person is trans. Thus they must be dangerous – at least in some officers’ heads.

We need to expect more from our professional police.  Does your department have good policies? Will it treat trans people with respect, and take their complaints seriously? It’s worth finding out.