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.

In Remembrance…September 2013

In September, we lost at least 5 people through murder.

I hate writing about this.

I’m not going to editorialize this time, although I could talk about how people are referred to (again) after their death, and how even LGB news services don’t always respect names and genders of dead trans people.

Instead I’m going to ask that you take a minute and reflect that the following people had their lives taken. Reflect on what we need to do to make change and to stop the violence.

The links below will go to third party news sites that don’t always respect the identity of the victim.

Sometime before September 1, 2013, in Savannah, TX, USA, Konyale Williams was killed. No additional details are known.

On September 9, 2013, in Baldwin Park, CA, USA, Melony Smith was murdered. Melony was forced to leave home at age 16 because her parents did not accept her gender identity. While living in hotels, she completed her high school education and was working to save up for further education at the time of her death.

On September 12, 2013, in Baton Rouge, LA, USA, Shaun Hartley was murdered. Hartley was to be the key witness in a murder trial.

On September 19, 2013, in Sakaew, Thailand, Kornsirinya was brutally murdered.

On September 24, 2013, in New Brunswick, NJ, USA, Eyricka Morgan was murdered in her home.

I apologize and will make corrections if I misgendered or misnamed any of the people above.  I did my best to find their preferred names and pronouns, but I can make mistakes. I do not desire to dishonor the dead.

Think on the names above, the locations where these crimes occurred, and realize that trans people are sadly not safe anywhere. Also think on those I didn’t name, but lost their lives just as tragically – those who were victims of suicide, having left the world to escape the pain. Think about what we can do to change that.

On the Nature of Hate

I’ll warn people.  This is a hard post, particularly if you know or are trans.  If you’re feeling bad right now, this post can wait.

Cassidy Lynn Campbell, a 16 year old high school girl, won her homecoming court vote and was crowned Homecoming Queen.  The problem in the eyes of the narrow-minded is that she’s trans.  Watch her explain what it was like to win (hint: pretty awful) in this article.

I know exactly what is bothering her.  It’s not any one particular comment.  It’s all of them.  It’s not the needle on the camel’s back, it’s the 200 tones of iron on the camel’s back.

Now, go to Youtube and read the comments.

Seriously, go read the comments.  Just some of them.  I’d recommend leaving a nice one and using your effort to support Cassidy, not to get into a fight, even though if you have a shred of humanity, you’ll want to.  I’m about as non-violent as a person can be, and I’m pretty sure I’d be willing to hit someone for some of the stuff people are saying in respond to someone who is obviously very deeply wounded.

Did you read the comments?

If not, here’s just a random sampling.  Here’s one:

The only one who thinks he’s ‘beautiful’ are the exact same cabal of misfits he doesn’t care about impressing.

No, he wants Average Joe to accept his monstrosity, and we never will, not even with the last breath of life.

This is another gem:

I think he’s a little old to be playing pretend.

Or this:

This ‘girl’ has a penis and needs to die.

Or how about this one:

No, HE is attention whoring

These were the less vile of the negative comments.

There’s a theme here.  When many people see or hear about a trans person, the immediate thought that goes through many people’s heads, particularly if they lack any understanding of gender or sexuality, is, “I need to state my opinion.” I don’t know why the less you know, the more you speak up, but that seems to be human nature.

Linked to this is an idea that somehow something bad will happen to you or the world if you don’t “express the truth” – that is, it’s a moral duty to say, “NO, this person isn’t a woman, he’s a man!” (I’m assuming the trans person is a transwoman – that is someone who’s identity is that of a woman). So the hateful people can’t seem to resist saying something. They can’t resist doing something, whether it is a microagression such as “accidentally” calling the woman “sir” or a full-fledged attack like is happening on this girl’s YouTube comment section. There’s something very human about not wanting to see a “falsehood” portrayed.

And, in many people’s eyes, trans people are living a lie.

I’m not going to debate this now, except very quickly. Trans people often do live a lie. They live as the gender that people want them to be. You see, you get less shit from people if you you live as a man if you were originally thought to be a boy at birth. Heck, one of the worst insults you can tell a non-trans teenage boy is that he’s a girl! So many transwomen do the hyper-masculine thing – they join the army, they work in a manly job, they have sex with plenty of women, they get drunk and party, and otherwise act as the stereotypical man. And, for many, this path leads to destruction, even death, due to the conflict it has. If you’re a non-trans guy, think for a minute about living as a woman the rest of your life – heck, do it for one evening. Go put on a dress and go to a bar. I’ll bet you don’t have the nerve. I certainly wouldn’t have it. It takes a pretty powerful biological (yes, it is biological) force to go against this type of pressure in society. Trans people know they aren’t supposed to be trans in the eyes of society. In fact, there are few things worse in many people’s eyes than someone saying, “I’m not a man. I’m a woman.” And transmen have similar problems too.

So, when a trans person gets the incredible courage to live as who they are, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s the only way to be at peace – to be who you are. No amount of anti-trans conversion therapy will do it (trust me, many have tried). You have to be who you are. And we need to encourage that.

Except we don’t. We (I use this in the general, society sense) make life hell for people who transition. We keep reminding them that we disapprove. Whenever a trans person is misgendered (called “sir” if they are a transwoman, for instance), that’s not merely expressing a view or moral belief. No, it’s heard as it usually is intended (even when not intended) as: “You disgust me. You shouldn’t exist. You are so horrible you need to hide from society.”

I know trans people that literally can’t go out of their house for a shopping trip without this happening to them multiple times. Now I can hear the objections now – and I’ll tell you something: the objections are just as hurtful. The first objection I hear some thinking is, “Maybe it was an honest mistake.” Maybe it was. But it’s still hurtful. Incredibly hurtful. I’ll give you a hint: if you accidentally injured someone, maybe in a car accident in which you were at fault, what would your response be? Would it be, “Well, I didn’t mean to injure you, so you aren’t allowed to be mad at me?” I would hope not. I would hope it would be to try to help this person that was hurt as a result of your unintentional mistake. Likewise, if you misgender someone, realize that this causes pain. Yes, it’s a different kind of pain than a car accident injury, but it’s still pain. It’s horrible because you weren’t the only one to do it. It’s happened to almost every trans person tens of thousands of times. And many of those times weren’t accidental denials of the person’s identity, but full-fledged attacks on that identity. Own up to your mistake, don’t justify it.

Now imagine that having someone use your previous name or the wrong pronouns is hurting you in this profound, cut-the-soul sort of way. Imagine that you do something like purchase a nice set of clothing that flatters your body and makes you feel great about yourself. You’re really happy with how elegant or nice it looks. And someone then comes up and, despite the obvious cues of the clothes, calls you by the wrong name or pronouns. Imagine how crushed you were. You thought these clothes made you look even more like yourself. And someone just took that away. They took the joy and confidence right from you. When this type of thing happens at a place you enjoy, or during an activity that you enjoy doing, it taints that place and activity. This place now is a place of pain. Something that brought joy now reminds the person of pain. Even if it was “accidental.”

But of course much of the time, it isn’t accidental. It’s the desire for “truth” and the desire to express an “opinion.” Some people can’t leave well enough alone. No, they need to make sure that the person knows they don’t approve. Oh, if they get called out, it’ll be an accident. Or they’ll pull the next excuse: “I don’t have to agree with that lifestyle” or “we have different opinions” or some other appeal to diversity and the right of free thought.

Sure, people have the right to their opinions.  But I also have the right to call them an asshole when they are being one. And they don’t have the right to not be treated as the asshole you are if you do this. They also don’t have the right to abuse someone, opinion or not. And, yes, taking the joy and confidence from someone is abuse.

I’ve also seen people say the most inappropriate things to allies, friends, and family of trans people. I’ve seen people explain that, “I would have a problem going out with a woman who didn’t have woman parts.” That’s wonderful to tell me, but I can’t say I really wanted to know what genitals turn you on or don’t turn you on. And, as an ally to transwomen, what I hear you saying is, “The women I want closest to me need to turn me on sexually. And without this type of turn on, I don’t want them close.” That’s misogynistic and bigotted. Really. Even if you can’t help it. Imagine you’re dating someone from a different race and someone of your race comes up to you and says, “I couldn’t see being attracted to <insert race here> women. They just don’t turn me on.” That would be offensive, even if you couldn’t help being a bigot. Now, I’m not telling anyone who to date or not to date, and I think sometimes people flatter themselves if they think they would be the one that would do the rejection. But I am saying this type of thing is just plain not appropriate. But strangely it seems to be yet one more tolerated expression of bigotry. Ironically, it seems to typically be prefaced with, “I’m fine with trans people…but…”

I’ve seen others tell trans people things like, “Oh, you’re going to get a security clearance? I hear they let gays do that now.” Another news flash: not all trans people are gay! Most are probably straight. That is a trans person identifying as a woman would probably want to date guys. That’s straight. Woman + Man = straight (just in case you have problems with this type of thing). Of course she might instead want to date women. Then she’s lesbian. Or she might be interested in some men and some women. Then she’s bi. It’s really pretty simple. But people make two assumptions: first, they assume that most people are straight. Second, they assume the only reason someone would want to live as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth is because they really want to have sex with people of the same sex. So they are gay (these people are baffled when the trans person is gay – that is attracted to someone of the same gender they identify as themself, because “you already have the parts you need” – again assuming straight sex is the only kind of sex people would want).  Except it doesn’t work that way!

When that isn’t happening, we get well-meaning missionary-types (not usually missionaries, but people who think that somehow God can’t possibly reach people without their help). That’s the kind of people who have to “speak the truth in love.” I’ll give a hint to Christians here (I say this as a Christian, albeit one that some who base their faith on the tenant of hating gays and trans people probably think is going to hell): figure out love. Not the “truth in love”. Just plain love. Start with love.

This kind of stuff isn’t cool. People don’t need to tell a trans person that they don’t think the trans person is really are who the trans person says they are. Really, it isn’t needed. And people can be sincerely sorry and try to repair the situation when they cause hurt. Even accidental hurt. Allies and trans people don’t really want to know that someone “sees trans people as they identify, except in bed.” Really, that’s sort of like saying, “I’m not attracted to <insert race here>.” Most people know to keep their mouth shut. For good reason. Nor do people need to deny that trans people are who they are by claiming (without knowing) that they are actually gay. And, really, Jesus didn’t talk about trans people. At all.

Oh, there’s plenty of other hate too.

What is happening to Cassidy is horrifying. I hope if she reads this post, she can know that people do support her right to be who she is (and we wouldn’t want her to be anyone else), and are in awe of her courage. And that people she doesn’t even know feel a connection and concern for her. I’ve been depressed and suicidal – not because of gender, but because of other bullying and abuse. I know how incredibly horrible that world is. And I know how horrible people are to trans people in general. Sure, 99 people at the grocery store are fine. But it only takes one person misgendering you to ruin that day. And there always seems to be one. I personally can’t imagine how hard that is to face every day. I know Cassidy can do it, and I hope if she reads this that she finds something – anything – to look forward to for one more day. For me, when I was being sexually and emotionally and physically abused, it was wanting to see the next Star Trek episode. Seriously. I’d kill myself after the next episode. But I delayed it – I found something to delay it. And after the next episode, I tried to find something else. And there is something else. There needs to be. When we get into that situation, we need to find anything, no matter how stupid or trivial, to make it to another moment. And I hope and pray that Cassidy can do that.

Respect for the Dead

“Kelly Young” was born “(masculine name here)”.  That’s how ABC in Baltimore began to describe a murder victim in a story earlier this year.  Except they printed a name that wasn’t her’s.  I won’t dignify that by repeating that name.

Kelly clearly wanted to be known as Kelly.  The general rule of thumb is you respect that.  In some cases, it may be relevant to a news story, but this wasn’t one of them.  This isn’t unique to transgender people.  News stories routinely refer to celebrities by names other than “birth names” (and, indeed, other than their legal name).  Women who take the last name of a husband usually don’t have their maiden name printed if they are killed.

I’m amazed at the obsession to know two things about trans people: what their genitals look like and what their birth name was.  Let me make this simple: that’s rude, objectifying, and humiliating.

But this is routine when trans people are killed.  Their genital status often comes up when a victim is trans.  It comes up in several ways, as does their trans history – “The male victim was dressed in women’s clothes” may be in a story.  Is that relevant?  Maybe it’s relevant that the person is trans, if you are reporting on a suspected hate crime.  Or if the person was well known as a public activist or figure.  But other than that, no, it’s generally not relevant and serves no purpose other than to give people a chance to snicker at someone dead.  That’s not classy.  Certainly what their genitals look like is almost never relevant.  And, equally so with their “birth name”.

Brandon Teena's inaccurate grave marker

Brandon Teena’s inaccurate grave marker

It’s not just reporting.  I know trans people that are scared their families will put a name other than their name on their tombstone.  Imagine living your life, only to be insulted when you die.  Brandon Teena, the subject of Boys Don’t Cry, a transman was brutally raped and murdered in Nebraska.  He’s now buried in Nebraska.

His grave marker – something that should tell the world who he was – instead uses the wrong name and refers to him as “daughter, sister & friend.”

Imagine that.  You’re brutally murdered.  And even when you are dead, your family buries you under a different name and gender.  It’s hard to explain how humiliating that is.

Why do people do that (Brandon Teena is not the only one that had this done to him)?  I don’t know why Brandon’s family did this.  I do know why others do it, though.  Some families find it really hard to acknowledge that their child is trans.  So hard, in fact, that they would rather loose their relationship with their child than to have to explain to their friends, family, and church why their son is now their daughter – or visa-versa.  This acknowledgement of someone else’s life is so horrifying to people that they would rather bury their child under the wrong name and gender.  Imagine what it is like for that child to be alive, to live a life unacknowledged and unaccepted by family.

More than that, thanks to the right wing, and the common confusion between sexual orientation and gender identity, and a general anti-gay sentiment in the right wing, the mere act of calling someone by the name and pronouns they ask to be used is now sin.  You see, in the eyes of these people (Note that I believe most are, sadly, not acting out of heartfelt analysis of scripture, but rather out of blind faith in their religious leaders and personalities), if you see someone who is gay (and, thus, by extension, someone who is trans), you have to say something to show you don’t agree.  Otherwise, apparently, God will send you to hell or something.  There’s also a really twisted idea of gender roles here – women subservient and all that (I’ll write about that some other time).  Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I was a member of such a group so I do have some idea how they think.

The idea is that if you “accept” it (that is, keep your mouth shut when you object – which is obviously a far cry from true acceptance), then you’re encouraging and in a way a codependent.  If you make life suck for the trans (or gay) person, then maybe they’ll stop sinning.  There is a problem here, though: some do – they kill themselves.  And even then they get stuck in graves which further the very abuse that made them hate life.

But apparently it’s not sin to spit on a grave or worse.  Even after the person is dead, they are fair game for abuse.

What do we do about this?

Simple.  We demand accountability.  Newspapers and TV should be called out when they refer to people with the wrong gender, out a victim as trans when it’s not truly relevant to the story, and we should make sure people we know are remembered for who they were, not who someone else wanted them to be.  And we should treat people properly when they are alive, too – if someone tells you their name and gender, it’s not your job to enforce the right-wing will.  They aren’t doing this because you didn’t insult and abuse them enough.  It’s time to stop the abuse, particularly in the name of God.

RIP Kelly and Brandon.  I will acknowledge who you were.