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.

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.

A bad month. Again.

Trans people – particularly transwomen who are disabled and non-white – are at high risk of attack and death – despite being a fraction of the LGBT population, they are by far the most likely to be attacked or killed.

In fact, most murders of LGBT people are murders of T people.  In Hate Violence in 2012, the NCAVP found that, in the USA:

  • 73% of murder victims were people of color.  Of these, most were black.
  • 50% of murder victims were transwomen
  • 60% of victims (not of homocide but other violence) reported having a disability
  • Trans people experienced police violence at 3.3 times the rate of non-trans people

Other findings are equally sobering.  We are not a country that treats trans people decently.  Or people of color.  Or disabled people.  And we’re really awful to people that are in more than one category.  If you add HIV status to the mix, those with HIV are even more likely to be victims.  So we’re not even through treating people with HIV like shit in this country.

Then, survivors of violence face violence from those we pay to protect us.  They face violence at a substantially higher rate from police.

That is the context of every month.

(note that for the below, I attempted to get names and genders correct – unfortunately much reporting relies on birth names and incorrect genders, so please let me know if you have information about someone’s gender or name that is incorrect below – I do not intend to insult violence survivors or the deceased)

This month, like other months, saw reports of violence against trans people.  I’m sure I’m missing tons of reports.  What I know about:

  • On July 9, Dora Özer, a transwoman who lived in Turkey, was murdered.  She was stabbed to death.
  • On July 14, Diamond Williams, a black transwoman living in Philadelphia, PA, USA was murdered.  She was stabbed, dismembered with an axe, and dumped in a vacant lot.
  • On July 21, a disabled transman living in Knoxville, TN, USA, was physically assaulted while his house was vandalized.  His front door was spray painted with the words “Tranny Fucker.”   While being attacked, he was threatened with death if he did not move away.  He reported being laughed at by police when they arrived on scene.  This was the second time he was attacked.
  • On July 21, in St. James, Jamaica, a transgender 17 year old was stabbed, chopped up, and dumped in bushes along the side of a road.
  • On July 21, Amanda Blanchard in Spokane, WA, USA was murdered by her fiance, who set fire to her home and then killed himself.
  • On July 25, in Thailand, Jatupon Ratworabood was murdered by being shot in the head.  Her body was dumped on the side of a road.
  • On July 25, in Limoges, France, Myléne, a transwoman, was beaten to death with a hammer.
  • Sometime this week, Gaye, a transwoman from Istanbul, Turkey, was murdered.
  • On July 30, in Philadelphia, PA, USA, a transwoman was shot in the head in her apartment by an unknown man.  The last reports I’ve seen indicate that she is expected to survive.

This is just a sampling, based on what I’ve seen this month, of violence and murder of trans people.

I wish for and pray for justice for the families (whether biological or chosen) and survivors of these acts.