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.