[Image description: On a pink background, two white outlines of people are sitting close together at a round table. The one on the left is smiling and tilting their head away while the one on the right leans in towards their ear. In the top left corner, in black text, it reads, “You had me at your ask of my preferred gender pronoun.”]
I’ve had several non-binary people come to me over the years to ask how I deal with being misgendered by strangers and acquaintances. You know – parents of friends, friends of friends, teachers, waiters, cashiers, and so on. The hundred-odd people you can meet in a day that you will never have a close relationship with, or that you will never see again.It’s a tricky situation. I don’t expect them to know that I’m non-binary. How could I? They’re not mind readers, and I’m not visibly gender non-conforming in a way that confuses people. Even if I were, chances are the person is not going to default to my preferred pronouns they/them/their. Visibly gender non-conforming, trans people (especially trans women, and especially trans women of color) have to deal with everything from the discomfort to the violent outrage of cis people. In many ways, I’m lucky to only have to deal with getting misgendered by strangers. But it still sucks, because there is no good way (that I have found or am brave enough to try) to politely inform a waiter that me and my partner are not, in fact, ladies.
Try giving a primer on gender while handing change to a cashier. Or piping up about your pronouns in a lecture hall filled with several hundred students. There are some situations where I can explain things in private, like with teachers, but then you have to hope for the best with the teacher’s reaction. I had a really wonderful creative writing teacher that I loved a lot, and I explained my gender and pronouns to her pretty early on. It still took her a full year to stop using the wrong pronouns in class, and it took me a full year to feel comfortable correcting her in front of thirty or so people who didn’t know I was trans.
My partner, who is also non-binary, recently emailed their professors about their preferred name. One said that they would have to get their name changed with the school. The others were okay with it, but they have been messing up every single class for the past five weeks.
This past week, we were doing an icebreaker exercise in one of my classes where we introduced the person sitting next to us. Another non-binary person in the class tried to correct someone who was misgendering them as they introduced them. They covered their mouth with their hand, leaned over, and said “Actually, my gender pronouns are they/them.” The person looked confused, and said “Anyway, she’s a third-year transfer…” I watched my friend’s face go bright red as they tried to smile. I felt for them so much. I’ve been in that situation too. I don’t think the person who misgendered them is a bad person. They just didn’t know what my friend meant, and it was an awkward situation in which to try to explain it more.
Basically, I have to pick my battles. Is it worth getting into with this person? Am I going to be interacting with them a lot? Do they seem like they would be receptive to changing their language for me? How often am I going to have to remind them? How much am I going to have to explain?
It would help immensely if people, both cis and trans, worked to refer to strangers with neutral language until they can ask about their gender or pronouns. I know that seems like a lot to ask, or perhaps that it would be awkward to ask someone what their pronouns are, but for the many people who have to deal with the awful sensation of being misgendered hundreds of times daily, it would help. This isn’t just a problem non-binary people or people who use non-binary pronouns face. Trans men and women also have to deal with being misgendered daily. If we all worked to shift our culture until asking for pronouns became as accepted as asking someone’s name, the source of a great deal of pain for many people would cease to exist.
If asking for pronouns seems ridiculous or rude, I encourage people to look at the reasons why using neutral language or asking for pronouns feels uncomfortable or offensive. Many of those reasons are wrapped up in the rigid gender roles and gender performances our binary system requires of us all. Perhaps we feel asking a cis person’s pronouns would imply they aren’t performing their gender correctly – they don’t appear male or female. But in an ideal world, none of us would have to “perform” our gender “correctly.” We could just exist however we like, with our bodies, presentations, and roles not tied to a certain gender, and with our worth not wrapped up in “being a real man” or “being a proper woman.” I think that world can only benefit us all.
[Headline image: The graphic shows eight people of different sizes and genders standing next to one another in silhouette on a white background. Their reflections are visible on the floor they are standing on.]