I am a cis queer femme woman partnered with a non-binary queer person. While I enjoy so many things about our five-year relationship, including the fact that people recognize me as queer when we are out together, my babe is basically misgendered wherever they go. Even by other queer people. It’s rare for them to have a validating experience when it comes to gender, especially in a public place, where they are almost always mistaken as female.
On a recent date night, we had a server who was so over the moon for the gender binary that I knew I’d be writing about it before the situation was even over. Every time he came to our table he would emphasize the gender he assumed we both were.
“How are you doing tonight, LADIES? I’ll be your server for the night!”
“Do we want any drinks to get us started, LADIES?”
“Here’s your bread, LADIES. Anything else I can get you ladies?”
“Watch the plate, ladies—it’s hot!”
“Everything looking good, ladies?”
“Are you gonna be interested in a dessert tonight, ladies?”
“Here’s the receipt, LADIES. No rush.”
During the first few of these interactions, I tried to use our common survival tactic of speaking as the “lady” in the room and pretending that all the LADIES-ness was just in reference to me, giving my partner a knowing look after. After all, I’m great with being called a lady. Especially as a queer femme, it gives me a thrill to be associated with femininity while knowing that I challenge heteronormative stereotypes about what being a lady means.
But my partner feels differently. “Lady” and “woman” and “she” and “her” are not their home. Just as “gentleman” and “man” and “he” and “his” don’t describe the kaleidoscopic radiance of their soul, either.
At some point, when this “lady” business happened in literally every sentence our server spoke, like they were participating in some kind of bizarre gender drinking game, my partner and I just started laughing together about the absurdity of it all.
Underneath the laughter lies my partner’s daily discomfort. Discomfort with the mistaken identity of being read as an inauthentic version of themself. Discomfort with having people’s baggage around gender projected onto them. Discomfort with feeling like there’s no emotionally sustainable or fair way to take it all upon themself to do the exhausting public education around non-binary identity in each and every stinging situation, each casual misgendering, each denial of what makes them feel like their best self walking through this often dehumanizing world.
Here’s the thing: I know that our server meant to come across as polite, friendly, and professional. It’s tough to work in the food service industry.
My issue isn’t so much with the individual server as it is with the larger system that encourages us to enforce the gender binary at every turn. What does it really add to the conversation to reference your perception of someone else’s gender in every interaction you have with them? Why do we need to continue to use gendered honorifics, especially with people we don’t know? Would it be so difficult to train employees to say, “Hello, folks!”?
“How are you doing tonight, folks? I’ll be your server for the night!”
“Do we want any drinks to get us started?”
“Here’s your bread, friends. Anything else I can get you both?”
Non-binary people are real, and they matter. Not everyone feels comfortable being categorized into male or female, and if you’re not non-binary, it’s okay if you don’t relate to that. All you need to know is that the identities of non-binary folks are just as important as your desire, if you’re female, not to be referred to as “he” and “him” every day for the rest of your life.
Practicing using gender-neutral language is a great way to start becoming more inclusive. You already do it without thinking about it, usually when you don’t know the binary gender of someone: “Did you see that person rocking out in their car? They were awesome!” Or, “Did the manager call you back yet?” “No, but they probably will by the end of the day.”
If you’re cisgender, it’s especially important that you teach the other cisgender people in your life about this. As someone who has never been misgendered in my life—which, for the record, many cisgender people actually do experience—I know I owe it to my partner to mention their pronouns to friends ahead of time, to check in with them about whether they’d like me to correct people who slip up, and especially to get my family on board with realizing that their pronouns are non-negotiable. I’ve made progress on these fronts and still have further to go, but I know that work is mine.
More Radical Reads: 5 Ways to Help Kids Think Outside the Gender Binary
The more that you get used to talking to people without having to resort to gender-specific language, the easier it will be for you to use inclusive language when speaking to groups of people as well as someone whose gender you don’t know. This can be helpful for meeting anyone, whether they are cisgender or transgender.
And contrary to stereotypes, non-binary people, just like any other gender, come in every gender presentation imaginable. You can be feminine and non-binary, just as you can be masculine and non-binary. Or both. Or neither. If we acknowledge that women don’t all have to be feminine—and as we should embrace that not all men have to be masculine—so too should we accept that non-binary people don’t have to fit into a box we’ve neatly labeled “androgynous.”
(A box, may I add, that is usually associated with a lack of femininity if you’re perceived as female, and a lack of masculinity if you’re perceived as male, which calls into question what it even means to have an “androgynous” look.)
If you’re not sure what gender someone identifies with, you can introduce yourself to them along with the pronouns you use, then ask for theirs: “Hi! I’m Shannon. Oh, and I use ‘she’ pronouns. How about you?”
When we know better, we can do better. The more that non-binary gender is recognized and treated with respect, the less we make gendered assumptions about everyone. The less assumptions we make, the more connected we will become collectively.
More Radical Reads: 9 Keys for Dealing with Gender Dysphoria for Gender Queer & Trans Folks
When that happens, then my partner can breathe easier on our date nights, knowing they won’t have to be fielding awkward minefields of gendered interactions that don’t match up with their soul. They’ll be able to apply to jobs without having to suck in a held breath, wondering how to “explain” and when to “disclose” their gender, being put into the awful situation of being misgendered or potentially not being hired. They’ll be able to relax in social situations instead of feeling the creeping social anxiety they never used to deal with as an extrovert before they started identifying as non-binary.
And I can focus on looking into their eyes and smiling at them, not because I’m helping us laugh about the latest self-esteem blow by a well-meaning stranger, but in admiration over how in love I am with them five years later.
[Featured Image: A couple sits at a wooden table. The photo shows them holding their hands. They are both wearing long sleeved shirt. Source: pexels.com]