I began my transition from a position of ignorance. I was largely disconnected from the transgender community, had not read much from the increasingly rich corpus of trans memoirs and academic writings, and most of all, didn’t know where the hell I was going. In the past decade I addressed and erased these deficiencies, and I report to you today, among other things, that all has worked out, more or less.1
We all start from a position of ignorance. Human beings are blank checks of possibility. We do not know, perhaps, the total balance against which we can draw, but it falls to us to continually fill in the recipients and amounts until the damn things (inevitably, I’m afraid) start bouncing. Ignorance as a starting place, is not a problem.
Ignorance as a way of life, however…
I infer from the fact that, having read this far, you accept certain propositions. First, you know that despite the fact that making sweeping assumptions about who people are on the basis of visible/audible characteristics that you perceive often works, it only works up to a point, rather than every time you do it. Since you make such assumptions with minimal conscious effort every day in regards to dozens of people, your assumptions will occasionally be wrong, requiring you to adjust them on the basis of information subsequently acquired. Second, you realize that you know almost nothing of the thought life of the people you think you know, and that pretty much everything you actually do know owes to what they say and/or what they do.
Easy-peasy so far, right? The rest of this post depends on you synthesizing a conclusion out of what you have already accepted. That conclusion is this: that your perceptions of the gender of other people is reflexive, shallow, peripheral and effortless, while their perceptions of their own gender is experiential, deep, central and crucial. Otherwise put, our half-assed, knee-jerk judgments about the gender of others are less accurate than, and trumped by, the gender that they experience internally.
Yes, we are going to talk about pronouns and names again, but first I need to tell you a story.
In the spring of 2017, my wife, son and I took a brief vacation to West Texas. The destination satisfied the annual need to escape the hopelessness of lingering winter in Minnesota, and offered further opportunity for some sorely-needed political catharsis. Specifically, I wanted to take in the beauty of our nation’s natural southern border before some asshole tried to cover it over with concrete and barbed wire. The trip was glorious, made even more so by the chance to spend a couple of days with a long-lost friend from high school, who parenthetically had, like me, changed her first name since we last met.
As a transgender person, I know that being misnamed is at least distracting, and often painful. I also knew that if I let my thoughts run on auto-pilot, I would almost certainly misname her. Auto-pilot, therefore, was not an acceptable option. 50 miles away from her home, on approach, I started to say her name over and over: “Hello, Marlys. Hey Marlys! Yo…Marlys.” I did this both silently and audibly. Of course, I had already accepted her new name when she re-introduced herself to me months earlier. It was, after all, her name, and she had no reason to be mistaken about it.
I think the strategy worked. The reason I think that is because, throughout our renewed friendship, I always identify her in my thoughts by her new name. Somewhere back in the brambles of my psyche, I know that she once had another, but unless I write a piece like this, I tend to forget what it was. She is Marlys. She told me so herself. Good enough for me.
I once believed that hoping to be named and/or pronouned correctly by friends, family and strangers was too big of an ask. I adopted a strategy of never correcting my patients and their visitors. I concluded—after years of frustration—that it was far too difficult for older people, or those who had known me longer to make adjustments and resolved to just try to take their persistent misgenderings in stride. I remembered that I too had made misnamed and misgendered others on occasion, mentally downplaying the conscious efforts I subsequently made to rewrite my memories—in the manner exemplified in the Marlys snippet—about those I had so offended. I could not expect people to make such an effort on behalf of transgender people in general, let alone me specifically.
Then I went to France.
When out and about at home, whether socially or at work, I generally expect to be misgendered 10-15 times per day. Most of the time, those who misgendered me tend to do so continuously, whether or not I correct them, or if they hear the correct name and pronouns from my work associates. In France I was misgendered once over the period of two weeks. The woman who did so apologized, looking somewhat chagrined in the process, and did not repeat the mistake going forward.
How did France get right what my homeland so consistently gets wrong? The possibilities:
- I heard wrong. Maybe I was too distracted by the sights and sounds to notice what usually feels, emotionally, like being whacked with a stick. The thing is, they spoke English to us most of the time, and when they spoke French, phrases were always punctuated, without guidance from me, with the polite “Madame’s”.
- Their language makes gendering easier. After all, French, like all Latin-derived languages, is structually gendered to a far greater degree than English. Every object is a him or a her, not an it and every adjective and verb associated with the object follows suit. “This table—she is beautiful.” “This wine—he is sour.” In French, even the word this would have to be either masculine or feminine, and the adjectives change spelling, sometimes dramatically. Perhaps the language does ingrain a sense of importance toward the task of properly labeling, but this in itself would tend to point out that they consistently labeled me as female. Incidentally, the Brits, Kiwis, Aussies, and Argentinians with whom we broke bread over the two week interval also did so, despite the fact that only the Argentinians would have a linguistic cue to do so.
- They culturally accept transgender identity as valid in a way that Americans simply do not. I’m not going to lie. I’m betting all of my chips on this one.
Despite my frustration that misgendering is a fact of my day to day life, and that transgender people are transparently being used as pawns in the raging culture war, I do see some occasional signs of progress. For example, I have abandoned my previous conclusions that older people cannot get gender right.2. Though still more the exception than the rule, I get correctly gendered by people of all ages and essentially 100% of the time by those employed in customer service.3. Many of you have already updated your thinking.
Nevertheless, I still have ample occasion to cringe when, even as strangers increasingly address me as feminine, some of my closest associates and family—sometimes in the same conversation—continue to refer to me as he, him, etc, almost as if it were their job to correct the person who got it right. I don’t necessarily assume that this is an intentional thought, but the confusion on the part of the person who just met me is instantly apparent.
I’m tired of making allowances for intention. Maybe you didn’t intend to call me “him.” The larger, more salient fact, is that intention has nothing to do with how you speak to me or about me—intention implies both effort and ownership—and that fact in and of itself hurts like hell, especially years down the road with no apparent end in sight. And, if you really do just accidentantally slip up in a moment of distraction, apologize, for fuck’s sake, and start acting like the problem is yours, not mine. It is.
Perhaps you find yourself thinking, “It is hard to remember what so-and-so, wants to be called now.” And so it is. This is because you are quitting after the word “hard”, ignoring the words “want” and “now”, and what they imply—that you still think you know who I really am, whereas I am deluded on that point. Read that last sentence again, and understand that I, and most trans folk, hear the message loud and clear.
I wish I could tell you what it feels like. The closest I can get is another story:
Imagine you meet a childhood friend and have a lovely conversation, reminiscing about old times. As they leave, they call you the name of another of your old playmates, and it dawns on you that they genuinely thought that’s who you were. Your companion remembers a moment of shared experience, but the fact that they have forgotten who you are in the story leaves you feeling a little empty.
Multiply by 70 and repeat 10x daily. Or, better yet, recognize the limits of your ability to make casual inferences about who people are, and listen instead to what they tell you.