Today, at the food carts where I go to buy lunch, I was called ‘miss’ for the first time in at least two weeks. With my slowly changing appearance, I thought I was finally starting to get past this. I had been noticing how the cart workers would refer to people before and after me as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am/miss’, and avoid using either for me. I also employ a strategy of being clearly aware of when it’s my turn so no one has to call for my attention. But today, I got a ‘hello, miss’.
Now, this might not seem like a big deal, after all, the cart workers don’t know me, and don’t have the power to tell me who I am – no one has that power. The truth is, though, that this kind of misgendering really gets in my head. I had been feeling really good. I had been beginning to think that maybe I was getting close to the time when strangers would start getting my pronouns right, and I was gaining confidence and a sense of ease from this dream. When I’m not worried about how I am being perceived, I feel free to be my whole self. When someone misgenders me, I get sucked right back into that worry. I feel my world contract, as I unintentionally try to squeeze myself back into the wrong gender box in order to match others’ perceptions – a familiar feeling, as I have been doing it my whole life, even if I didn’t realize it for a long time. It is hard to break out of this small space again, and takes time.
It has now been a couple of hours since I got lunch, and though I had all but forgotten the incident, I just realized that I am feeling more anxious, and that some of the confidence I had spent energy building for the day, a day when I have to brace for a lot of encounters with new people in particular, has slipped away. It is hard to get back to the headspace where I’m not worried about how I am perceived – I can’t just flip a switch.
A good chunk of the pain of being misgendered comes in the moment after an incident, when I don’t correct the person who misgendered me. I often have these internal debates, like today with the cart worker: Is it worth it to make myself vulnerable to this stranger and draw attention to my gender weirdness? How well do I know this person and what interactions do I anticipate in the future? What if this person doesn’t care? This person probably has more important things to worry about than my, a stranger’s, gender.
Often, I choose not to correct, a choice which is usually more rooted in shame, and comes from lifelong training in accommodating others’ feelings and comfort before my own. I choose to carry a mountain of extended discomfort to protect a stranger or an acquaintance from a momentary molehill of discomfort, to shield us both from an awkward moment. When I describe it this way, it seems absurd that I would ever choose not to correct someone, given the personal cost, but usually, I am not feeling confident enough in myself to put myself out there like that, correcting someone.
Truthfully, I am struggling with internalized transphobia: Who do I think I am to challenge strangers’ perceptions of my gender? They perceive me as female, what did I expect? Who am I to make my weird, liberal, gender ‘decision’/lifestyle someone else’s problem? Some part of me believes I deserve this pain, even if intellectually I know that I do not. I know that my gender was not a decision for me, but simply a reality, and even if it were a choice, there is nothing wrong with me, and I deserve respect. I am human, and this is who I am. I am working on making different choices in these moments, but it’s scary, and exhausting, and I already feel vulnerable.
In my case, I still have a lot to be grateful for. I am grateful that this misgendering is temporary for me, because for some, it’s a lifelong struggle. I am grateful that my choice not to speak up for myself isn’t one made out of a fear for my physical safety, that it *is* a choice at all for me. I am grateful for all of the incredible, supportive people in my life, who get my pronouns right and hold that space for my whole self. I am grateful to be able to honor my whole self in this way, to be able to make the space to break out of default assumptions I’ve made about myself into a place where I can be more fully who I actually am. I am grateful for this journey.
For anyone out there with a trans* person in your life whose pronouns don’t match your initial perception of their gender or how you’ve known them up until recently, please make an extra effort to get it right. It can mean a lot more than you might think. (In case you’re wondering, please refer to me using he, him, his!)
Many thanks for reading, and more thanks for your empathy.