I went to the optician yesterday. It’s a new branch so I’m not known to the staff, and as I had a mask hiding most of my face I wasn’t too surprised to be misgendered on the basis of my voice.
I was going to trick you by saying “You’ll never guess what happened next! They sure chose the wrong day to mess with ME!” but if you know me, you’re not going to be fooled.
What happened next is pretty much what you’d expect from me. I had a quick, friendly, quiet word with the person I’d heard misgendering me. I told her that it was no big deal, but with the whole being-a-woman thing I’d prefer it if she could use female pronouns.
You’ll never guess what happened next!
What happened next is pretty much what you’d expect too. She said oops, she said of course, I said really it isn’t a big deal, I said it’s just a bit embarrassing, I said I get it a lot because of my voice, and we chatted about other things that were much more interesting. Half an hour later she and a colleague were providing extremely opinionated and often very funny commentary on the various pairs of glasses I was trying on. It was a lot of fun, and there was a lot of laughter.
Unless it’s intentional, misgendering is no big deal. It happens all the time, often many times a day. Sometimes it gets me down – it’s particularly horrible when it happens on air – but I know that it’s almost always unintentional. People are busy and thinking about other things and tend to work on autopilot. As I’ve written before a lot of the cues we rely on aren’t so clear if you’re not presenting as stereotypically feminine, if you are but half your face is behind a mask, or if you’re just a voice on a telephone.
And we all have moments when our brain just goes blehhhhhhh and something flops out of our mouths. Last week I tried to thank a helpful guy in a hi-vis vest who gave me directions; torn between saying “cheers” and “thanks” I said “chanks”. I immediately went bright red, hit the window button and drove away in a state of extreme embarrassment, my kids giggling gleefully because they had a new in-joke to torment me with.
So when misgendering happens it’s no different from someone who hears my name as “Karen” or “Kerry” instead of “Carrie” because of the Irish in my accent, or if they get it wrong because like me they’re absolutely hopeless at remembering people’s names. It’s a tiny, honest mistake that’s the product of, y’know, growing up in a culture with a binary system of gender classification based on observing a handful of biological markers and stereotypes that doesn’t take into account the beautiful variety of human brains and bodies and identity and expression.
Yeah, that old thing.
I’m going for comic effect here but there’s still a sensible point in there. If you’ve ever worked in customer service or any kind of customer-facing role (and I have, so this applies to me too) you’ll have had it drummed into you that you call your male customers sir and your female customers madam (and the more difficult the customer, the more important that becomes: for example, the returns desk at M&S is one of the politest places on earth, at least on the till side of the desk). It becomes an ingrained habit: if you hear a male voice, you call him sir as a mark of respect. And that works really well unless the voice’s owner isn’t a him and she really would prefer it if you didn’t call her sir.
It’s going to take a long time before that’ll change, and in the meantime misgendering is a kind of ambient noise: it’s always there for me, like traffic noise in a city, so most of the time I don’t notice it let alone comment or complain about it.
Sometimes it’s self-correcting, such as when someone I’ve known for a very long time exclaims “what a guy!” – a term used to indicate grateful thanks for doing something awesome – before immediately adding “Oh! Fuck! Sorry! I didn’t….” I find that kind of thing quite funny, and I just wish my friend didn’t feel bad for saying something that doesn’t bother me.
Whether or not misgendering bothers me isn’t really the decider for whether I’ll say something or not. It’s more practical than that. If it’s a company or service – a bank teller asking me if my account is really my account, an insurance agent questioning whether I’m really the policyholder, a receptionist asking if Carrie is going to join me in a moment – then I’ll correct the mistake because if I don’t, it’ll happen again.
It’s the same with people. If I’ve never seen the person before and won’t be spending another moment in their presence, it’s a waste of energy – theirs and mine.
It’s only if I think I’m going to be misgendered repeatedly by someone that I’ll usually say anything, and I don’t make a big deal of it. I’ll gently correct the error in exactly the same way I would if they kept calling me Kerry – and in the same way I’d expect them to correct me if it was me getting their name wrong.
I try to treat other people with kindness and consideration, and I would like them to do the same for me.