The best first step you can take toward true trans allyship—or frankly, just reducing the harm you’re doing to trans people—is to stop assuming gender. Ever.
The single biggest bummer I face on a day-to-day basis is moving through the world and being regularly misgendered. And the sad fact is, it is almost invariably by people who are otherwise being friendly or polite. At my go-to grocery store, I know the staff by name and they’re wonderful. But until very recently, I was aggressively (mis)gendered there more than perhaps anyplace I’ve been. I would walk in the door and get, “Hey—there he is! What’s up, guy?” From staff I interacted with less frequently, I’d get the dreaded, “Hi sir, what can I do for you today?” I went to another store today that I visit less frequently and, when I went to pay with my card, the cashier—looking at the name—said, “Is this your wife’s card?” (Not joking, unfortunately.) When I responded that it was most definitely my own card, they seem to have realized what they’d just done and—looking embarrassed—said, “Well that is one of my favorite names! I just love it!”
One of the realities of living in the 21st century United States of America is that we were born into and are steeped daily in patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism. And that means that we are trained from birth to see two noxious social constructs—race and gender—before anything else and make assumptions based on them. It is subconscious and instantaneous. And it takes constant, ongoing vigilance to try to overcome it.
“Okay… easy… Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay. I promise my gender won’t hurt you…”
One of the ways this manifests for many people is that, when faced with someone whose gender they can’t immediately, easily identify, they get what I call ‘explosive genderrhea’. It’s like their brain just starts spewing pronouns and other gendered words out their mouth, desperately trying to fit you into a familiar gender box. For me, this usually means I get, “Oh… uh… hey guy. What can I do for you, man? Oh yeah? Right on, brother! See you, dude!” I just want to say, “Okay… easy… Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay. I promise my gender won’t hurt you…”
I’ve been fortunate enough to work someplace where the rule is that we use gender-neutral pronouns for everyone until we know otherwise. So if we’re talking about a new client whose name is Bob, for example, we use they / them pronouns until we know Bob’s pronouns. I’ve adopted this as a rule now because… well, because that is reality. I don’t care what Bob looks like, what Bob sounds like, what Bob is wearing, etc.; I can’t know Bob’s gender or what Bob’s pronouns are until Bob tells me these things (if they choose to tell me these things). If that sounds outrageous to you, that is transphobia and it has very real, harmful consequences for trans folks like me.
When I objectively step back and look in the mirror, I can’t deny that I have many traits that our patriarchal, cis-heteronormative society has trained us to see as belonging to “men”. (I put that in quotes because it pertains to the very narrow, specific conception of masculinity and manhood that is privileged in our society.) So I know that for people who haven’t done the work to unlearn that oppressive acculturation, their default is going to be to misgender me. I don’t hate them for that because I know where it’s coming from. But that just means they have some work to do and they need to get on with it in order to do less harm in the world.
When I get dressed in the morning, I have much more complicated math to do than before I came out as trans. It used to be, “Is this going to be comfortable and appropriate for the occasion?” Now it is, “I’d love to wear this because it is most comfortable and I feel great in it… but maybe I’d better wear this instead—plus more makeup and accessories—in hopes of reducing the number of times I get misgendered today…” I’ve been late to things on more than one occasion trying to solve that story problem in the morning.
In closing, it is common to hear people talking about a person’s “preferred pronouns.” My pronouns aren’t a preference. They’re my pronouns. Saying ‘preferred‘ makes it sound like using them is optional—and it isn’t. It’s a simple matter of accuracy and respect.
Here is perhaps the best, most beautifully-written article I’ve found on this. Please take a few minutes to read it.
What You’re Really Saying When You Misgender – The Body Is Not An Apology
I.S. de Lis
Founder & Volunteer
Pronouns: she, her / they, them / ella en español
I.S. de Lis is a volunteer, community organizer, activist, writer, photographer, event producer and full-time student, with a double major in Sexuality, Gender & Queer Studies and Spanish. She is also the founder of Transcend.