(ATTN: This is a rare post directed at cis people. Gee.)
It happens all the time. Mostly with cis people, but with some trans people too. Someone gets a pronoun wrong. Sometimes it’s a binary pronoun (that is, he or she) and sometimes it’s a non-binary pronoun, like they, zie, or ey. And guess what? If you get a pronoun wrong, even if it was an honest mistake, it is your fault. It is a big deal. It is an example of cissexism. It is an example of linguistic violence.
In fact, it is an example of your cissexism. Because you’re cissexist. The first step is admitting that you have a problem, and just like admitting that you’re an addict, it is hard to do. And just like admitting that you’re an addict, it is brave. And indispensable! Or you’ll hit your rock bottom, and that trans person you keep mispronouning? You will make them cry, or you trigger a panic attack for them, or the worst case scenario will happen, and you will lose them. I hope you value them enough to want these things not to happen.
I don’t care if you knew them before they came out. I don’t care if this is the first trans person you’ve ever encountered. I don’t care how long you knew them before they came out. I don’t care if you knew and loved them intimately as your son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, niece, nephew, brother, sister, grandaughter, grandson, pageant queen, best man, bridesmaid, courtesan, madam, maestro, personal wizard, midwife, or cigarette girl. That’s really important, but right now it isn’t relevant.
“But it’s not my fault!” I hear you cry. “I’m not cissexist! I’m just adjusting! I need time and practice!”
Well, you’re partly right. You need time and practice to learn how not to be cissexist!
We all have cissexism to work through. For trans people it’s internalized, but I think it’s easier for us to work through ours because cissexism hurts us. But it’s designed to make cis people’s lives easier and better, so for cis people it’s harder to get over. It’s just so much comfier to stay cissexist! Of course, one of the central tenets of cissexism is that cissexism doesn’t exist, so it’s even comfier to stay cissexist and pretend you aren’t.
A lot of cissexism is unconscious. So you can totally accept this trans person’s transition intellectually, politically, and every other way, but clearly, you still have some stuff to work on. If you value this trans person, you need to make that work a priority.
The reason you aren’t able to get this trans person’s pronouns right is that you haven’t worked through your cissexism. Maybe it’s that they don’t look like a cis man or a cis woman. Maybe they don’t sound like one. Maybe they don’t have conventional male or female interests. Maybe it’s that they’re non-binary, and you don’t know how to negotiate having someone in your life who isn’t a man or a woman at all.
I once had a long conversation with a highly educated cis man about pronouns. I know him to be absolutely brilliant. He was an official at a school. He told me that I had to understand, that the cis people (everyone else) at my school couldn’t get my pronouns right because I wasn’t “masculine” enough for them to associate male pronouns with me. As I do now, I dressed like a cute gay boy. As I do now, I gesticulated often and acknowledged the fact that I was capable of bending my wrists and hips. I talked openly about my interests in dance, poetry, and cute boys.
He acknowledged that this was fucked as hell, albeit in nicer language, because he was at least gender-positive enough to believe that men shouldn’t have to like football and beer and women shouldn’t have to like pink dresses and fluffy bunnies. But instead of attempting to educate these people–which he could have done, as he was in a position of extremely high authority–he asked me to accept their sexist, homophobic, and cissexist perspective on gender. I was the one who needed to change, not them, although he openly acknowledged that they were wrong. During this conversation, I was in tears, because I was having regular panic attacks during the school day. They were happening because of persistent and unapologetic mispronouning. (Keep in mind, I was a sixteen-year-old kid. Sixteen-year-olds are not known for their emotional maturity, and we shouldn’t ask them to be as mature as or more mature than adults.)
Why am I telling you about this guy? Because he’s one of the smartest people I know and he was completely unable to recognize and own his cissexism. Or, in more common terms: He refused to take responsibility for his actions.
This shouldn’t happen to anyone. (It especially shouldn’t happen to a kid, and it especially shouldn’t come from authority figures, and it should never be this pervasive a problem in a learning institution. But that’s another post altogether! And one I’ll someday make, I promise.) In this example, it was happening throughout an entire institution, but it’s most commonly a problem in basic personal relationships. Parent and child. Friends. Uncle and niece. Cousins. Romantic partners. Employees and bosses, or employees and clients.
When I came to college, an environment where cis people were actively questioning their privilege, this treatment decreased dramatically. It was not perfect, but there was an understanding that pronoun fuck ups were a big deal and sprung from a larger system of oppression. My panic attacks due to pronoun misuse stopped completely. I felt safe. My mental health took a dramatic turn for the better.
When I say that pronoun misuse is often unapologetic, I don’t mean that people don’t usually say, “I’m sorry.” They do. But you know what? “I’m sorry” is meaningless unless it actually means, “I will work not to do that again.” People said, “I’m sorry,” but they followed it up with, “I don’t mean to do it!” or “But I totally support you!” And then they did it again the next day. Or the next hour. Or the next sentence.
Yes, you meant to do it. And no, you don’t support me. If you didn’t mean to do it, you would do the work necessary not to do it. There are cis people who don’t do it. If you supported me, you would do that work.
You need to take responsibility for your actions. More concisely: own your shit. This is a basic tenet of life. This came up a lot in the preschool I used to teach in. Why haven’t you learned it yet?
If a cis person mispronouns me and tries to explain why it’s not their fault, I want to cry, and then I laugh in their face. As gently as I can, I tell them it is their fault and that it is not okay. I am upset with them, and I have the right to be. I am sometimes triggered by these encounters because of how unapologetically cissexist they are.
If a cis person mispronouns me, apologizes, knows it’s a big deal, and owns the fact that they fucked up and have cissexism to work through, I smile. I tell them that yeah, it’s a big deal, but it is not the end of the world, and we can still be friends. I mean it. I am rarely triggered by these encounters.
This matter of mispronouning brings up all kinds of questions about intentionality. I don’t want to unpack that concept here, because it is a huge one–and, not coincidentally, one I learned about from the teacher I told you about earlier in this post. What are your “intentions” and are they relevant here? If your true intention was to support my gender identity in every way you could, you would do the work necessary for you to use the correct pronouns. I know because I’ve had to do work to use correct pronouns for people in my life!
That’s right, I have mispronouned people. I will again. I’m still adjusting to using non-binary pronouns like zie and ey, but I’ll get there. (It’s one of my New Year’s resolutions.) I mispronouned someone on Twitter yesterday–although I think I deleted the tweet fast enough that no one saw.
The work we need to do to get pronouns right is different for everyone. For some of us it’s reading. For some of us it’s a couple long talks with a trans-positive person who’s comfortable educating us. (The “comfortable educating us” part is extremely important.) For some of us it is time–but it is unacceptable for it to be too much time.
It really is like addiction–if you get sober after ten years, that’s great. Congratulations! But after five years would have been better. And one year would have been better still. Personally, if someone misgenders me consistent, I cut off all contact after three months in which the behavior persists. This is a matter of my mental health, and I cannot afford to jeopardize that for you. Again, this is just what I do, and different things may work for others, but this works for me.
Do whatever work you need to do to. It may take a while to figure how what work that is, but hey. It’s important.
Recognize that you need to start this work now. Today. Immediately. Recognize that every day you go without doing this work, you are hurting the trans person in your life. Now do it.
Take responsibility. Behave like a grown-up. This is a way to be kind and compassionate. This is a way to keep a person from being in pain. This is a way to be one of the good guys. Do it.
Once you do, things will be better. You can never undo what you’ve done, but you can fix a lot of the damage you’ve created. For example, the guy I talked about earlier in in this blog is now a friend of mine. He did the work. Now, it isn’t perfect, because nothing is ever perfect, but it is totally ok. It will be for you if you do your work.