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Culture

What It’s Like to Be Constantly Misgendered

| 04/30/2021

Illustration by Kanioko

As a transmasc non-binary person, my life is now a constant experience of misgendering. It’s the same for many trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. Although the world may seem more aware and accepting than in the past, on a day-to-day level, society is nowhere near as informed and comfortable with alternative gender presentations as you might think. Toilet signs and online forms put you in boxes that feel unnecessary and limited. People forget your pronouns, straight-up refuse to use them, or worse, harass or attack you. To be gender non-conforming is to be constantly “other,” to be forever coming out, whether you want to or not. The world is not yet constructed to accept and support us, and it hurts. More than most of us let on. 

Here are some reflections on my own personal experiences, with the hope that people can learn a little of what it’s like, and maybe become better allies in future.

On Friends

For me, my friends are my chosen family, a progressive little bubble with queer and non-queer people who already knew about trans and non-binary identities when I came out to them. In this I was incredibly lucky, considering that many people have to explain their gender non-conformity at the same time as coming out. They accepted me right away, asked polite questions about my pronouns (he/they), and offered support in any way I needed it. Problems arose almost instantly, however, when those pronouns were put into practice. They just didn’t stick for some people who were so used to calling me “she.” Each time someone got it wrong I would politely stop them, point it out, accept their apology, and we’d move on. Only for them to get it wrong again in the next sentence. 

As the person with the new pronouns, you very soon start to feel self-conscious. Not only because you’re getting used to your new identity yourself, but also because you feel like you’re derailing every conversation to correct people. I could see the frustration mounting – people becoming frustrated with themselves for getting it wrong, overly apologizing, looking awkward and ashamed. The focus of discomfort quickly shifted from me, the person being misgendered, to the person who is finding a new word difficult to adopt. 

I have had to remind myself that other people’s grammatical discomfort is, quite frankly, not as important as my sense of self and emotional wellbeing. So I keep reminding people, even though it’s awkward. And still, the misgendering continues. After a certain point with some people, it’s hard to feel they’re putting any effort in at all. They may well not be. If I get angry, however, I will become the difficult friend, and may even lose them. Like so many trans people, I have learned to grit my teeth and remain polite, encouraging, almost apologetic when I correct people. 

We hide ourselves every day from the people who are supposed to love us most. 

To be constantly misgendered is to be constantly putting on a brave face, pretending it doesn’t hurt, just so you don’t drive people away. It’s hard, and slightly soul-destroying. But it can be avoided if those who love us try just that little bit harder to get it right.

On Family

As with so many others, I am not out to my real family. I don’t know if I ever will be. Trans people often have to contend with a general lack of awareness, repulsion, or family members who are actively hostile towards trans people. I was able to come out to one of my brothers, but he refused to explain it to his in-laws, because they “just wouldn’t get it.” I started to broach the subject with my father by first asking him to stop using my deadname, but he reacted angrily, shouting that he’d call me what he liked. So, I gave up. Now, every time I talk to my family, I have to be someone else, a dead version of myself. Every time I hear the word “her,” I feel sick, wrong, unloved. I feel so much for the trans people that have to do this to protect themselves from disownment, or worse, violence. 

We hide ourselves every day from the people who are supposed to love us most. 

I am getting a civil partnership with my (cis) partner soon. His family is even more conservative than mine, so we definitely haven’t told them about my new gender, although eventually my appearance is likely to raise some questions as I present as more and more masculine every day. For the civil partnership, though, I am going to have to go through the ceremony as a woman, just to stay in the closet. They keep asking us why we don’t want a bigger event, a wedding, a massive party with a dress and a cake and me as a bride. I don’t feel OK coming out to them, so my civil partnership is going to be an act; I am going to play a part to satisfy at least some of their expectations. My partner and I will know the truth, and that will have to be enough. Trans people make constant compromises for our safety and wellbeing, sometimes performing cis-ness even when it hurts.

At Work

I put my pronouns on LinkedIn and in my email signature for my (non-sex related) career. Not many people do, but I decided that it was important to be to be out in my very cis industry, to push the needle, if only a little. At first it was positive – ex-colleagues reached out to congratulate me, while other trans people reached out and connected with me. But then I started working with new clients, and the problems started. Some people asked a million questions, to the point where my identity dominated conversations that really needed to be about the work. Others misgendered me in group emails, essentially teaching the rest of the team the wrong pronouns, requiring me to explain over and over. Then one client called me just before a group call and informed me that they simply refused to use my pronouns. That they “didn’t believe in them.” I had no time or opportunity to back out, as this person would be paying me at the end. So, I had to go along with it. For the first time, I realized that my identity was affecting my financial situation. Who else was avoiding working with me because they didn’t “believe” in my identity? Could I afford to lose this work? 

Trans people’s lives are so often ruled by our identity and presentation. 

We risk losing safety, security, comfort, friends, family, just for being ourselves. We pretend it’s OK to be misgendered when in reality it isn’t. We understand that mistakes happen; it’s OK to get it wrong, but we can tell when someone cares or not. A little acceptance and effort go a long way, leading to a better world where everyone’s identity is respected, and where we feel loved, seen, secure. Just the same as everyone else.

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