This past weekend, one of my roommates threw a pool party for members of the group she runs. I’m a member of the group as well, and I sort of know most of the people who attended, and would even consider some of them to be friends. I was wearing a lovely one piece swimsuit with a skirt attachment (pictured below), and yet, it seemed like everyone who was previously good with referring to me as a woman was suddenly referring to me as a guy. Others made a conscious effort to refer to me via any form of gender identification at all. These are people who have never known me as anything but Caitlin, based entirely on the knowledge that I’m trans and how I look.
Now, these were all slips, and I was able to recognize them as such, but there was one point that it got really hurtful. One of the other girls, who I consider a friend, asked me to help unclasp her bra so she could get changed into her swimsuit. I agreed, and as I began unfastening the hooks, she said “Thank you, Sir. Ma’am. Whatever you are.” She immediately apologized, then apologized again a minute or two later, but I don’t think she understood what part she needed to apologize for. I understand that she caught herself in making a slip and made a move to correct herself, but in overcorrecting, she made it worse.
So today I write for you for you, my cis readers, to help you out when you fumble and stumble and call your trans friends and allies the wrong names or terms. Here are some basic points to keep in mind.
1. We can tell when someone uses the wrong name/pronoun/etc. as an accident or when they do it on purpose. There is a huge difference, and while the former can hurt, we understand. It takes time to adjust. Sometimes we stumble when talking to one another even. I have a close trans guy friend local that I knew before he had settled on his male name, and knew him only by his female name. I play X-Box with him sometimes, and his gamertag has his female name in it. So sometimes I slip, but I correct myself, and he understands.
2. When you do slip, consider where you are. Are you in public, in a setting where not everyone knows your friend is trans? Then it may be best to let it slide, apologizing in private later, rather than making a show of it and potentially outing us. If you’re in private, go ahead and correct yourself, maybe say sorry first, but otherwise let it slide. A simple “Sir, sorry, Ma’am” or “she, sorry, he” will do. Either way, don’t make a huge deal of it. The friend who did the “Sir. Ma’am. Whatever you are.” let herself get so flustered and embarrassed by her slip that she ended up making it worse, inadvertently insulting me with a comment that is dehumanizing. Which leads to…
3. Anything other than a quick correction can make matters worse. Maybe you inadvertently out us to someone else if we’re in public. Maybe you fumble and in your embarrassment say something worse, such as the “whatever you are” comment.
4. If you stumble, don’t try to go the opposite direction and stop using pronouns altogether. It’s suspicious, and not only will we catch it, but eventually, so will everyone else. If you’re taking the effort to use no pronouns, you could easily use that same effort to use the right ones. It doesn’t get easier without use, but will get easier over time.
5. When in doubt, especially when not knowing what type of trans the person is, use the pronouns and terms associated with the gender we’re presenting as, and failing that, ask us. I wouldn’t even know what term to use in reference to Sir/Ma’am to refer to my genderqueer associate, and I will have to ask hir when the issue comes up. If you know a person is transsexual, chances are they want you to refer to them in the way they identify at all times unless they tell you otherwise (such as if they’re in the closet somewhere), but a crossdresser will generally go by the how they present rule.
Since it relates to this, I’ll share a story. A few months back, I was at a local convention, and there was a trans cruise (a place for trans people to chat and mingle), and while there, I met a guy with a great way of explaining gender to others via the use of a teddy bear. He was the guy running the cruise, and after borrowing the teddy bear I happened to have been carrying with me that day, he demonstrated for all of us this argument, and it really fits. I’ll try to sum it up as best I can without the teddy bear on hand to demonstrate, so if he’s reading this, I apologize if I mess it up.
“When we look at a teddy bear that’s wearing a bow, we don’t question it. If there’s a bow around the neck, it’s a boy, and if a bow on the head, it’s a girl. We don’t look between the legs to see what’s there, we don’t tear it open to see if it has girl stuffing or boy stuffing. We take the teddy bear as he or she presents to us, as a boy or girl respectively. No matter how we view their bodies, we view them as they present. If people could do this with other people, there would be a lot less discrimination.”
So yeah. Cis people, I understand that you have views ingrained in you by society how a person should look as a man or a woman. We have that same programming. But we can work past that, albeit sometimes stumbling, and all we really ask from you is to make the same effort. Respect and equal treatment. Is that so much to ask for?
Keep in mind, I’m not posting this here to harass or vent or anything, I’m posting it to educate. There is no way to truly convey just how agonizing it is for a trans person to have to live as the wrong gender, and for those of us who transition, that period of initial transition is the most sensitive. We need all the support from friends we can get. We understand that you’ll mess up, we do it too sometimes. But don’t overcorrect yourself into making it worse and truly hurting our feelings. By posting this and putting my feelings into words, this is the best way to try and help give you a picture.
How about you readers? Any other advice for our cis friends? Stories you care to share of slips made worse by attempts to correct?