By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist–
I recently received this question from an old friend of mine:
“I fear misgendering people that I don’t personally already know … like, at two stores within a year I fear I may have. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry! Do you have a gender preference?” so that I wouldn’t do it again, but I was afraid to.
What is the socially acceptable way to handle this? Do you just not use the gender pronouns until the individual reveals them to you, or is it appropriate to ask? I have asked people I came to know over multiple occasions, and that seemed to work out great.”
Despite having addressed similar issues many times in the past, I think it’s well worth repeating my answers to questions like this. Additionally, the friend who asked this is the parent of a trans child and particularly concerned with not just being a decent person and ally, but working to make the changes that will hopefully help this trans child not to have to deal so much with these things themselves, which is something I feel is well worth supporting.
To begin I would tell this friend, if you feel so unsure of what a person’s pronouns might be that you think you might misgender them, then by all means ask. Say exactly this: “Excuse me, but may I ask what pronouns do you use?”
Preferably, you should do this before misgendering a person. Definitely, you should do it if you feel like you may have done that already. It may feel awkward. But trust me, it’s far better for all concerned to deal with some momentary awkwardness, than it is to misgender someone. And, it’s definitely less painful than being misgendered, especially if it happens repeatedly!
Let’s say you have misgendered someone already and they have either corrected you, or you suspected the misgendering on your own, and then asked. The absolutely best thing to do in that case is to apologize, as briefly and sincerely as possible, then self-correct to use the person’s proper pronouns, and move on with your individual lives. Do not, I repeat, do not explain why you made the mistake and all the reasons you thought to use the wrong the pronouns, and all of the social and physical reasons these things happen, and how you are simply not that kind of person, because, because, because … and you are so, so, incredibly, awfully, sorry, really very sorry, the most actually sorry, etc., etc.
We know. We’ve heard it already. Repeatedly. And we’ve probably spent anywhere from several years to our entire lives thinking about all these things ourselves. Some of us, literally, write a regular advice column and do training sessions about it.
Often, the apologies, and the endless “mea culpas” can end up being more painful than the actual misgendering. So just, please, don’t do that.
Now, let me address some peripheral issues raised here. The first of which is to recommend that the person asking, and any of you fine folks reading this, might attempt to use more generally gender-neutral language in your day-to-day interactions. Particularly if you don’t already know the gender identity of the person you’re speaking to or even just referring to.
While, as a trans woman, I have some not entirely positive feelings towards my gender being neutralized, which I have discussed at more length in recent columns. I really believe it’s just best practice especially when there are increasingly so many more non-binary and gender non-conforming folks finding their own identities in recent years.
And honestly, it’s not that hard to do. Using ‘they’ and ‘them’ as singular pronouns is something you probably already do and encounter all the time, without even consciously realizing that you do so. You will notice for instance that I have managed to go this entire column without once directly identifying the gender of anyone except myself that I’ve been referring to.
Also, the words ‘folks’ and ‘y’all’ are so useful as to be simply blessings on the English language!! Service industry people I know use them all the time. And, if you are worried about showing proper politeness without using gendered honorifics like, ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, let your fears rest. This glorious language we share offers centuries and entire thesauruses worth of other ways to be polite. It just takes a tiny bit of creativity and intentionality.
Finally, and I’ve saved this for last because I really don’t like correcting people on semantic things when I know their intentions are easily determined as good and true. But the phrase, “Do you have a gender preference?” is generally not considered as best usage nowadays. This is because our gender is not a ‘preference.’ It’s not a choice we have made. Just like you, we consider our gender to be something that is simply innate to who and what we are. I have not chosen to be a woman. I simply am.
This is because our gender is not a ‘preference.’ It’s not a choice we have made. Just like you, we consider our gender to be something that is simply innate to who and what we are. I have not chosen to be a woman. I simply am.
That’s why in my corrections I recommended the phrase, “What pronouns do you use?” Instead of, “What pronouns do you prefer?”
That’s it. With a little intentionality, some decent observational skills, and perhaps just a dash of awkwardness, it’s possible to not only easily correct oneself after having misgendered someone, but to generally avoid misgendering anyone in the first place!
*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This column originally ran in the Mach 7, 2019 issue of The Rainbow Times.]