I didn’t seriously consider my opinions on gender identity until joining a campus feminist group that includes transwomen. Now that I’m taking a Women’s Studies class, in which I had to write a paper about a day of wearing “gender goggles,” it’s something I find myself thinking about more regularly.
I just started working at a coffee shop, and it’s customary to greet customers with “Hello, ma’am” or “What can I get started for you, sir?” Gender is assumed automatically, and I’d wager that 95% of the time, the assumptions are correct. But what about when they’re not?
At one point during my last shift, I had a customer with what I perceived as a male-looking face, who was wearing makeup, had waist-length hair, and a soft voice. I honestly didn’t know how to greet this customer when he or she walked through the door, except to just say “Hello.” Though part of my job is to make conversation, asking, “What pronouns do you use?” didn’t seem appropriate (and to be perfectly honest, it still feels like a weird question to ask, in any circumstance. Not until I started this class was I asked to share my preferred pronouns in addition to my name, major, and “Name one fun thing you did over winter break”).
In the world of customer service, calling someone “Ma’am” when she could still pass as a “Miss,” or an accidental misgendering, is embarrassing for everyone involved. It can result in the loss of a tip, or an angry customer vowing never to return again. It complicates matters even more when not all transgendered individuals want to transition, or can afford to do so.
As a young, cisgendered woman, I don’t personally know the struggle of being misgendered. I know the frustration of being treated like a teenager when I’m closer to thirty than eighteen, but it’s something I’ve come to expect, and develop a sense of humor about. In other words, I’ve accepted that some parts of my identity are a bit of a mystery, and strangers who make assumptions about my age do so with good intentions, for the most part. Should this same advice be given to those on the gender spectrum – that they need to have patience with strangers who misgender them because they generally don’t mean any harm?
I don’t want to sound callous toward those with a struggle I will never understand by telling them their frustration isn’t valid because “most people mean well,” though I’m not sure it’s possible for society to stop assuming in response to what we see. It must be incredibly invalidating to constantly be mistaken for someone you are not. There may not be anything we can do to stop making false assumptions, but maybe we can start changing the way we act on them.
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