On assumptions of gender identity

635970472602303679-1476304998_transI 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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2 thoughts on “On assumptions of gender identity

  1. Hi Beth, I appreciate that you’re thinking about this! As a nonbinary person, this is something I deal with all the time. On a good day, being called “ma’am” or “lady” is annoying and invalidating and on a bad day it triggers my dysphoria (either case is worse than mere embarrassment). I have tried to let it go and not let it bother me when people misgender me, because they mean no harm. But just because they didn’t mean harm doesn’t mean they didn’t cause any. I’ve found it much more constructive to deal with being misgendered by strangers by mentally telling myself, “that was wrong, I’m not a ___”, then let it go if I choose. If I choose to let it go (and I usually do with strangers), it’s because it’s not worth my time and energy, not because it makes life easier for the stranger.

    I’m a big advocate of never using gendered language to address strangers, especially things like “sir” or “ma’am” when they’re tacked onto the end of a sentence and not at all necessary to convey the point. And I think this is something that cis allies can be a huge help in. It’s a struggle to have to explain my gender or correct people for making assumptions and cis allies can do a lot of good by intentionally using gender neutral language, making the world a kinder place to not-cis and otherwise gender noncomforming people.

    If you’re interested in reading more, I really like this blog post by transmasculine blogger Jamie Ray (and read the comments too!): https://aboyandherdog.com/2016/01/05/butch-transgender-microaggressions/

    This post also has some good thoughts on gender neutral language in customer service: https://theyismypronoun.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/toward-a-gender-neutral-customer-service-experience-for-everyone/

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I remember right, in Turkish they say “Efendim”, regardless of gender, and their pronouns have no gender. Would such an approach, in your view, be useful to import into English? (Turkey, however, has issues with transphobia and homophobia, as well as übernationalism and misogyny. If your on Twitter I recommend following Elif Şafak: @Elif_Safak, I believe.)

      Liked by 1 person

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