There’s one aspect of life that is unique to gender non-conforming people, that gender conforming people don’t have to worry about, and that’s misgendering. Many people mistakenly believe that misgendering is something that only happens to trans people, but it can happen just as often to gender non-conforming cis (not trans) people.
Before I realised I was trans, my haircut was ‘short back and sides’ and I was wearing men’s section clothing. I had more issues then using women’s public toilets than I do now as a non-binary, post top-surgery trans person. Perhaps, in the intervening years, society has changed enough that people are less likely to react to a gender non-conforming person using the women’s toilets. Certainly trans visibility has massively increased over the past 4-5 years.
Nowadays, however, my biggest issue is not being kicked out of public bathrooms (although I still dread using them as I have to make a choice between using the men’s and the women’s every time) but being misgendered. My pronouns are they/them/theirs. I could write an essay about the history of these pronouns and how they have been used as singular pronouns for centuries, but there are many other articles about that already, and I don’t feel like justifying my pronoun usage on my personal blog.
The issue isn’t really people who know what pronouns I use, but people who don’t. Gender neutral pronouns are traditionally seen as impersonal and thus aren’t used much unless someone is intentionally being dismissive of the person to whom they are referring. Further, it’s not possible to know what pronouns a person uses simply by looking at their appearance. Finally, very few people outside of the queer and trans communities are aware of gender neutral pronoun usage. This creates a daily dilemma whereby I have to make the decision whether or not it is worthwhile correcting someone misgendering me based on my calculation of the number of possible future interactions combined with the meaningfulness of these interactions alongside consideration of the social situation in which the misgendering takes place.
Take this example: I’m in a coffee shop and the barista asks me “what can I get you ma’am” (or sir). I could correct this person by saying “actually I don’t use gendered terms so could you please not refer to me as ma’am” (or sir). However, the likelihood of me interacting with this person again in the future in some meaningful way that would make the effort of correcting their use of gendered language worthwhile is negligible. The social situation also doesn’t present an acceptable reason for such a correction – in this situation the barista is simply following their training and referring to me in a way that is generally socially accepted for purchase transactions in retail/food & drink industries. In these situations, I ignore the misgendering and order my coffee as usual.
Some people might argue “but the only way you will change society is by educating everyone you meet along the way”. Although I do not disagree with this sentiment, the reality is that constantly educating everyone that you meet is utterly exhausting. I already have to remind friends, colleagues and family members to use the correct pronouns for me. I have discussed in depth with my nearest and dearest the lack of gender-neutral terms to refer to people. If I added to this the educating of every single person who misgenders me throughout the day, I would only ever have conversations about gender. And there’s just a whole lot more to my life than being non-binary!
Other situations, I might respond to differently. Take, for example, a house party. If I’ve met someone at a party who interacts regularly with other people in my social circle, or it seems as though they might become part of my close or extended social circle, I will usually tell them my pronouns at some point in the conversation. It’s a difficult one because there’s no socially accepted way of doing this. “Hello, my name is Naomhán and I use they/them pronouns, how about you” is one way of doing it, but it can be quite daunting to do this with someone who, for all I know, might be transphobic.
This is why I prefer to interact in queer setting where questions such as “what pronouns do you use” are as common as “what is your name”. I have to admit that outside of queer circles I rely on my friends to correct newcomers when they misgender me. I encourage my friends to do so, and I have also found that it’s much easier to correct the misgendering of someone else than it is to correct the misgendering of myself. I don’t know why, but that’s how I feel about it.
The other issue that I have when meeting new people is the use of my name. I decided, when changing my name, to take a name as similar to my birth name as possible. Although this has been advantageous in many ways (people don’t question the discrepancy between my old and new names on various documents, thinking that some administrator simply misspelled my name), it also causes a lot of stress for me, as many people read my new name and pronounce it the same way as my old name. Sometimes, when I tell people my name, they ask me to spell it and then say “is that a variation of *birth name*”. It’s really distressing to have gone to all the effort of changing my name only to have my old name brought up again and again in conversation in reference to me. It cuts a little too close to the bone.
So take heed, if you are at the point of changing your name, picking a name similar to your birth name can mean that you may never escape it. Perhaps you won’t want to, but I have had to learn how to embrace the fact that my chosen name is a constant reminder of my birth name and all that goes with that (memories of self-loathing, depression, unhappiness and discomfort). It’s something worth considering before settling on a new name.