a blog by J.M. Cottle
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On misgendering

Sometimes when I’m in public, I play something I call the Gender Game. The game goes like this: When I see someone who strikes me as a man, I first try to imagine that they are actually a woman, then I try to imagine that they are a trans man, then I try to imagine that they are genderqueer, and using all of this information I try to determine what made me think of them as a man in the first place. I do the same thing, reversed, when I see someone who strikes me as a woman. When I see someone who doesn’t strike me as a man or a woman, I imagine them as one, then the other, then genderqueer.

This exercise is very easy with some people, and very difficult with others. And it’s not only easy with androgynous folks; certain overtly gendered qualities lend themselves to this optical illusion, such as wearing lots of makeup or having a big beard that could be fake.

I began playing this game because I wanted to figure out which specific qualities made people read me as a woman, but now it’s gone way beyond that. Now I’m thinking about how people construct their gender presentation in general, and it has me in a dilemma. As a genderless person who hates being misgendered all the time, how can I avoid misgendering others while still respecting the presentation they have constructed?

Option #1: Assume nothing

Imagine: Every single time you meet someone new, no matter who they are, what they look like, or how you met, you treat them as if you don’t know their gender — whether it seems obvious to you or not — until they tell you what their gender is.

Pros: You will never misgender anyone. You will get very good at the Gender Game. You will be questioning society always (this is a pro for me; you may disagree).

Cons: You ignore the hard work people put into their gender presentation. You will confuse others by using gender-neutral pronouns when it “seems obvious” which ones you “should” use. You will have to think about gender all the time.

As a genderless person, I feel self-centered doing this. Treat everyone as if they were exactly like me! Nice. It’s also very hard for me to do when I’m meeting someone whose presentation is so obviously male or female. Not only am I ignoring how carefully they have put together their gender appearance — and most people are careful about this, because even if they don’t care about looking good they still want to look like a woman or a man — I have to be constantly aware of gender. I have to actively avoid gendering every time I meet someone new. This is exhausting and also kind of depressing to me since I often get sick of thinking about gender.

Option #2: Assume everything

Imagine: When you meet someone, you probably make a snap judgement about their gender based on things you’ve been taught, so accept this judgement. If someone’s appearance doesn’t lend itself to an instant judgement, take your best guess. Go with this until proven otherwise.

Pros: You probably do this already, so it doesn’t take any effort. You will get it right with most people. You won’t have to be conscious of gender all the time.

Cons: You will be playing along with society’s gender rules (this is a con for me; you may disagree). You will misgender some people.

I don’t like this one because I don’t like being misgendered and I don’t like misgendering others. This is what prompted me to think about the problem in the first place.

Option #3: Ask

Imagine: Every single time you meet someone, no matter who they are, what they look like, or how you met, you ask them what their gender is — or, perhaps, what pronoun you should use for them, which doesn’t always correlate to gender but is useful to know.

Pros: You will never misgender anyone. You will raise awareness of people’s ingrained gender assumptions everywhere you go. You will make some people happy and grateful.

Cons: You will have to think about gender all the time. You will ignore the hard work people put into their gender presentations. You will make a lot of people offended and upset.

I’ve seen a lot of people in the genderqueer community who suggest that we should always ask about people’s genders and pronouns rather than risk misgendering them, but I’m not sure that even they do it all the time. Would they ask, for example, when they meet their boss for the first time? Their partner’s parents? Their lawyers or real estate agents or doctors other professionals? If they would, then they have a lot more courage than I do, because I can’t bring myself to offend the majority of people I meet.

And yes — I believe that most people will be offended or upset if you ask them what their gender is. Some will be happy and grateful and think that you are polite and kind for asking. Most won’t. Many who don’t know much about gender diversity would be offended because they think their presentation is obvious and that the question is intended to insult them, and many trans people would be upset because they hate having attention called to their gender. Even I hate being asked in certain contexts. I don’t always feel comfortable talking about my gender, and I’m definitely not yet comfortable enough to come out every time I meet someone new.

I may be wrong about this, though. Maybe most people wouldn’t mind being asked. I may try an experiment to find out.

Any suggestions?

This isn’t one of those posts that lays the answers out for you; I don’t have the answers. My general approach is a mixture of options 1 and 2. If someone’s presentation seems obvious to me, I go with that, but if it doesn’t seem obvious, I reserve judgement and treat them in a gender-neutral way until I have more information. And whenever I’m doing a bit of people-watching, I play the Gender Game.

What’s your approach? What do you prefer people do when meeting you? Do you care about being misgendered? Do you care about being asked?

4 Responses to On misgendering

  1. I play a similar Gender Game: I imagine everyone is a trans man/woman. It’s like counter-clocking…. It flips the “why can’t I pass” question on its head, because everyone can NOT “pass” if you look hard enough, even if they’re not trans!

    As for assuming gender, I’m practical. I assume others’ gender, with one exception. If the person appears to be gender non-conforming, I take that as a sign that they might be… gender non-conforming, so I will be more inclined to ask. I often wonder why people misgender me as a woman – there are NO outward signs of this, and I clearly go through great pains to NOT look like one, so why do people insist? I figure, if someone is gender non-conforming, it’s probably on purpose.

  2. I do a mix. In travelling I’ll get into a spot-the-trans-person mode and come up with a comfortable percentage of positives without being really critical.
    When I’m meeting people I’ve got in the habit of doing a binary scan, trying to see them first in one gender and then the other. After a while it becomes a habit I don’t need to put any effort into. I guess it’s something inbetween your first two options in that it puts a slight delay, for more precise recognition of gender,into the process.

  3. This is interesting! I get misgendered once in a while (the last time about three weeks ago when I was totally wearing girlish clothes) but usually I just find it amusing. People usually find it very embarassing which I find even funnier. :) So I don’t really care.
    Usually when I’m not sure I will try to ask someone who knows them (if that’s possible), also, like you, I will go for the gender they present themselves in.

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