Q: I’m a tall, short-haired, tomboy-femme cisgender bisexual woman, and I’m often called “sir” by people in public who aren’t paying much attention. Usually immediately after the person actually looks at me and realizes I’m not a “sir,” and then it’s just awkward. I realize that there are a lot of people who must deal with this much more extremely than I do, but it still really bothers me and I never know how to respond. I feel like that shouldn’t have to pretend that I’m ok and it’s not a big deal when it feels like it is, and that it shouldn’t be my responsibility to make them feel more comfortable when they’re the ones who made me uncomfortable in the first place.
As someone who purposely has an androgynous style, why can’t I just let it roll off me? And do you think there’s a way to react that might make the situation a little less miserable for me?
Hello friend! First, I want to say that your feelings of frustration and uncertainty are totally valid and you are not alone! You absolutely do NOT have to pretend it’s OK, because being misgendered hurts.
That being said: we’re a long way as a society from people understanding, respecting, or even appropriately addressing folks like us, who challenge mainstream gender norms with our presentations — so if you desire to exist in public this is going to keep happening. The good news, though, is that both challenging misgendering and letting it slide get easier with time. I know that’s not very comforting, but it’s true! I have been misgendered almost every day for the last five years at least, and I’ve learned some things (as has staff writer AE Osworth, who I consulted with on this article), so here are some tips.
If you want to correct people when they misgender you, go for it! It’s worth it to consider these things in advance and in the moment:
- Do I know this person? Will I ever see them again? If no, consider whether it’s worth it! It’s very likely that a random waitress won’t actually learn anything about gender from being corrected by you, and it’ll just make the interaction more awkward.
- How might they react to your correction? Are they receptive to learning or will they just be upset that you’re challenging their worldview? If they are a member of queer community or otherwise seem receptive, maybe it’s worth it! If they seem like an aggro dudebro or something, they could react violently, which is definitely not what you want.
- What is your emotional capacity in the moment? If you have the strength to endure 294026 apologies or have a long conversation with a stranger about gender in the moment, then go for it. If you’re already tired of dealing with bullshit that day, then maybe don’t subject yourself to more bullshit by inviting the “conversation.”
I let misgendering slide 90% of the time with strangers because it just doesn’t feel worth it. I correct people I know 90% of the time, though, because if they care about me they will use the right name and pronouns for me, and if they persist in misgendering me I get data about how safe of a person they are to be around and act accordingly.
If you do decide to correct someone, usually it helps to be as quick and clear as you can and to embed it in the context of the conversation. It also helps to have something to do or say right after so y’all don’t have to sit there and wallow in the awkwardness.
Barista: What can I get for you, sir?
Me: Just a coffee for here, please! And I’m a woman, by the way.
Barista: OMG, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know, I-
Me: It’s no big deal! Here [hands them my card to pay so I can get out of there].
Letting It Slide
Letting it slide is usually what I do. It’s super hard! It’s delegitimizing and stressful and bothersome and it hurts. There are some ways you can prepare yourself to make it hurt less, though! Try these exercises:
- Pretend you are a superhero in disguise! It can help to breathe and say, “Well yes, I am a superspy and that is my role for today. I am in disguise as Sir Reginald Fooferaw/Agent Jane Yaxby, 0069” (or what have you). Remember to say this in your head, though, otherwise it might get weirder.
- Chat with someone immediately after who gets your gender! Make sure you have a strong friendship/chosen family support network to hold you down. Grabbing a phone and sending someone that upside down smiley face and telling them what happened can turn into a lovely, affirming conversation. You’ll forget that person who misgendered you quickly in the face of a dear friend, partner, or family member.
- Remember that it’s totally not personal and the vast majority of people were taught that there are two distinct sexes/genders, and that’s it, and people, especially in the service industries, are required and trained to make snap judgments based on gender stereotypes and are trying their best, most of the time, to be respectful. They genuinely don’t mean it most of the time and don’t even realize they’re doing anything hurtful! Sometimes it helps me to remind myself of that. Just sometimes, though.
In the end, the choice is always up to you. I guard my mental health and emotional capacity very carefully as I know that’s an issue for me, and generally speaking correcting folks takes more out of me than just letting it slide and dealing internally with being misgendered. For you, it might be the opposite — it’s really personal and it’ll have to be your decision. Good luck!