Michail Takach
Out Look

Who Have You Misgendered Today?

Carefully navigating the thin line between courtesy and cruelty

By - Oct 27th, 2016 12:47 pm
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Are they a boy or a girl They are a person.

Are they a boy or a girl They are a person.

For 15 years, Kristina had been sharing the magic of Racine kringle with her out-of-state in-laws. Recently, she visited her favorite bakery to stock up for an upcoming visit. But, as she approached the cashier, she was greeted with an unsettling message.

“Right over here, sir.”

Kristina thought to herself, “sir?”

“It’s ma’am, actually,” she corrected the cashier.

“Oh, I was talking to someone who just left,” said the cashier. “You know,” she said to a male customer, “maybe I saw you before I saw (points to Kristina) him.”

Him? What in the world?

Kristina pleaded, “Look, you really need to stop disrespecting me. It’s rude.”

The cashier said with a firm smile, “Sorry sir, I don’t mean to be rude.”

With that, Kristina broke down and fled the store.

Later, Kristina called the bakery and requested a meeting with management. At the meeting, the store manager was initially sympathetic, offering smiles, nods and supportive language. Kristina explained how the situation had upset her, and asked what could be done to prevent this experience from happening again. Coaching? Training? Corrective action?

“The problem is,” said the manager coldly, “you have no proof of this ever happening.”

The conversation came to a screeching halt. Kristina had heard these exact same words so many times before. She knew what they meant. This meeting was over, and her case had been dismissed. And she never heard from the bakery again.

Imagine this experience happening to any woman in your life. Being called “sir,” over and over, would be offensive enough. How about management denying the encounter ever happened – and putting the burden of proof on you?

Unthinkable, right?

Transgender Pride Flag

Transgender Pride Flag

Not so unthinkable for Kristina, a trans woman celebrating five years of living full-time as herself. Not so unthinkable for Wisconsin’s transgender men and women, who have to navigate and negotiate disconfirming messages every day. Whether it’s accidental or intentional, whether it comes from a total stranger or a close friend, misgendering is always hurtful on some level.

So where does misgendering come from?  Unfortunately, there’s a very thin line between courtesy and cruelty in public places, and even the most positive intentions can cause the most negative impact.

Believe it or not, you’ve probably misgendered someone this week and didn’t even realize it. Greeting adults with gender-based honorifics like “sir,” “ma’am,” “mister” and “miss” was once a sign of manners, courtesy and respect. But these honorary titles only work in a binary world where only two gender options exist: male or female. For years, society assumed that everyone fits neatly into one or the other category and can comfortably choose either/or.

Whether you’ve noticed or not, we no longer live in that world. We live in a time when gender expression is more fluid, diverse and queer than ever. As our understanding of the gender identity spectrum widens, addressing people by our limited knowledge of their gender just seems uncomfortable. After all, when you assume someone’s gender, you add an uncomfortable question mark that lingers over the entire conversation.

How about simply asking for — and using – someone’s name? Gender-neutral language also goes a long way. For example, the singular “they” has been used since the 14th century, and style guides and dictionaries validated its expanded usage earlier this year.

Trans people are often criticized for “choosing” a gender and selecting “preferred” pronouns. But let’s be clear: gender is not chosen and pronouns are mandatory. You’re not “accommodating” a transgender person when you address them by their gender identity. You’re merely acknowledging the person they are. It’s a basic human courtesy – and it’s not optional. When someone tells you who they are, believe them.

Regrettably, trans people don’t always receive the basic courtesies they rightfully deserve. In 2015, I was part of a team that expanded PrideFest Milwaukee’s inclusive restroom policy – in place since the move to Henry W. Maier Festival Park in 1996 – to include gender-neutral restrooms for those who didn’t identify with male or female gender signage. We had always encouraged guests to use the restroom of their choice, with none of the policing that occurs at other festivals, and we’d never had any security issues. We had heard complaints that cisgender guests did not respect the inclusive policy, so we amplified our harassment policy messaging. We also recognized that non-binary guests did not feel supported, so we obtained approval from venue, community and civic leaders to create a third restroom option.

At the end of this meeting, I remember one of the participants turning to me, and saying, “This is your issue, not ours. We don’t need gender neutral bathrooms.” My response? “You will.”

Since that time, over 30 bills been introduced to restrict trans restroom access in sixteen states – including Wisconsin. All but two of these state bills were ultimately defeated, but the sinister sentiment continues to simmer. Fortunately, students in multiple cities are fighting back by suing their school districts for discriminatory policies. I’ve been inspired by Ash Whitaker of Kenosha, our PrideFest 2016 Valor Award winner, who won his lawsuit in U.S. District Court on September 20 before even graduating high school. We need more Ash Whitakers in this world.

However, some of the nation’s top LGBTQ activists recently recommended revising the fight for civil rights to exclude public accommodations, avoiding the “bathroom bill” fights to focus on housing and employment issues. These attempts to divide and conquer the LGBTQ acronym won’t stand – mainly because what threatens one of us absolutely threatens us all.

Recently, several states have sought to expand legalized discrimination through “religious right to refuse service” laws based on a pretense of religious objection. LGBTQ people are currently second-class citizens in North Carolina and Mississippi with no legal protections against discrimination. If anything, discriminatory behavior against LGBTQ people is more protected in these states than LGBTQ people themselves.

Make no mistake: simmering beneath this dark and dehumanizing legislation is a cruel conviction that LGBTQ people aren’t “normal” and don’t need to be tolerated or accepted. No matter how many dollars these states are losing through boycotts, cancellations and exits, state leaders claim to be taking a moral stance on behalf of their citizens. The message is chillingly clear: only socially acceptable citizens matter.

Where does this path lead us, exactly? I fall back on the cautionary words of Margaret Atwood, who said “Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.”

Silence is approval. When we allow micro aggressions (like misgendering) to happen, the aggression will just continue to escalate. Cruelty has gone viral this election year, leaving families divided and friendships destroyed by a harsh political incorrectness unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. Have you been shocked by what you’ve seen in your social networks this fall? Imagine being a LGBTQ person whose friends and families are supporting a candidate whose presidency would reduce your civil rights. How would you feel? Shocked? Betrayed? Angry?

Kristina felt all of these emotions that day in Racine. After 19 years as a performer, volunteer and advocate in the LGBTQ community, this was a real wake-up call – and cause for community concern.

“I would hope the cashier has taken some time to think about her actions and words,” she said. “I’m strong enough now to brush it off. What if I wasn’t? What if I was just beginning my transition and was struggling with family rejection or emotional abuse?”

“I would ask her, how would she have felt if I’d ended my life that night because her words were the breaking point?”

That’s a fair question for us all.

Words matter. Choose yours carefully.

Categories: Out Look, Politics

28 thoughts on “Out Look: Who Have You Misgendered Today?”

  1. Doug Giffin says:

    Excellent and timely article!

  2. AG says:

    Well, here’s something both sides agree on: “gender is not chosen”

  3. PMD says:

    Well that’s unfortunate and awful. Never read anything like that here before. For shame.

  4. AG says:

    No way did an actual UrbanMilwaukee reader wrote that… right?

  5. WashCoRepub says:

    We don’t need that sort of disgusting comment around here. This is a great site and hopefully it can stay that way for awhile.

  6. Jason says:

    At my grocery job today, I bumped into a coworker that happened to be female. She was clearly frustrated and stated that she didn’t like being manhandled like that. I told her that I though that term was offensive. A customer waiting for her pastries also thought it was offensive. I must admit I started laughing in front of them both…..

  7. Dave Reid says:

    I’m glad to know we have wonderful readers that won’t stand for comments like the one recently posted. I’ve removed it.

  8. Jason says:

    Thank you.

  9. Kristin St James says:

    Wonderfully written and very thought provoking, bravo!!!

  10. Mama says:

    The author states that terms like “ma’am, mister and miss” used to be terms of respect, but no longer work if we want to be gender inclusive. Which I get. But what about those of us parents who are trying desperately to raise well mannered children in an increasingly ill mannered society. The author offers no alternative words to call someone when we need to get their attention but don’t know their name – and aren’t in a situation where you can simply ask (like when you’re in a crowd or when the person is far away or moving fast).

    “Hey Person” is respectful and inclusive of gender, but too vague to catch the attention of a specific person. Yet “Hey grey shirt!” or “You! Yea you!” is just as rude and grating on the nerves as calling someone by the wrong gender. Are we to sacrifice good manners for the sake of gender inclusion?

  11. AG says:

    I readily admit I don’t understand the perspective of a transgender person. To me, we do indeed live in a “binary” society of men and women… because we almost all have an XX or XY chromosome pair. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be tolerant, loving, and respectful to all our fellow human beings. As far as I’m concerned, what others do and how they live their life is none of my business as long as it doesn’t affect others (or me).

    The cashier and the deleted commentor are examples of people being a#$holes… and that is offensive and full of real hate. But if someone accidentally calls you sir or ma’am… it’s just a mistake, not a “microagrression.” As soon as you start legislating things to try to change society you start to step into a grey area. It definitely depends on what topic we’re discussing, and this article does a good job of mashing a lot of unrelated topics together, but at some point you stop talking tolerance and you start forcing your ideas on others.

    So parts of this article I agree with whole heatedly, other parts I vehemently disagree, but other parts I just plain do not understand.

  12. PMD says:

    I know transgender people. They aren’t offended when someone makes an honest mistake. They are pretty used to it and don’t consider it a microaggression. Also I don’t find it hard to understand at all, and I’m sure actually knowing transgender people helps. Human beings are complex organisms. It’s not surprising that with 7 billion people on the planet gender and sexuality are not a simple A or B.

  13. Jessica Baker says:

    “…When we allow micro aggressions (like misgendering) to happen, the aggression will just continue to escalate…”

    I appreciate the article but this line really bothers me. This isn’t a micro aggression. This is dehumanizing which is the first step down the path of sexism.

    The term’s ma’am and sir are outdated concepts and don’t imply any real respect they are just habitual social pleasantries that are meaningless in today’s world . They should be dropped.

    You don’t need them to get someones attention. ‘Hi’, “Can I help you”, “Your’re welcome”, none of these need ‘ma’am/ or ‘sir’.

    Going for the golden ring “How do you identify” may be far too difficult for a cishet normative world at this time, but if this basic form of respect isn’t turned around now that will never happen.

  14. Jessica Baker says:

    AG: “… because we almost all have an XX or XY chromosome pair…” If that were true the Olympic committee wouldn’t have dropped chromosome testing to determine gender after the Atlanta Games ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_verification_in_sports )

    Just as the number of gay and lesbians surprised a cishet culture when the movement began, so too does the number of people that don’t consider themselves male or female and quite frankly they are tired of having to still be invisible while the rest of the LGB and straight community seems to write off the issue as ‘trival’ because change is inconvenient.

  15. mbradleyc says:

    You know, I can’t be bothered with this. Either you are a man or you are a woman. What does it matter? It’s a physical reality. The rest is BS. I don’t care if that offends someone. Some people are looking to be offended. Have at it.

    You are what nature made you. Live with it. No amount of psychological gyromantics or physical mutilation will ever factually change you.

    Again, what does it matter? Be whatever you want, just face reality. Don’t lie to yourself. No one will believe you anyway.


  16. PMD says:

    You say you don’t care and it doesn’t matter, yet you took the time to post. So it does matter to you, and you seem pretty worked up about it (as well as completely ignorant). Try talking to a transgender person. You could use a little education as you seem clueless about this.

  17. Ashlii says:

    It’s refreshing to see an article advocate for the trans perspective in Milwaukee, and at the same time, discouraging to see people pull out the old “I’m not ______, some of my best friends are _____” excuses. The article isn’t about honest mistakes; it’s about someone deliberately offending someone with a “I know you’re trans and I’m not going to let you forget I know” cruelness, even after being asked to stop. Let’s not minimize the point here. The point is that cruelty tests the waters with so-called honest mistakes until they can get away with more direct forms of hatred. This article does a good job of creating that sense of “what the f*ck?” that trans people feel when someone misgenders them. It’s not in the intention, but the effect, that aggression is felt. If you can’t accept that, you have most likely never experienced it. Finally, there’s a comment here that the writer offers no alternatives but gendered greetings, but that’s just not true. The recommendation to ask for someone’s name, and use their NAME, is perhaps the greatest courtesy of all. I’d rather be called by my name any day than stumble through someone’s intrepretation of my gender. And I’ve been an out trans woman since 1997.

  18. J.R. says:

    “Either you are a man or you are a woman.” – mbradleyc

    Yeah, that’s what they teach in bible study … and the folks in attendance? Well, they believe the bible is the inerrant word of an invisible he-man in the sky.



  19. AG says:

    The author actually has 4 paragraphs, and multiple others comments, dedicated specifically addressing mistakes in identifying and addressing gender. Starting with, “So where does misgendering come from?” and ending right before the paragraph that begins to discuss choosing gender and preferred pronouns.

    Regarding addressing someone by name, most cases when you’d say “sir” or “ma’am” it is not practical to first ask for someone’s name. Nor is it generally appropriate in some situations. I agree, I haven’t seen a good alternative. And feeling “aggression” because someone guessed your preferred gender doesn’t mean there is any actual aggression, it’s your own perception which can only controlled by the one perceiving it. You can not project your own emotions and understanding of the world around you onto others as if it’s fact.

  20. AG says:

    mbradleyc’s comment was indeed too black and white because, as pointed out, you have some genetic/hormonal/etc disorders which cause an outliar, which is why I earlier tried to phase it as “almost all” in my comments earlier.

    What percentage of transgender people have a condition of that nature vs the percent who feel/believe they’re the opposite of their biological sex?

  21. Jessica Baker says:

    AG: Who knows? I asked my doctor for a chromosome test. Her response was ‘Why?’ There is no medical rational for giving chromosome tests so insurance companies won’t pay for it.

    It is a total assumption that chromosomal differences are outliers as no one really knows. Hardly anyone gets tested for chromosomes. But beyond that science has proven that gender is in the mind not in the genitalia.

    It’s so easy for the rest of the world to take it for granted that their anatomy and their mind are in sync.

  22. Jason says:

    Anybody that wears a dress that I have customer contact with is called madam or mam with or with out a penis. I talked with my boss about it and she or he or pan has my back. Now , if a biological man is wearing a Hillary Clinton pant suit. I guess I’m just stuck with how may I help you?

  23. PMD says:

    Seems like it would be in the best interest of the store to limit your contact with customers as much as humanly possible.

  24. Penrod says:

    mbradleyc, it’s refreshing to see someone who hasn’t fallen for the bullying of the anti-science crowd.

    I’m all in favor of being polite to the mentally ill, but the Bullies of Tolerance seem to think that if only they bully others enough, people who are so severely mentally ill that they think themselves members of the opposite sex really will be such.

    For those who pretend to be scientifically minded, but actually are bullies, plain and simple, scientifically, two X chromosomes is female, and an X and a Y chromosome is male, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about that.

    No amount of cosmetic surgery and hormones are going to change a man into a women, nor a woman into a man. You can change the appearance, and if that mutilation and hormone treatment make that person happy, or even less unhappy, that’s wonderful. I’m all in favor of it.

    However, their actual sex will always be male or female, and it is the depths of anti-science to pretend otherwise.

    No matter how much you engage in sanctimonious bullying, including criminalization of speaking scientific truth, XX = XX and XY = XY.

  25. Ben says:

    Penrod, if you hold science in as high a regard as you say, you would know that medical literature is full of cases in which people are born with two Y chromosomes, two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome, only one X chromosome, and plenty of other combinations. If you’re claiming that sex chromosomes determine gender, then wouldn’t we need more than two genders in order to describe all sex chromosome combinations? Or, should we still just cram every person into two categories that are easy enough for you to understand?

    You also seem to be making the assertion that transgender people are mentally ill. Where is the proof of that? The link between sex chromosomes and mental health is very unclear, so saying your argument rests on science, or is against “anti-science,” is just a lie.

  26. M says:

    If anyone is interested in the complexity of “intersex,” a related issue that J.R. mentioned, I highly recommend the incredible novel “Middlesex.” Novels can sometimes illuminate beyond the powers of nonfiction.

    From Wikipedia: “Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides published in 2002. The book is a bestseller, with more than three million copies sold by May 2011. Its characters and events are loosely based on aspects of Eugenides’ life and observations of his Greek heritage. It is not an autobiography; unlike the protagonist, Eugenides is not intersex. The author decided to write Middlesex after he read the 1980 memoir Herculine Barbin and was dissatisfied with its discussion of intersex anatomy and emotions.”

  27. PMD says:

    Penrod you know nothing about science. Calling you hateful and ignorant isn’t “thuggery.” It’s just being truthful.

    -But the APA amended that classification four years ago. It’s now known as “gender dysphoria.” As Mother Jones put it, this change to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was intended to show that “being transgender is not a disease but a human variation—more like being left-handed than schizophrenic.”

    Continuing to treat transgender people as a suspect, afflicted population is the real threat to public health.
    The APA’s Jack Drescher further stated that the goal of the switch was to end the medical practice of pathologizing transgender people, simply because their existence made others “uncomfortable.”

    The APA declassification also reflects the evolution of how science is coming to understand trans identity. A 2008 research team from Prince Henry’s Institute of Medical Research argued that gender dysphoria is a product of biology — specifically development in the womb.



    -a new study published Tuesday in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry adds nuance to the topic, finding that the social rejection and violence that many transgender people experience appears to be the primary source of their mental distress, as opposed to the distress being solely the result of being transgender.

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