If I’ve learned anything as I’ve gotten older, it’s that I need to shut the fuck up a lot more. While there are occasions where I have something worth contributing, frequently I just need to stop and listen to what others have to contribute. Whether it’s being better about not interrupting others or challenging myself to listen or be intellectually curious about topics which make me uncomfortable because they force me to examine the ways in which life has been good to me just because of who I am, I always want to improve how I communicate. I can always be a better person. Hopefully I’m a better person now than I was ten years ago, and I continue to challenge myself in that capacity ten years from now.
However, I’ve also learned I need to speak up more in the context of what matters, at times when I do have something to say. Because I can’t count on anyone to do it for me; because rights are not guaranteed; because it deserves to be challenged, even if no one is listening. It’s always important to speak when I’ve got something on my mind that deserves to be said, especially within the framework of my experiences as a trans woman. It’s just one experience and one voice, admittedly a pretty fortunate one and definitely not an authoritative one (nor should it be), but there are occasions I may be the only trans voice in a discussion that desperately needs it. I encountered such an occasion recently, when a friend shared something that has been floating around I wholly endorse and I thought I should share a few words after someone else left a couple comments that deserved to be challenged. As I interpreted his words, the crux of his argument centered around the fact that it was important to be able to discern other peoples’ gender in the sense of how to treat them. The example given involved honorifics and pronouns, which is a topic I already find tired. While my comments were admittedly pointed, I did not think they were excessive. I do not see discerning someone’s gender when I encounter them as an important determinant to showing them respecting, nor do I desire to live in a world devoid of gender. They are not mutually exclusive ideas to me. I am female, and my ability to express my femininity is important. I do like it when people recognize that. That does not mean I need every stranger I encounter to call me ma’am, though it’s certainly preferable to constantly being called sir.
The idea that anyone needs to be able to determine someone else’s gender is predicated on the assumption that gender is privileged information. Or that our outside interpretation of someone’s gender is more important than their personal experience with gender. If you need to know someone’s gender to know how to treat them, it doesn’t seem like much of a step to say that you are going to treat someone different based on that information. I don’t see why it matters in terms of how we interact with people in terms of just treating them with respect. Given how frequently people misgender trans and non-confirming individuals, it seems reasonable to say the assumptions people make regarding gender are for their own comfort, not for the individuals they interact with. I believe the way to avoid that is to not make those assumptions at all. I understand that runs contrary to how our minds work, organizing all the information we’re constantly taking in. But we can change how we process that information.
These thoughts mostly pertain to meeting strangers or individuals we have limited experience with, not people we have an established relationship with. None of this means gender doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. I never said gender doesn’t matter though in this instance I was accused of it. But in the context of treating fellow people with respect, it shouldn’t have any affect. If you treat someone differently based on how you interpret their gender, why? I know it has an effect, and I know there are reasons. Women speak differently around other women than they might when a man is present because of the dynamics of such differences. Women get interrupted by men, or have their basic competence questioned by men because men can do that; women can just as easily do those things (we have the ability) but there’s a different social gradient, and definitely a higher social cost due to the way we treat women in society. It doesn’t mean women shouldn’t speak up more; we should. It shouldn’t be a consideration anyone has to make, but it is. People speak in a freer manner in an environment they perceive as safe, and part of what makes an environment safe can be that gendered breakdown. So of course gender matters in how we interact with people. To say otherwise is a lie.
As I stated above though there’s a dynamic gendered interactions, a dynamic gets at the way we discriminate; that dynamic is power. One of the other points he made, the point that really angered me because it read as if he was wielding it to simultaneously ignore and invalidate what I said was that he understood the distress of being misgendered because it happened to him when he was younger due to his long hair. This ignores a major issue: if someone perceived as cis is misgendered, the reaction is different. Because the dynamics are different. Just because a cis person is misgendered doesn’t magically connote an understanding of the constant dissonance, struggle and violence of dealing with being trans. Of course it can still be a negative experience. I am not trying to denigrate the experience. I know it isn’t pleasant when it happens to me. Certainly people apologize to me, but just as many people remain indifferent toward trusting my own experience with gender. Some even become openly hostile when I challenge them. But there’s a degree of false equivalence lurking there. If you are cis and you have had genuinely distressing experiences where you were misgendered but everyone sees you as cis after that, then people will react differently, and most likely in a more deferent way in regard to your gender since it is still more privileged in our society to be perceived as cis (whether you are or not). I am left wondering why those kinds of experiences seem to frequently elicit the opposite reaction. Why wouldn’t they engender empathy? Isn’t the lesson that we should be more careful when relying on gendered assumptions based on looks, mannerism, dress, etc.?
Why do we not trust people when they tell us their experience with gender? Why do we not respect individuals if they don’t want to share that experience or information? It is their story to tell (or not). Why is it something that we need to be able to determine when we are meeting people? Why should it have any predication on how we treat each other in those initial interactions? I feel like this need to know prioritizes our comfort over theirs when we do it. It’s still something I need to challenge myself about as well. Being trans doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of transphobic thoughts and actions, and that’s something I constantly need to challenge myself on because I definitely don’t want to do that. That is not who I want to be. Shouldn’t we be more busy trying to break down the orthodoxy of a patriarchal society that leads to differences in how we interact based on perceived gender instead of worrying whether it’s ma’am or sir (or something else entirely)? Isn’t that time better spent?
One of the things I have picked up as I’ve gotten better at listening is sometimes people don’t have much to say at all. I am fond of noting I can’t change anyone’s minds; I can only talk about my experiences and let them make their own decisions and conclusions. The same is true of anyone. If someone doesn’t want to listen, there’s not much I can do about it. But I don’t have to keep talking with those people, I don’t have to share my space with them, and I definitely don’t have to listen when someone is loudly talking but has nothing to say, especially when it’s coming from someone who’s shown no capacity to do the same courtesy. I will still challenge transphobic thoughts and attitudes when I see them. But I’d rather listen to the more interesting voices in the chorus, so I’m going to spend more time focusing on that. Even if the dynamics are currently such that they are harder to hear. Hopefully one day those voices will be nice and clear.