Microagressions & Misgendering: “Right this way, ladies.”

Interacting with service industry folks—in restaurants, at retail stores, at airports, schools, or health care offices—can be daunting and exhausting for genderqueer folks like me. It is so, so common for me and the group of queer folks I’m with to be referred to as “ladies” (which tells you that I don’t spend a lot of time with genderqueer or cis or trans men, which is true actually, I’m very much in a dyke bubble), and I feel so deflated when that happens.

No, no. It’s not just ‘deflated,’ though yes that’s part of it. It’s also a very real microagression. It’s a very real way that the larger culture, made up of thousands of individuals, gender polices us into binary categories and reminds anybody outside of those categories that we are wrong, unseen, invisible, and unimportant.

This has happened to me for years. It’s kind of related to the thing that happens when genderqueer folks have to pee in public and get hassled in both the women’s or the men’s bathrooms (and there’s a variety of pieces of activism and public awareness happening around that one, too—see, for example, Ivan Coyote’s recent Tedx talk We all need a safe place to pee). But while I can actually hold out and only pee in certain (single-stall) bathrooms, and I can have some control over peeing in public, it’s much harder to just not go interact with any service people, so as to avoid this issue.

Look, I get it. Caring that I’m addressed as “miss” or “ma’am” or that friends and I are called “ladies” sometimes seems like a very small thing on a trans activism scale, especially when so many trans women were murdered in 2015. Sometimes I think this issue of language is a tiny, “politically correct” thing that I should just let go and stop caring so damn much.

And I’ve heard folks say, “Hey, I don’t care if they call me/us ‘ladies,’ because at least they’re being nice to us and not kicking us out of this restaurant.” Which also tells you that I have primarily been queer and genderqueer and visibly different in cities and liberal small towns not so much in places more dangerous to queers.

This issue of gendering groups as a microagression has a certain amount of privilege in it. Absolutely.

And, as someone who continues to move in liberal circles, in large urban areas, in trans- and queer-centered communities, this hurts my feelings. Frequently. Daily.

Gender Perception & Getting a Thicker Skin

Part of the answer, I think, is actually to get a ‘thicker skin’, and I think in general folks who are outside of the mainstream do need to develop a good, solid sense of self, bolstered by community and lovers and theory and random strangers on the internet, to just deal with the reality that not everybody gets us. And for genderqueer and gender non-conforming and masculine of center and feminine of center folks, and trans folks who aren’t exactly ‘passing’ to some cis standard, developing a thicker skin is important. I think we also just need to be very discerning about when we want to offer some education, or feedback, and when we want to just go about our lives. Sometimes it’s exhausting to try to change the world all the time, to come up against gender norms, to fight against the binary system. And sometimes I just need to buy some eggs and get off to my meeting, and who cares what that person sees me as or thinks of me or what words they use.

That’s kind of about “gender perception,” right—the idea that part of your gender identity is how you are perceived by others. (The Gender Book has a great page on gender perception, click on the image in the 4th row 1st column here.) Personally, I’ve struggled with this—not that there’s some way I want to be perceived and am not, but rather I’ve struggled with the idea that what other people think of you matter or should affect one’s sense of self at all. It’s taken me some time to see how important it is, and to go through some of my own identity developments where my identities are then somewhat invisible, and aren’t perceived by others, and to have that really piss me off, has helped me understand how valuable it is at times in people’s lives.

Sometimes, I think how others perceive me is very important. Especially if it’s someone I interact with all the time—my family, my friends, my close community; even someone who works somewhere that I regularly frequent. Those are all important, and I do tend to (eventually) say something about gender, or make a comment about my pronouns. But for the person who is checking me out at the grocery store, or the server at a restaurant I rarely (if ever) go to? Most of the time, I just don’t have the energy to have that conversation. I used to, I suppose, but after more than 15 years of this happening? I just don’t anymore.

Okay wait: a note on class

This kind of misgendering most often happens in the service industry, so I want to write something here about class. I hope we are being aware of the class implications of speaking up or attempting to shift the way a server or service provider is gendering you/us. As a working/artist class person my whole life, I am acutely aware of how we treat folks in the service industry, and I think it’s SO important to enter into conversations with service folks with respect. The amount of pejorative, condescending language and tones that are used with service folks is horrible. And there’s a lot of unexamined privilege in folks who have never really been in a service position, or who have been out of the service industry for a long time. They’re a person, you’re a person. So I just want to encourage us all to watch our conversations here, and to do some examining about what we think of the service industry, and to ask ourselves if that’s really true. (For example: That everyone who works there isn’t smart enough to get a job anywhere else, or must have failed at other jobs, or must not be very good at anything. Probably none of those are true, but they are common stereotypes about service folks.)

Also: as a genderqueer/GNC person, I know that I don’t always have the patience and clarity it takes to interact in moments of microagressions with lots of respect and precision. I just don’t—sometimes I snap and it comes out yucky. Which is another reason, I suppose, why I’ve kind of stopped speaking up in most of these moments of misgendering—because I don’t want to be rude to someone who is just doing their job.

But sometimes, I do want to say something. And I do love how there are some new options (I’ll get to that in a minute, I swear—down at the bottom of this post) for conversations and becoming more aware of gendered language.

Ultimately: I want to strive for respecting folks when I am consuming their services, and be aware of the class implications.

Oh hey, here’s another question: I assume servers at restaurants and cashiers at shops aren’t trained to say “ladies” and “guys,” right? I’ve never actually been a server (though I’ve been a cashier for many years), so I’m not totally clear. It’s so SO so prevalent in the restaurant worlds that sometimes I think it must be in the handbook! But maybe it’s just in the culture? Unspoken, uninforced, but somehow we all absorb it? I’m curious about that.

Download the Gender-Neural Language Sheet

So this is a new possible way to interact with this service/misgendered language issue: the Queer Resource Center in BC adapted a card into a “gender neutral language sheet”, and you can download them for free here.

Toni Latour released “Hello There” cards earlier in 2015, in collaboration with Jenny Lynn and James Alexander Kelly. She’s not the first person I’ve heard who had this idea—in fact, when I first saw the image, I thought, drat, I wasn’t fast enough. I’ve had this thought many times, and I even remember sketching up a draft of it in Oregon on a road trip with rife in 2013. But Toni Latour is the one who made them and printed them up.

And now, the BC Queer center adapted Latour’s “Hello There” cards to be more inclusive and less “ladies” specific. Latour’s cards read:

Hello-2

When greeting customers, instead of saying ladies, gentelmen, ma’am, sir, girls, guys, and the like, please consider using gender neutral language. Here are some options: “Good morning folks.” “Hi everyone.” “Can I get you all something?” “And for you?” “Thanks friends, have a wonderful night.” Why? Shifting to gender neutral language respects and acknowledges the gender identities of all people and removes assumption. Join the movement to be more mindful of language. And if you make a mistake and misgender someone, it’s okay, say sorry once and move on. Thank you for making an effort!

The revised cards from QBC read:

hellothere

When greeting others, avoid ladies, gentlemen, ma’am, sir, girls, guys, etc. Consider using instead: “Thanks friends, have a great night.” “Good morning, folks!” “Hi, everyone!” “And for you?” “Can I get you all something?” Why? Shifting to gender-inclusive language respects and acknowledges the gender identities of all people and removes assumption. Be mindful of language.

A note about “guys.”

A lot of folks have said that they use “guys,” and that that is gender neutral. I just want to go on record and say that I disagree, actually, it is not. I do understand that in this culture, we very often hear groups of various gendered people referred to as “guys,” and that it’s presumed to include everyone in the group, not just the young-ish men. I do understand that it is intended to mean “everyone” or “people” or “hey you folks over there.” However, in the realities of language, it is not neutral: it is masculine.

That this society treats the masculine, the male, the man, as the default and indeed as the ‘neutral’ is precisely one of the most sexist issues at play here. When something as fundamental as our language says that men are the norm and the default, and women are the other and the strange, then it affects every other aspect of our culture, too. (There are many writings and resources on this concept out there, I’m sure … I remember studying it extensively in language & gender studies classes in college in 2002. I’m not sure where to point you for more on it, though. Anybody have a good resource to recommend?)

I can often default to calling everybody “guys,” especially when talking to masculine of center queers and genderqueer folks, but I try not to. It’s inaccurate, and frankly it perpetuates the notion that masculinity is the norm, and I don’t want to do that. But, I’m a total nerd about language and gender, so I know that not everybody wants to do that kind of work on how they see the world and interact with words. I’m hoping, though, since you are still reading, that you have that interest and intention.

On Standing Up for Someone Else

Funny enough, this whole thing just happened this weekend, when the server referred to our table—two butches and a femme—as “ladies,” and I had a similar conversation about what we can/should do about it. The femme who was there asked us what our reaction was to it, and if it felt appropriate for her to say something, which I really appreciated. Honestly, when I’ve been in mixed gender groups, often it’s the folks who do not identify as ‘ladies’ who speak up the least, and sometimes having someone else speak up on my behalf makes me feel even more tired and exhausted and segregated and spotlighted—which doesn’t feel good. I think it has in the past made me feel very taken care of, and protected, but these days, it makes me feel annoyed and too singled out to have someone say something on my behalf.

I mean, if you want to speak up about this because it bugs you, by all means please do so, and I got your back. But if you want to speak up because you think that I am insulted and deflated and am now reacting to a microagression and want/need/would appreciate someone else speaking up for me, please don’t.

So if you’re someone who wants to speak up on behalf of someone else, perhaps you could just check in with them and make sure that you are acting in their best interest, and not just projecting your discomfort onto them.

Is this conversation completely among trans/masculine people?

I’m glad that the edits between the first “Hello There” cards and the new Gender Neutral Language Sheet have moved from being less lady-centric, but it makes me wonder: How does this happen in the service industry for folks who are not masculine of center or trans masculine? I imagine similar things happen, getting addressed as “gentlemen” or “guys,” but maybe not? I’ll have to ask around and see what I can find about that.

Most of the dialogue that I’ve seen already around this is dominated by trans masculine folks, so I wonder how we can take up a little less space and ask more questions and talk about this in ways that are relevant to other folks. Or maybe it’s just a very trans masculine issue, and there’s nothing wrong with that really—it just could mean that the conversation is a bit different.

Regardless, I’m curious about why this is so centered on masculinity, and if that’s because of old fashioned sexism and overvaluing the masculine (which is my guess). Still gathering more data about this.

I’m also curious about server’s experiences of this, if you all have been corrected and what you’ve done about it, and where that form of address comes from.

This is not a conclusion

This is not the end of my thoughts about this, but it’s a start. I am curious to see these cards gaining in popularity and making the rounds, and glad to see a second version of them made. I definitely plan to carry some around with me.

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Parks: This is Magic, I Promise

Parks Dunlap. parksdunlap.wordpress.com

1. What insight about polyamory/open relationships would you share with your younger self?

(I’m currently in my early twenties, so my younger self would be nineteen and stubbornly monogamous.) I would tell her, Working two jobs is not the way to be so busy you won’t form crushes on other people than your partner. You will still fall in love with about three people you shouldn’t have. Don’t get married just yet, but you’ll figure that one out. Nonmonogamy is not a quick fix solution, but it will feel a whole lot better than repeating, “you are monogamous. You are monogamous. Focus,” to yourself all the time. BDSM is a significant part of the reason you are nonmonogamous. And it is okay to want that. This is all going to be really hard, and it/s going to feel like you are starting over, but this is going to be magic, I promise.

2. What has been the hardest thing about navigating multiple relationships, and how have you overcome that?

The hardest thing about navigating multiple relationships has been acknowledging the shame that comes with wanting, with desire, and with breaking away from queer assimilationist relationship expectations. It is often hard to feel wanted, and to want. And it is really hard for me to trust that its okay to be a big slut. I’m from a conservative southern family, so rejecting and fucking within that socialization is hard work.

The other thing that is often hard checking my privilege and learning how to be an ally. This is a constant practice outside of and in relationships. I think that it is often hard to see my relationships as non-neutral ground, and see the way social structures affect my relationships. For example, a partner of mine does not have the hours to date other people because she works a full time job and goes to school full time. I have the class privilege that I do not need to work a full time job while in school. We have had to discuss the complicated feelings that come with this difference in our lives, and the jealousy that comes up when I have time, money, and energy to date and she does not.

I have not overcome either of these things, but I have found things that help. Asking for affirmation from my partners and poly friends helps with the guilt, and my two sisters are really supportive of my dating multiple people, which is super helpful. The privilege and ally thing is going to be something I work at my entire life. I have learned that shutting up when called in, and taking notes during those long processing conversations is really helpful. Google is also an excellent resource.

3. What has been the best thing about being open/poly?

How hard it is. It is constantly pinning me into a corner and forcing me to look at my own vulnerability. It has really helped me to grow as an individual. Also I really love playing the game of “when I grow up and have babies with all my queer poly friends what color are we going to paint the porch?”/having queer Dad house butch dreams.

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

I have been so impressed with the majority of queer poly folks I have befriended, worked with, and admired from afar. I think that poly done in a radical context can be serious political work. And if anyone ever has the chance to hang out with Joy Fairfield, who presented at this year’s Open SF conference, ask her about her Rhizomatic Intimacy lecture. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

It Gets Better. Also … Grief. Please #stayalive.

That’s five. Five people, five boys, who could have grown up to be part of our world, part of our community, part of gay activism, or who could have, at the very least, grown up. Five boys since school started less than a month ago.

This isn’t new, of course. That’s On July 9th, Justin Aaberg, 15, in Minnesota killed himself over to anti-gay bullying. His mom is attempting some activism in dealing with her grief, but clearly we need more.

Whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working well enough yet, because this keeps happening.

I don’t really know what to say about it, I’m just moved by these stories rolling in, and Kristen, a former middle school teacher, has been upset about it all day, and we’ve been thinking.

Here’s some resources I found, places working on specifically this issue.. If you’ve got money to throw their way, and if you’re moved and shocked and outraged and sad like I am, I’m sure they would not mind your support.

What else? What can we do? What are you doing?

On Privilege & Gender (Part Two)

One more thing:

To Belle, and to the femmes I’ve dated and fucked and longingly admired: Thank you.

Thank you for swooning over my neckties and collared shirts, my perfectly messy short hair, my heavy belt buckles and swagger and the way I order wine for you. Thank you for having my favorite whiskey at your house for me, just for me, thank you for dressing up and looking your best, celebrating the costume of femininity, for putting time into your hair and makeup and outfit and shaved legs and stockings and lingerie straps that bite into flesh and shin splints from high heels and freezing legs from short skirts and the eyelash batting and the way I feel like a million bucks when I’ve got you on my arm.

I appreciate your gender expression, deeply, because I make more sense when I’m next to you. To quote Cody: “Let’s be honest: we need femmes.” I didn’t get who I was until I started dating femmes. This identity does not exist in a vacuum, and, for me, requires the duo dynamic inherently.

I have so much reverence for the femme aesthetic. Am I occasionally jealous of your ability to pass? Yes. But I understand – at least a little – the burdon of it, too, and I want you to share that with me. Femininity is assumed to be for the benefit of straight men, and to subvert that can sometimes mean consequences.

Yeah, I get tired of being on the front lines of visibility sometimes. But when I have a femme on my arm, strutting down the street, freshly fucked and we’re melting into each other, everyone who sees us knows what we are, and I love the second glances we get. I love the tiny revolutions that happen in the faces of strangers passing by.

Passing is not always a privilege. Some femmes I know have even said to me that passing is never a privilege, in fact. (I’m not sure I agree entirely, but I understand the argument.) To force someone to admit that it is a privilege is to force a hierarchy, such a power play, such an insecure I’m-better-than-you kind of move.

I’ve joked occasionally that femmes and other passing queers get to hear what straight people say when they don’t know a queer is listening. My lovers have occasionally told me stories of what they heard at work or school and I’m shocked – especially in PC-Seattle where I used to live, I never heard people saying homophobic – or even homo-ignorant – remarks around me, because I am visibly queer, they knew I was listening. As a writer, as an activist, as an observer of human character, I am fascinated by those conversations and interested in access to those places where I cannot go. Likewise, I sometimes find I have access to intimate (bio-hetero-) male conversations, where they let me in as one-of-the-guys and bitch about their wives, tell sexist jokes, or fawn over girls at the bar. A straight girl – and probably femmes – would probably not have access to these conversations.

I’m remembering a conversation I had with my friend and femme spy once upon a time, where she strongly asserted that there is no privilege in passing as straight, especially because sometimes, when she is presumed straight and then outs herself, she actually finds herself in more danger than she was previously and, I believe she argued, she’d be in more danger than someone visibly queer – a butch – because of the perception that her passing was actually deception.

I definitely see her point there, and it makes me feel highly protective and posessive of femmes, to think of the occasional dangerous situations they may be in. I still think there is some privilege in the femme identity – as there is some in the butch identity, some in an androgynous or genderqueer or any other gender identity, isn’t there? If there was no benefit, what use would it be? I suppose “privilege” here though is not the same as “benefit;” one implies a hierarchical gain within social structures.

Maybe I need to back up here. What is privilege? How do we define it? How do we know when we have it, when we don’t? And what, if anything, do we do with it when we have it? What are our responsibilities with privilege, how do we meet them? How do we avoid abusing our privileges?

Uh, I’ll think about that and get back to you. Chime in your two cents if you feel inspired, please.

Ultimately, though, I really want to stress that comparing degrees of oppression is fruitless and purposeless. Who does it help? Do you really feel better after forcing someone to admit that they have privilege? It’s one thing to have a discussion about it, to acknowledge the intricate complexities within identity hierarchies – it’s another thing to play these I’m-better-than-you games.

Passing, Privilege, & Butch/Femme

In response to what Belle wrote about privilege, guilt, and butch/femme:

I can’t speak (write) for all butches, and I do get that some of us have awful things to say about femmes and passing and privilege. I don’t know what to tell you about all of that, except that I think that it’s bullshit. It comes from a misogynistic bullying place where the one who is bullied and oppressed turns around and bullies the femme who is littler than you.

This is male privilege. This is the heteronormative hierarchy.

I don’t feel “more oppressed” than any given femme, and I resent that game of who has more hardship than whom. Division and in-fighting are ways that our marginalized communities stay broken apart instead of banded together. C’mon, remember Lord of the Rings?

Yes, butches are more visible, and therefore, in some situations, easier targets. But femmes are targets, too, and discriminated against. Hell, there are so few of us who even fall into this butch/femme dynamic – why make enemies of each other?

This past week I appeared as a guest on the Diana Cage Show on Sirius OutQ radio, and she’d had a whole segment of conversation before my part (where I performed some poetry and chatted about breakups, smut, and femmes, what else) where she was talking about “butch training,” I shit you not.

“Who trained you?” she asked me.

“I don’t think I was ‘trained’ … do all butches get trained?” I was confused.

“Oh yeah,” she answered.

“What about femmes?”

“Oh, no, they don’t need to be trained.”

Oh man, did my mind boggle. I don’t think she’s right about that, but let’s say, for a minute, that she is. In what do we need training? Was I doing something wrong? Did I need to be trained? Had I already been, and didn’t know it? Who had trained me?

“I’m not sure I was trained …” I said skeptically.

“Yeah, true, you’re a chivalrous butch. An old-school butch,” she said, as if this meant maybe I didn’t need ‘training’ after all?

“Yeah, I am. And a feminist, hardcore.” But I kept thinking. “Maybe my first big love trained me,” I said. She was the first femme I knew and she whispered in my ear, I think you’re butch, and I came a little and threw up at the same time. I watched how she wished her girlfriends would treat her and tried to be that.

And when I thought about it more later, I think it was my mother, my parents, who probably most deserve credit for “training” me in the ways that I take care of myself and others. Isn’t that what we’re speaking of? How we love, how we care, how we expect the partnership dynamic to work? And, fundamentally, if I may interpolate here, I think the “training” refers to those butches who often have grown up tomboys, one-of-the-guys, with a socialized masculinity. Those butches that treat femmes – and women – and, hell, people – with disrespect and dishonor, and I think it has everything to do with the “tough guise” of masculinity.

My point is, this is often the same type of butch (as much as I shudder to sub-categorize) I’ve heard this “femme privilege” argument come from, too. And I resent it, deeply. It saddens and angers me. I don’t know how to encourage a more wholistic, human range of experience in that type of butch (again, I shudder), wish I did.


But. This is what I have to say to Belle, or to any femme who endours that forced guilt about femme privilege:

Yes, passing is sometimes a privilege, but not always. Just like my visibility is sometimes a privilege, but not always. Tell me about times it was a privilege for you, and times it wasn’t, and then ask me about my stories, too. Tell me what it’s like to walk in your shoes. Let me learn from your experience. It’s hard sometimes to be a queer in this heterodominant society, and it’s hard to be a butch or femme in a lesbian community rooted in androgyny and which associates gender oppression with gender expression.

Fuck, can’t we share this burdon? Can’t we pass this weight around, let it be a little lighter between us? I mean, I know I’m a hippie-feminist-do-gooder-pacifist and all, but I believe in the power of community, deeply.