This is the fourth in a series on misgendering, ways we can avoid it, and ways to help when others are doing it.
All too often when someone uses the wrong pronoun for someone they, rather than moving on, double down and seem to try to swallow both feet. Rather than graciously move on they compound the situation by trying to explain why they messed up. This most often takes the form of trying to tell the person they misgendered that they have to be better at passing as cisgender.
How is this expressed?
The most common way for this to be expressed is for the person to say, “You don’t look like a man/woman.” Or, they say, “well, you look like a man/woman, so those are the pronouns I use. Not only are these statements condescending and judgmental they invalidate the transgender or nonbinary person’s identity. When this is said the nonverbal message and body language are telling the trans person that they are not who they say they are.
To make matters worse, the person often goes on to make suggestions to the trans person on how they can pass better. This advice may take many forms. Usually, however, the focus is on their appearance and what they are wearing. For transgender women, this usually involves fashion suggestions and how they need to look more feminine, use makeup, and possibly have permanent hair removal. For transgender men, it’s the opposite. They don’t look masculine enough, are not manly enough, and are not wearing masculine enough clothing. For non-binary people the statement usually is one telling them to pick a binary gender and stick with it.
Another way in which this invalidation happens is by saying the person doesn’t sound like a man/woman. This may, as above, be reversed with the person telling the transgender person that they sound like the gender they were misgendered as.
Again, this serves to invalidate the person’s identity. Judging a person’s gender based on their voice is pervasive. When on the phone it is the only way in which to passively judge a person’s gender. In person, the voice and other cues give hints as to the person’s gender. We then apply what we think we know about what gender people are based on the learning and conditioning we grew up with and have developed over the course of our lives.
What is the impact?
When someone does this to a transgender person the impact on them can be devastating. It may be invisible. It may be what pushes the person over an internal line towards serious self harm or even suicide. This is not new information, but it bears repeating.
For those with dysphoria this unasked for advice is an attack that hits right to the heart of their dysphoria. There are many reasons why transgender people do not pass as cisgender or even want to try to pass as cisgender. These reasons are personal and each individual may or may not choose to share them.
For those who are trying their hardest to pass as cisgender the effect is to be telling them that they are failures. That they cannot possibly pass as cisgender. For transgender women this exacerbates the messaging that we all receive that transgender women are ‘traps’ for cisgender men, are really men, and more. It is important to note that there are people who receive a certain level of delight in making these sorts of comments. Their goal is to do harm.
How do I respond?
First, if you find yourself tempted to respond in this way you can ask yourself why you want to respond this way. Chances are you are wanting to respond this way in order to justify why you messed up. Please, take a breath, pause, then move on in the conversation in more positive ways.
Second, think about it ahead of time. As I have said before ( See Misgendering: I messed up ), we all mess up from time to time. Examine this and why.
Third, when you see this type of defending of misgendering speak up. This can make all the difference for the transgender person. It tells them they are not alone in facing this down. It allows the person to take a step back and disengage if that’s what they need to do. It shows you have their back.