Some Rules, Some Suggestions, Some Pleading
I've been meaning to write this for a while now. I've hesitated for a lot of reasons. One is that there are many "How to be a trans* ally" pages on the intertubes. I was prompted to write this, though, because there are some things that allies I know do that I want to comment on, things that aren't necessarily in these other guides.
I often joke that Rule Number 1 of Trans* Club is: "Don't Talk About Trans* Club." Of course, this parallels the first rule of Fight Club. What I mean by this that you should never, ever out a trans* person. It's not your place to ever disclose a person's trans* status. And it's not your place even if they're out about being trans. OK? I mean it. Look, I'm out, and I've published very public things about being out and why I'm out. Essentially, I'm out because I had a hard time finding role models and exemplars of people like me (early career, fairly young, academics).
But even though I'm out, and not ashamed of being trans* at all, it's not something that I go around advertising. And so neither should you. Always, always ask the (trans*) person first to clarify how they feel about you divulging their trans* status to people, even if others ask you. And if someone does ask you, and you haven't been granted explicit permission to tell them, you should say something along the lines of, "It's not my place to say either way. You should really ask them."
And while I'm a strong and sometimes vocal trans* advocate, I don't do that necessarily from a position of being a trans* person, per se. That is, I don't usually engage in my advocacy occupying the epistemic position of, "You should listen to me because I'm trans* too." Rather, I say, "You should listen to me because I know what I'm talking about." Now, part of what helps me know what I'm talking about is that I'm trans*, and I do take feminist standpoint theory fairly seriously, but being trans* isn't sufficient for being knowledgable about trans* issues. Unfortunately, trans* people and, worse, cis people tend to think that it does. It doesn't.
This brings me to Rule 2: trans* people are not your source of edification. Unfortunately, trans* people are expected to be willing and happy to educate ignorant people at the drop of a hat. And most trans* people simply don't know, they just want to live. I recently had it out with a cousin, who I won't speak to anymore, who took it upon himself to message me that he'd had enough of my Facebook feed. Why? Because I'm a vocal trans* advocate, and he thinks that trans* people should be silent and, well, stealth. But that's bullshit for so many reasons. His justification for this view? His friend (who I don't know) is trans* and doesn't want people to know, and so isn't an active advocate. Good for them. But I am, and just because they don't want to doesn't mean that I'm wrong to do so. And so there's a risk in treating someone as an authority merely because they occupy a given perspective: just because his friend is trans* doesn't make them an authority on how trans* people ought to behave. Maybe it's a necessary condition, but it's very far from sufficient. So not only are trans* people not your default go-to for edification, be careful when a trans* person does try to inform you about "how it is," because they might not know what they're talking about.
Rule 3 is that you need to try harder. Sorry, but getting things right won't come naturally to you: getting someone's new name right won't come without conscious effort, and getting the pronouns right will be even more difficult. I've written about pronouns before, particularly on how it's not that hard, but it does take effort. It requires just a milisecond or two of extra thought before you speak (don't you remember that maxim: "think before you speak"?).
Rule 4 is that mispronouning and misgendering really fucking hurts. OK? Seriously, it's not a small thing. In a few places, I've seen cis people try to liken it to having a parent or relative get their name wrong. But it's not like your mother getting your name wrong (if you're an only child), and it's not like someone getting your name wrong, because they can't tell you apart from your sibling. The latter is far closer than the former, though. The latter carries with it a sense of losing one's identity, but the former doesn't (it's possibly a matter of degree, though, rather than of kind). The former is a simple cognitive slip, but the latter suggests that the speaker doesn't really recognize your personhood as easily as they do the other person. (Interestingly, their mistaking you for your sibling is likely damaging to the sibling too, but possibly less so than the person who is actually mistaken for another person.)
Not only is the phenomenology different for a trans* person being misgendered or mispronouned (I conjecture), but the implications are very different (I assert). Here's a glimpse into what it feels like for me. I was fully out by the beginning of April. I asked people to begin using my current name a couple weeks after, and while I was already slowly shifting my gender presentation and expression to the feminine end of the spectrum, I went "full time" (which involved, mainly, the suppression of male secondary sex characteristics — e.g., using makeup to cover facial hair, and the presentation of female secondary sex characteristics — like breasts) at the end of May. And since then, I've had a consistent gender presentation and expression, in how I interpret my womanhood.
Early on, getting my name wrong really hurt: our names are often central to our identities. (Yeah, I know, I'll get to pronouns in a bit.) And hearing my previous name, which I strongly associated with being "wrong" and not "me," hurt a lot. I don't think that most cis people really get this. Getting a trans* person's name is, on average, a hell of a lot worse than getting a cis person's name wrong. It's a direct invalidation of the person's identity, whether you intend it or not. I'm sorry, but we don't care about your intentions.
This is something that bothers me a lot, particularly about philosophers. Philosophers tend to be Kantians when it comes to ethics: having the right intentions is all that matters. We can't control the outcomes of our actions, so we should focus our normative evaluations on the intentions behind the actions. Unfortunately, I think that this gets woefully misapplied in cases like mispronouning.
A cis person's immediate response to being called out for mispronouning is almost invariably, "But I didn't intend to do it," or "I didn't mean to do it." Well, good for you. We don't care, not one bit. Yeah, someone intentionally mispronouning someone is a real jerk, but they're much easier to dismiss than someone we consider a friend, or even an ally, who continues to do it despite not intending/meaning to. The truth of the matter is that you did it; we don't care why. That you didn't intend it may make you (slightly) less culpable than someone who did it on purpose, but you're both morally blameworthy: you still fucked up, big.
I've heard some crazy shit since my transition, all (save one) from cis friends or "allies." And in each of these cases, it wasn't intended to be hurtful, even if it was. But when confronted, people tend to turn to a liberal apologist mode: "I'm not a bad person. I didn't intend to do it. I do all sorts of good things for [trans*/gay/black/women/etc.]. Hell, some of my best friends are [trans*/gay/black/women/etc.]." This is a very sophisticated way of not taking direct responsibility for fucking up.
Here, watch this short video by Jay Smooth.
Inevitably, people interpret the "What you said was [cissexist/transphobic/hurtful]" as "You're [transphobic/a bad person]." I'm trying to focus on the former, but as Jay says, people perform these amazing Judo moves on the discussion.
What I want to hear is, "You're totally right, that was such a horrible thing to say. I'm so sorry. I won't do it again."
It's the last part that I never, ever hear from people. Why is that? I get mispronouned, and they might apologize, but they never vow to stop. I get asked to be reasonable: it's so hard for them! Someone says something unbelievably, jaw-droppingly cissexist (and, I'd argue, transphobic), and I hear an explanation for what they were trying to accomplish with their utterance, not a promise to never do it again.
Part of me wonders if people just don't get how damaging and hurtful these sorts of comments or mistakes are or can be. But that's exactly what privilege looks and feels like, isn't it?
Now, at least, mispronouning doesn't hurt as much as it used to. (See, I told you I'd come back to it!) Then, it felt like a direct invalidation of my identity and my right to be recognized as who I proclaim to be. But over time, as I've gained more and more cisprivilege myself (since I am fairly consistently read as a cis woman), mispronouning strikes me as more of a reason to doubt that the speaker knows how to use language properly. Clearly they're not basing their pronoun choice on how I look now. Strangers never mispronoun me now. Really. The only people who mispronoun me are those who knew me before the transition.
Early in the transition, I thought that the mispronouning was due to how I looked. I asked people to transition pronouns before I began having a "full time" feminine gender presentation. So I thought there was something I was doing to "cause" their errors. But I now know that that's bullshit for a lot of reasons. Not least of which is that it's not that hard to change the pronouns or name you use for someone. I wrote about that in a previous post. It's also bullshit because it's still happening with a very small number of people, even ones who see me almost daily. It happens with people who get it right most of the time. But they still fuck up, and it's pretty stark, and it hurts in a different way now.
Now, I know that I'm not "causing" their errors. (What a horrible thing to think, anyway! As if it's my "fault": it's not, not at all.) I know that there's a problem with them, but I don't know what it is. I used to think that it's just because they're thinking of me pre-transition when their cognitive processes pull up which pronouns to use with me. But I'm not so sure about that anymore. I've had some evidence to the contrary: people telling an anecdote about me post-transition and still making pronoun errors.
So now, when something like this happens, a deep doubt arises: will they ever get it right? Will they ever just accept me? (I'm not meaning to suggest that they deny or disrespect my gender identity, or my transition. Everyone has been quite supportive.) Don't they understand how much this hurts, and how much doubt it creates? (I know that they don't, and my attempts to explain it never work.) Will I forever only be perceived as trans* first? That is, will I constantly be reminded about something very painful about me? I don't "like" that I'm trans*, though I'm not ashamed of it. It is what it is. But I hate being constantly reminded of it: I just want to be able to live my life without constantly doubting, worrying, wondering. I honestly don't think that cis people get this. Mispronouning really hurts, and some of the ways it hurts are very, very deep.
The most important thing, though, allies, is that you need to speak up when you hear someone mispronoun someone. Seriously, I know you may not want to; I know that you see it as impolite. But consider this: you're the one with more power, compared to the trans person who was just mispronouned: it's cis privilege. Those with less power shouldn't always be the ones to fight their battles. Being an ally means taking on some risk: being an ally when it's convenient is no good. It matters most when the trans* person needs you most, and things like being mispronouned is one of these times. Step up, please?
So if you want to be an ally, try to leave the cis privilege at the door, OK? If a trans* person says that something you said or did really hurt, don't get defensive. Accept that you fucked up, and then promise never to do it again. Even if you didn't intend to cause us harm, you did. Take responsibility, please. And if you hear someone else pulling this crap, call them on it. Please.