…When They Misgender or Mispronoun Someone (Including You!)
My last post went a little viral. (Also, I'm sorry for the hiatus.) That's really nice, though certainly unexpected. Some of the responses to that post made me realize that my way of handling being mispronouned doesn't quite communicate to people just how hurtful being mispronouned really is. People see a calm (usually smiling) person gently correcting them and moving on like it's no big deal, so they think it's no big deal. Well, as I tried to convey in my last post, it's a really big deal! So I'm writing this post to discuss how to handle situations where someone mispronouns another person (which may include you). This is mostly a post for allies, but trans* people may find it helpful, too.
First, I want to say something to allies: you have power in these situations, and it's your duty to use it. I don't think that you're being extra special good when you do something: I think you're being minimally decent. *NOT* saying something — such as staying silent, hoping not to make it worse — is reprehensible. That's strong language, I know, but allies tend to vastly underestimate how hurtful it is for someone to be mispronouned. It's a moral duty, not just something 'good' you can do (i.e., supererogatory).
(An important side note: not all trans* people feel harmed when mispronouned. Some genderqueer people, genderfucking people, and some other trans* people just don't care about pronouns. Good for them! Seriously! But lots do. So let's base our actions on those who do.)
Also, allies, you're *NOT* going to make things worse by speaking up and correcting someone who just mispronouned someone else. I've been told that allies often keep their silence because they think it's best if they just stay silent and not make a fuss. That's some pretty privileged thinking, actually. Why would you think that? If you were personally wronged, and didn't have the power to say so, but your GOOD FRIEND and supporter (who has the power to say something) saw it and didn't say anything…wouldn't you be a little disappointed, maybe even pissed? Wouldn't you possibly even feel betrayed? Maybe you'd even feel like you weren't sure you had their support at all if they didn't say anything, wouldn't you?
This is what it feels like when a trans* person is mispronouned, an ally sees it, and the ally stays silent. It's a betrayal. *THIS* was your moment to prove that you're an ally — when it really matters, when you can make a real difference — and you didn't do anything. Are you really an ally? It's hard for us to know if we're constantly let down when it matters most.
But maybe you really are an ally, and you wanted to say something, badly, but you didn't know if it would be OK. I'm telling you, categorically, it's not just OK, it's your duty. For fuck's sake, please say something! PLEASE!
Now, what should you say? I've found great success with just a gentle correction. Let's say someone mispronouns a trans woman: "You know, he was a great…" Here's where you jump right in and interrupt with "She." That's it. That's all you have to do: look them straight in the eye, and gently but *firmly* say "She." This works, mutatis mutandis for whatever pronoun is correct (he, she, ze, hir, they, whatever the trans person's preference happens to be!). If they do it again, correct them again, but be a little more forceful: "She!" And if it happens again, stop the conversation and confront the person. Call them out on it! You have the power to do this, the trans* person almost never does.
Being an ally means using the social power and privilege that you have to help those without.
If you don't use your power in these situations, you're not really an ally. You just think you are.