For an Apology That Probably Won't Come
This is something I wrote early December 2012. As the title suggests, I woke up this morning waiting for an apology that probably won't come. I was out late, and I slept in a little, and I awoke hoping that there might be an email message with an apology that would mean a lot, even if it wouldn't fully right the wrong. You see, last night, I was mispronouned pretty harshly. And it wasn't just once: it was four or five times within a single, short anecdote about something that happened three months ago.
Now, being mispronouned at this point isn't as bad as it was early in the transition process. At that point, each mistake was quite painful, and I wrote about how frustrating it was in people's lack of progress in correcting their behaviour to make mistakes less likely (if not non-existant). Each one was a small invalidation of my identity, of my personhood. (For what it's worth, this applies to any identity, not just a trans* person's gender identity.) Moreover, I wondered what it was about me that "caused" their mistakes, rather than wondering what it was about them that caused them. I was also hyper-sensitive in all of my social interactions to every little misstep: I noticed everything.
But at this point it's a little different: now, it happens extremely rarely. And when it does, I usually furrow my brow and wonder what the hell is wrong with them. There are no lingering visual or audible clues to indicate my trans* status. I'm consistently read as (cis) female by (as far as I can tell and people have told me) everyone I meet. And so my response isn't one of pain, per se, but more like contempt, as in, "Wow, I can't believe you just did that. What's wrong with you?"
There's one person, though, whom I interact with regularly who somewhat consistently mispronouns me. He's one of the senior members of the department, and one that holds considerable power over me (partly because they have some power over teaching allocation.) It usually happens when he's speaking about me, when I'm present (I wouldn't notice it otherwise, of course!). I call him out on it every time, just like I do with everyone, but I try to make it a little extra firm because at this point it's completely ridiculous. He's the only one left who does this, and last night was something like the last straw for my patience. (Oddly enough, after this December incident, it happened AGAIN in February, which was essentially the next time I had any significant interaction with him: it's amazing.)
As (hopefully) many of you who follow this blog will be aware, I transitioned to "full time" at the end of May (depending on how one counts, of course: I generally count from the beginning of April). I consistently had an easily identifiable "female" or feminine gender presentation. And I have every day since.
At the September "welcome" party that our department has every year, I was singled out for introductions to the wider group (which I'm perfectly fine with, but I absolutely think that they (he) should have asked if that was OK — not doing so is a really bad idea, particularly for trans* people). I was introduced as [Philosochick's name], a recent PhD of the department, what I work on, what I'll be doing (lecturing in the department), and some nice professional accolades. It was all nice to hear, and it was nice for the department to formally represent their support of me, but they still should have asked. (I think I'll write a post on rules for treating trans* people with respect, especially in professional contexts. Rule 2 is "Always ask the person before acting on their behalf, or drawing potentially unwanted attention to them.") And, as usual, I had a professional, feminine gender presentation, which is pretty typical for me.
So there's context for that event. Now come back to last night. The discussion was about a feature of this person's house, at which the party was held. I remarked that I had no idea that the house had this feature, and he was surprised: apparently I was standing right next to it near the end of the party while I was in an engaging conversation with the new post-doctoral researcher (another epistemologist). When I said that I was talking epistemology, and engrossed in the conversation, he went into his humorous exposition of why my answer makes so much sense (because, well, it does: if I'm talking "shop," I get tunnel-vision).
And then the mispronouning started. It was stark. He was saying that "Of course [she] wouldn't have noticed a thing like that, because when [she] gets to talking about epistemology, there's no way [she] would notice anything about [her] surroundings. [She] … blah blah blah." Now replace all of the female pronouns with the wrong, male pronouns. And the way that the story had to go, the focal stress (e.g., "Well, there's no way she would…") was on all of the pronouns. So the mispronouning was very stark. It was harsh. And I have to admit, as soon as he got the first pronoun wrong, I pretty much blanked out: I couldn't believe that he did that, and that he was doing it over, and over, and over…with focal stress on the fuck-ups, no less! So my recounting of the story is from my girlfriend, who was standing next to me at the time. Apparently I was a bit of a deer in headlights: utterly stunned. I was nearly speechless.
When the "humorous" (and, were he to have gotten the pronouns right, it would have been very enjoyable: it was really a compliment) telling ended, still stunned, we four of us stood there in silence. He was waiting for the reciprocation or laughs that come in that situation. But I wasn't laughing, I wasn't smiling. None of us were. (Which signals a recognition of what happened, because, as I noted, it would have been a nice telling if he hadn't fucked up the pronouns.) I had a blank expression, and I looked to the women on either side of me to see if they heard it, and to see if they were going to step up and say something.
They didn't. Given that it was a professional context, even though it was a holiday party, it's understandable that my girlfriend wasn't sure about stepping up and confronting a senior colleague of mine (although I know now she wanted to, and regrets not). She wasn't a member of the department, and she didn't know what the politics of her saying something to my boss would be. But I was also standing next to a more senior colleague of mine — someone with tenure, and someone who's generally really good about equity and gender issues. I was really hoping that she'd step up and confront him. But, of course, she didn't.
And there are many good reasons that she wouldn't. For example, as my girlfriend reports her own thinking in the moment, possibly my colleague wasn't sure that he was even speaking of me because of the male pronouns: maybe she thought he might have been speaking of someone else. It's also so hard to know what to do in these situations: they're delicate, usually, especially with co-workers who one has a good professional and personal relationship with. Or, possibly, she knows that I'm generally capable of handling these situations myself, and so thought that it would be inappropriate to speak up for me. (Or perhaps she thought I just didn't need it — oh how wrong!)
This is worth slightly expanding upon, though. Of course, I did just write a post on this, but it bears repeating over, and over, and over, and…you get it.
People ask me how to be good allies. This would be how: stand up when someone does or says something inappropriate. If someone makes a [racist/sexist/ableist/cissexist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynistic/etc!] comment, step up and say something. If you overhear a trans* person being mispronouned, step up and correct the speaker. It's when people with more social power stand up for those with less that we see real change. It can't be up to the less powerful person to stand up for themselves: they're already in a compromised social position, and exerting power takes, well, power, which they often don't have. But you do, dear ally. And with great power comes great responsibility…or something like that.
So we stood in silence for what felt like an eternity, but it was at most 10 seconds, and maybe as short as 5. Then I very calmly, but firmly said "She," in the gesturing way that I do, like a suggestion, not a command or demand. While I confront people, I try not to be stand-offish about it, and I try not to make a big scene. Unfortunately, he didn't hear me the first time, so I had to repeat it, a little louder, and a little more firmly. And after his acknowledgement, and the implicit acknowledgement by the four of us about the awkwardness of the situation, I (and my girlfriend) exited from the conversation and went elsewhere to talk to other people.
There's more to say, but I won't — I shouldn't. So I sit still waiting for something that might not come. Time will tell, I suppose. [Update: it NEVER came. He never apologized to me, personally, even when he did it again a few weeks later. Sure, he meekly says "Sorry" in the conversation, but he never follows up afterwards with a deeper apology. And, of course, he continues to mispronoun me. How sorry is he?]
I'll have a lot more to say about these incidents and the (non)response since.