36. An Instance (or Three) of Gaslighting

In Response to Complaints About Being Mispronouned

I've written a few posts related to some misponouning incidents in my old department (I've since moved departments to take up a postdoctoral position). I want to keep pushing this, because not only were the incidents themselves horrible, but the responses by others — people who're ostensibly allies — has been equally bad. This post is on how allies responded by gaslighting me.

metamorphosis_gaslight.pngGaslighting is something that's being increasingly discussed in feminist circles. The term comes from a movie of the same name, Gaslight. In the movie, a husband mentally abuses his wife by constantly making her doubt her memory and perceptions of the world — he does it to try to drive her insane. In its contemporary meaning, gaslighting is a form of abuse where people try to discount someone's claim of injustice by suggesting, for example, that they're overreacting, that someone wouldn't have done what they claim happened, things didn't actually happen as they remember, or telling someone that they're generally forgetful (when they may not be, or not in the relevant context). The effect is that the gaslightee begins to doubt her own recollection of events: did the injustice really happen? is she reacting properly? does she remember things accurately? Consequently, they feel nothing but doubt and isolation: they're pretty sure they were harmed, but maybe they weren't? It's an extremely powerful silencing tactic.

It's also a very typical response to claims of injustice, and the scary part is that it's often unintentional. In the movie, the male protagonist is purposefully, consciously gaslighting his wife. In real life, sometimes it's on purpose, but usually it's not. In fact, even well meaning "allies" can do it! And, of course, the purpose of this post is to point out just such behaviour having to do with the recent mispronouning that I experienced over a number of months.

One way that claims of injustice are gaslit is to say that the "injustice" isn't really that serious. One colleague seemed to liken what was happening to the mispronouning party merely mixing up a daughter's name with a sister's. Hey, sometimes we get people's names wrong. Just this morning, I was saying to a friend that I should get a pedicure by [X] when I really meant [Y]. X and Y's names differ only by the first letter, and the former (wrong name) is a guy, and the latter (correct name) is a girl. It was a slip: they happen! But constant mispronouning is nothing like that.

First, innocently getting a trans* person's name wrong is sometimes just like getting a cis person's name wrong, but often it's anything but innocent. If, for example, one mistakenly called me [Psycholo-chick], another female name similar to mine, rather than [Philoso-chick], I wouldn't be the least bit offended. But if they mistakenly called me my old "boy" name, that's totally different. The former is an innocent, relatively harmless slip, the latter is a common form of discrimination and injustice committed against trans* people. It's a much more specific slip. What it communicates to me is that you still *see*, *perceive*, me as that other person (whom I'm not). It's an invalidation in the way that the former slip is not.

Some slips are innocent, others are not. Context matters. Mispronouning a cis person can often be innocent (though it's also a form of injustice in other contexts), but mispronouning a trans* person is totally different: it's much more serious, even if it's equally unintentional as the cis case. Mispronouning me is an invalidation, especially from a close colleague. After nearly a year (and the 'grace period' is much shorter than that), it's utterly inappropriate for someone — especially someone who sees me essentially everyday — to continue to mispronoun me. It's bizarre, and it indicates that something more serious is going on. Sure, maybe he doesn't necessarily see me as male (how could he?), but maybe he still associates *something* important about me with the wrong gender. Given what field he researches in, I've conjectured that since he respects my work, and his field is massively male-dominated, maybe he has a hard time thinking that a woman is that competent. I have *no* idea what's going on with him, but there's something wrong.

So gaslighting number 1: it's more like his getting his daughter's name wrong, so I shouldn't be so offended. It's just not that serious.

[Note: Now, the person who said this will almost certainly object that they didn't mean it that way. What they merely meant was to try to diagnose what's *causing* him to mispronoun me: maybe what's going on in his mind is like what goes on in their mind when they make that occasional error. OK, whatever, but when someone approaches you — an ally — to talk about what happened, this isn't how you respond. Implicature and pragmatics, people! Immediately after an injustice is not the time to have that conversation.]

Related to this form of gaslighting, gaslighting typically takes the form of accusing the gaslightee of overreacting. It's not so serious, calm down: you're overreacting. Here's why I had to write a post about what it *feels* like to be (constantly) mispronouned. It's invalidating. It makes me cry, sometimes. And since it comes from a close colleague, and it makes me so uncomfortable, it means that I don't want to be around him. Since he's always around the department, I don't want to be around the department. This means that my work suffers greatly.

I spend a lot of time working at the office: it's where I get my best work done. So if I don't want to be around the office because of this, it creates a hostile work environment. I know those are very strong words, especially since they have such clear legal overtones. But that's exactly what happened: his continual mispronouning — even if it doesn't happen every day, or every week — is enough to fit the description. That it's on purpose isn't a requirement for the definition. I honestly don't think cis people get how much being mispronouned hurts. So when I made gestures towards it creating a hostile work environment, I was constantly told that I was overreacting. (Part of this, to be sure, was to caution me against pursuing any official actions, since it would harm my career. That's a reality, but it's bullshit, of course that things work that way.)

It's also important to note what sort of environment is created by a history of mispronouning. The stress that it creates isn't just about being mispronouned when it happens, it's also the threat of it happening again. It puts one constantly on edge that it could happen again at any moment. That stress destroys the work environment for the person being mispronouned. So another gaslighting response is to focus on how infrequent the mispronouning events are. Although it happened maybe once each month (the gaslighters weren't around for some of the other incidents), they point to it not being "constant" and that that somehow makes it "okay." But they're ignorant of the full effects of even infrequent mispronouning.

Moreover, even when I told people that it's happened more often than they know, they gaslight by saying, "Well I don't know, since I wasn't there, but he doesn't do it around me." They don't realize it, but that's gaslighting too: it's epistemic injustice. Very subtly, and I bet unintentionally, they're discounting my epistemic authority to accurately report other instances: they're not just taking me at my word that these other instances have happened. It's as if they'll only count instances that *they* personally witnessed. The epistemic injustice dimension of gaslighting is classic.

Another classic form of gaslighting is to simply deny that the perpetrator of an injustice would be the sort of person to commit the injustice: he just wouldn't do that, at least not on purpose, they say. The worst is when the perpetrator has won some sort of recognition award — say, a diversity award — that runs counter to the alleged action claimed by the gaslightee. So if I claim that someone has constantly been mispronouning me, but they have a reputation for being good on equity issues, then I get that fact raised as a way to discount my claim. More than that, though, it's used as counter-evidence to my claim that the injustice even happened: classic gaslighting move.

The worst of them all, though, and I heard this from at least three people: I should be grateful for all he's done for me.

Oh this one really pisses me off. It's not clear that it's gaslighting, per se, but it's related. I really don't quite know what to make of this response. "You should be grateful, for all that he's done for you and your career." OK. So what has this person done?

That's not even the right question, though. What's behind this comment is that, apparently, this person has done some things to help me that I shouldn't have expected as run-of-the-mill treatment of a member of the department as a recent graduate. Sure, I've been offered a good amount of teaching since graduating (I received two courses over the summer term after my defense, a course and an online course in the fall term, and two courses in the winter term). This is more teaching than most people get offered, but it's nothing unusual. Here's the thing: I was already being offered choice teaching opportunities. I also won the department's inaugural graduate student teaching award: I generally received the highest teaching evaluations in my cohort, and higher than the department averages compared to faculty. I earned the extra teaching opportunities. They weren't given to me.

So to suggest that I should be "grateful" for their continuing to give me teaching opportunities ignores my earning those opportunities on my merits. I wasn't receiving them out of pity for being trans*! By giving me these teaching opportunities (and my evaluations went *up* after transitioning, remember), they were merely continuing behaviour that was already an established trend. So should I be "grateful" that nothing changed? If that's the case, then what's being said is that I should be grateful that I wasn't discriminated against. But that can't be right…can it?

What else had this person done to help my career? I really have no idea. He wasn't someone who wrote me letters of recommendation, although I had worked closely with him for a year. So it's not like he helped me obtain my postdoctoral position (or my tenure track position that will follow the postdoc). Nothing happened after transitioning that makes sense for me to be "grateful" for, unless these people are merely referring to his *not* discriminating against me. But is that something for which I should really be "grateful"? For his being a minimally decent human being (aside from the mispronouning, of course!!)? So I have *no idea* what these people were thinking when they said that I should be grateful.

Apparently, my complaining about a serious injustice — bordering on, or crossing the line into, harassment! — constitutes my being ungrateful for everything he's "done" for me.

Fuck that.

Fuck all the gaslighting.

Yeah, I'm pissed. I've been betrayed. Not only do these people not realize that they gaslighted me, but they don't realize how isolated I felt as a member of that department. How betrayed I felt, especially by my closest "allies." All I can say is that I'm infinitely thankful that I'm able to move on to greener pastures.

Time to breathe.

Yours truly,