• By Gabriel IJ Snell •
I have always found that one of the most frustrating things about being trans is that there’s no way for a cis person to feel what I feel. This is especially true since it’s an aspect of identity that’s defined entirely by feeling. Being trans isn’t something you can see about a person. You can see their gender presentation, but the feeling of being trans - the thing that makes us trans - is abstract, and may or may not correspond with how someone looks. “Transness” is invisible, untouchable, which I think makes it harder to explain - and validate - to other people.
This comes to mind because I’ve been talking a lot lately about the importance of pronouns. In these conversations I find myself wishing I could find a way for a cis person to really understand what it feels like to be mis-pronouned.
I honestly think that if you knew what it felt like to be mis-pronouned, you’d work hard to make sure you never did it to anyone else.
I certainly can’t speak for all trans people, but I can speak to my feelings, to give you a window inside how one trans person experiences pronouns. There are lots of factors working at once when someone mis-pronouns me.
Some of the effect is simply practical: If a friend who used to know me as “she” slips up in front of someone who’s only ever known me as “he,” I may end up in position of having to come out, which at best means a lot of emotional labor, and at worst threatens my physical safety.
It can be dangerous to be mis-pronouned in public at all, since I don’t know who’s around and how they may react. There are lots of situations in which the ability to pass as either “male” or “female” is uniquely important to my basic physical safety. Public bathrooms are segregated by gender, and my ability to pass is put to the test by the general public. Anywhere that someone may look at my ID and need to believe I “really” am the gender that’s marked there: getting pulled over while driving, at the airport, at a bar or restaurant, starting a new job, at a cash register. If I’m mis-pronouned in one of these settings, it throws doubt on my gender, and I have no idea how someone could react. At best it’s awkward, at worst it’s dangerous.
And these are just the practical concerns. There’s also a psychological effect, the part that’s harder to explain.
In some ways it’s like people keep mixing you up with someone else and calling you the wrong name. Maybe your name is Patrick, but people keep calling you Chris. You could argue with them all day, but all they can see is Chris. You may even be able to convince them to call you Patrick, but they slip up all the time, and you know they’re just humoring you. In private they call you “that guy Chris, who thinks he’s Patrick.” What people see when they look at you is not who you are. It’s not only confusing, it’s invalidating.
It’s a serious incongruity between your core sense of self and the world around you.
For me, it also brings to the surface all the bodily dysmorphia that can come with being trans. For not only do other people see “Chris” when they look at me, I do too. I know that’s not who I am, but prior to transitioning, that’s who I saw when I looked in the mirror. On some level, I literally didn’t recognize my own reflection.
A friend recently asked me what it felt like to be trans. He’s a cisgendered man, so I said, “I think when cis men imagine being trans, they think about what it would be like to want to be a woman, and can’t connect to the feeling at all. Instead, get into the feeling of being yourself - who you really are, exactly as you are now. Really dig into that feeling of being yourself, at your core. Okay, now imagine you HAVE a vagina.” That got a reaction!
It’s not that I AM a woman, and want to be a man. It’s that I am a man, and I HAVE a vagina. I don’t want to be anything other than what I am. I just want my external reality to match my internal reality.
I’ve been in the process of transitioning for years and years now. When I look in the mirror these days, I recognize myself. This is who I’ve been all along. However, even though I “pass” very well these days, when someone uses the wrong pronoun for me it still brings up decades of history hearing the wrong pronoun over and over again. Even thinking about it makes my chest tighten and my face flush. Any ordinary, mundane conversation has the potential to destabilize my fundamental sense of self, and puts into question my right to be myself.
And all of this is true regardless of whether or not the person doing it is aware of what they’re doing, or whether it is intentional.
This is something I think anyone in a position of privilege can find difficult to understand or come to terms with: that you can do an extraordinary depth of damage to someone without knowing what you’re doing. It’s certainly something I struggle with in the areas where I have privilege. I’ve come to understand that this is part of what it means to have privilege. Privilege is invisible to those who have it, until they both learn how to recognize it and choose to recognize it.
And if your privilege is invisible to you, and my gender is invisible to you, it makes it very easy for you to not take me seriously. After all, what I’m saying isn’t something you experience, not even an understanding you are aware you’re missing. You don’t know that you don’t know, and that’s pretty scary for me, since it’s my mental and physical health that’s on the line.
This is what I want to ask of you: take pronouns seriously.
Ask people what pronouns they’d like you to use, even if you think you know what the answer will be - you might be surprised. Practice asking. Take their answer seriously.
If this is something that’s new to you, it will take some work on your part. I can’t make you do the work, but I’m asking you to trust me when I say it’s important. I am asking you to learn to see your privilege, and learn to see me as I am, then choose to participate in that reality with me.
Putting the work in to get people’s pronouns right is important. It’s important even if they’re a stranger. Even if it’s a pronoun you’re not used to using for them. Even if it’s a gender-neutral pronoun like “they.” It’s important regardless of how someone dresses, how they act, or whether they “look like” the pronoun they’re asking for. Even if you don’t like them. Even if you’re not saying it within their earshot.
Whether you mean it or not, using the wrong pronouns is painful, awkward, and dangerous. It is disrespectful to the very core of a person’s self. You can’t know how it feels, so trust me when I tell you it’s not okay.
Next week: Tips and tools for getting pronouns right.