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Misgendering is not a lightweight ‘mistake’

December 30, 2018

I am a cisgender woman. (Cisgender is when your gender identity matches your sexual characteristics at birth.) Through the years, I have occasionally been called “sir” by people who weren’t paying attention. I have always assumed it was an error of inattention, but it has also always been a little bit offensive, a little bit of an insult since I don’t feel like I look particularly masculine.

When it has happened, I have felt that I became less seen, less of a solid entity, less of a person. I can’t speak for transgender men and women, but empathy can inform my sympathies: if I feel insulted and demeaned when I am misgendered, how much worse is it for someone who has had to work so much harder than I have to make their outsides match their insides, for someone who is in so much more danger of being discounted as a person or persecuted for who they are?

To misgender someone you have never seen before could generously be called a mistake. However, once someone becomes familiar to you, for example, like a co-worker or an employee at a place where you shop consistently, misgendering becomes something more. At the very least, misgendering shows a lack of consciousness, a lack of self-awareness, and a lack of empathy. That is what happens when a misgendering occasionally “slips out” by accident. By occasionally, I mean once or twice a year. Any more than that and misgendering becomes something else, something that feels more sinister, or more demeaning.

Misgendering someone with whom you are familiar is a subtle or not-so-subtle put-down. It says to that person “you are not important enough for me to remember who you are.” That alone is disrespectful and indicates to the recipient that they are unworthy of your respect. They are less than you are. Misgendering someone is a way to enforce distance, a way to keep someone “in their place,” a way to maintain a hierarchical power differential.

Whether misgendering is conscious or unconscious, it creates and enforces separation between us and them. When someone frequently or intentionally misgenders a person they are familiar with, it denies that person their full personhood. It is a denial of their right to be who they are. It tells the person that “not only are you not important enough for me to remember who you are, but you are wrong.” And wrong is often synonymous with bad.

If lack of respect for another human being is not bad enough to attract attention, misgendering can be, and often is, used as a weapon. Misgendering someone is harassment by virtue of its lack of respect, its alienation and its denial of personhood. In its more extreme form, misgendering can be a dangerous expression of hostility toward and fear of those who are different: a toxic and violent expression of xenophobia. Misgendering, far from being a small foible we should shrug off, is offensive and demeaning: a way to create otherness and social distance. It is a form of oppression and should be recognized as such.

Karolyn Wilson has lived in Glorieta for 28 years.

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