CN: Reclaiming of queer-antagonistic slurs, misgendering, transmisogyny, lesbophobia
Like many people my age, I work many jobs to try to make ends meet. But although I have several side jobs, recently I’ve secured a primary job in retail where I actually receive benefits and insurance and other things befitting of an adult while I work toward grad school.
I like this job. I actually like retail better than other “customer service” jobs I’ve had. I totally grok sales, most of my coworkers end up being women or queer or both, and I love putting people and mannequins in outfits I would never wear, but still look great. It’s like dressing life-size Barbies and getting paid for it.
The last time I had a customer service job I was younger, “straight-ish”, and had a very feminine presentation. Now I am Grown, Gay, and have a very butch presentation. The job is still the same, with the same challenges and frustrations I expect and navigate while dealing with the public. Only now, I occasionally get called “Sir” after I’ve finished helping a customer. And it fucks me up sometimes.
I’ve joked before about learning to tell the difference between trans-woman-misgendering and butch-dyke-misgendering in my interactions with strangers. And so I believe, based on those experiences, that nearly all (if not all) incidents of misgendering I’ve experienced are because of my intentionally-butch appearance. I assume this to be the case because when I complained about being misgendered, many friends and acquaintances attempted to be helpful by offering some aspect of my presentation as an explanation.
“Well you do have very short hair.”
“I could see it, if they were looking at you from behind.”
“I mean, you do wear mostly men’s clothes.”
“Maybe they think you’re a trans man and they’re trying to be polite.”
Although surely unintentional, all these “explanations” did was make me focus on what particular aspect(s) of my self were getting me misgendered. After all, I did choose to present myself in this particular way. Did I really have room to complain? So I tried different changes to my appearance. I put on dramatic makeup, including lipstick. I altered my speech to be ‘perkier’. I wore low-cut tanks under my butch over-shirts and ditched my sports bras, making my breasts painfully obvious. And when none of that saved me from being misgendered, I wondered what more I could do.
In other words, I blamed myself for other people’s shitty behavior.
And even while I could tell I was being misgendered as a dyke, it still affected me emotionally as a trans woman. It brought up all the old insecurities and internalized cissexism I told myself I’d already dealt with. It wasn’t until I hung out with other dykes, and told them about my situation, that I started to get reassurances I actually found reassuring.
“Bro, I get called sir at least once a day when I leave my house. It’s not you.”
“It’s only because we’re new dykes. The old dykes out there give zero fucks.”
“It’s part of being visible, you’re like a Rorschach test. You get the best and the worst.”
“It’s because we used to be femme, so we think any bullshit from being butch is our fault.”
“Straight people don’t know how to handle dykes. Sometimes I think they say ‘Sir’ because they’re so scared they don’t know what else to do.”
Other queer people were also able to offer more helpful consolation. One cis gay boy made me smile saying, “I get called ma’am all the time because I’m too pretty. So clearly you’re too handsome for your own good.” This reminded me misgendering is something a lot of people face, not just those of us who intentionally screw with gender norms.
Several trans friends of various genders offered the most direct help, which were simple variations of, “I know how much that hurts. I’m sorry that happened to you. People suck.” This reminded me being misgendered for one reason (being a dyke) wasn’t ‘better’ than another reason (being trans). Being misgendered just sucks, always.
So lately I’ve been trying to look at this particular complication as a badge of honor rather than shame. As something many people who are different have to deal with. It isn’t easy, but when I get called “Sir” now, I try to say something like this to myself:
I have no control over other people’s perceptions of who I am, or how they react to those perceptions. I also have limited control over my own reactions, but it is okay to acknowledge my emotions.
I am a dyke. I am a trans woman. Both of these groups are frequently misgendered, but I am still proud to be who I am. Being misgendered is something many people face, because it is beyond our control. It is not a reflection on me as a person or my actions.
I am happy with my personal perception of my appearance. I like who I see in the mirror most days. There are many queer women and femme people who find me attractive. I am a dapper, polite, dashing, handsome-looking lesbian, and some people just can’t handle that much awesome in one package!
Misgendering is not just a trans issue, and it’s not even just a queer issue because even some cis straight people deal with being misgendered. With that being the case, the simplest way to avoid misgendering someone is to avoid gendered words with someone you don’t know.
“Thank you so much!” isn’t going to make anyone feel bad. But “Thank you, sir/ma’am!” could have the opposite effect of appreciation you were going for. Or look at our nametags and use our name!
So ditch your “ma’am” and “sir” at the counter, please. If you want to show respect, then be respectful of who we are and what we do! We already work hard for you, don’t make it harder than it needs to be.