The following piece is the third installment in “Dressing the Part,” a 12-part series exploring transgender spaces, cultural issues, and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy. I’ll be publishing every Wednesday until October 21, 2020.
She. Her. Miss. Ma’am. Lady.
“She’s here for her appointment.”
“The customer has the information on her phone here.”
“What would you like to order today, miss?”
“Ma’am, can you make sure that your tray table is properly stowed?”
“How are you ladies enjoying your day?”
Getting misgendered is a sudden knife to the side that you never really see coming, no matter how many times you’ve prepared yourself for it. It lends credence to that voice that tells you other people will never see you as you really are, exposes reality for what it is, again: a dark, endless hallway for you and you alone.
You try to rationalize it. There’s no reason to make such a big deal out of such little words. Plus, you don’t even pass as a man. Shouldn’t you expect it by now?
But does expecting a painful event make it hurt any less? You can expect someone to slap you in the face, and you’ll still get the wind knocked out of you. No matter how you intellectualize gender issues or turn things over in your head, getting incorrectly gendered cuts just as deep.
Gender dysphoria is existential in nature. It is pain that comes from the realization that you exist to all others as something you are not. It is the distress over the fact that this system of categorization existed long before you, that it’s such an ingrained part of life that you can never escape it. It is the constant wondering about whether you’re even what you claim to be in the first place, if it’s worth being honest about something that can’t really be proven.
After all, aren’t you pretending in other ways, too?
There will be days, weeks, months where everything is perfectly fine. Then there will come a night where you scream and sob into your pillow because you’re so angry and bitter and tired. You’re tired of being angry and bitter; you’re trying so hard to not be jaded. Isn’t it supposed to get easier? Why do you still feel so defective?
If only facts could come over feelings. If only this feeling wasn’t a documented fact.
Which one will it be: authentically expressing yourself, or having others acknowledge your identity? The question hangs around the back of your mind every second of every day. Do you live for yourself or for others? Are you still living for yourself if you constantly have to explain your reality to others?
How nice it must be to have your gender taken for granted, to never have to be this level of confused and upset and upset at being confused and confused about being upset for your whole life. How you envy the people around you. They’ve never been in the hallway, have never felt that dissociation, that powerless anger directed at everyone and no one. They don’t see how much hostility and despondence you have to push down so you don’t seem like you’re overreacting.
To them, getting called she-her-miss-ma’am-lady is just a little incident. To you, it’s a collective gaslighting. Oh honey, you’re not a man, society seems to say every time someone misgenders you. We don’t believe you, it asserts as your own friends and family dodge ways to affirm your identity while claiming that you mean everything to them. It’s futile, it’s pointless. Give up already.
You no longer want to go to new places, no longer wish to talk with strangers over the phone, lest they slip in the odd “ma’am” that stings even when you’ve done everything in your power to make it hurt less. You dread meeting new people, dread having to explain your whole thing with gender and pronouns again, dread having to endure the weird looks and the slip-ups and the refusals to understand, again. You dread having to pretend that it isn’t a big deal. You dread thinking about the conversations people must have about you when you’re not present.
She. Her. Miss. Ma’am. Lady.
It’s futile, it’s pointless. Give up already.
Is it worth being out at all?
Is it worth being here at all?
Once the joy of coming out subsided, the near-daily misgenderings started getting to me.
Euphoria out, dysphoria in. Life became one big, dreary slog. I thought constantly about how I would get called “she” and “her” for the rest of my life, seething as I ruminated over how people were socialized to sort things into groups based on looks alone.
Why did no one question this system? And if they did, why wasn’t anything changing? Did anyone consider that they were bringing a world of pain upon someone else?
But damn, did thinking that the world sucked suck in and of itself. I had no desire to mope around for the rest of my life, trapped in a never-ending pity party. I was tired of letting these little words from others spoil my mood. Coming out had been an act of defiance, a bold fuck-you to society. I hadn’t done it so that I could be a crybaby bitch.
I was going to get misgendered all my life if I kept presenting the way I did. I would do all I could to dismantle this binary categorization system, but until then, I would need a practical way to deal with all the she-her-miss-ma’am-ladys. I couldn’t stop people from misgendering me, but I could find effective ways to handle the inevitable dysphoria that would come with it.
This was as hard as I thought it would be. Even the most well-meaning person slipped up from time to time, and I was surprised by how deep some gendered associations went. I carefully handled each situation, spending a lot of time thinking about how to best ensure that a) I felt heard and understood, b) the person who misgendered me felt respected and not yelled at, and c) the other person’s behavior would change in the future. I opened myself up for as many questions as they wanted to throw my way, seeking understanding rather than retribution.
I encountered confusion, blatant hostility, and angry outbursts, but also understanding, compassion, and a sincere desire to change. I answered even more questions. I got misgendered over and over and over again, sometimes by the same people. Sometimes by the same people who had a sincere desire to change. Some days, it felt like I was going to be miss-ma’am-lady-ed to death. Other days, I was convinced that I was changing the world.
It did not get easier to hear myself referred to as “she” or “her.” Honestly, I don’t think I will ever be indifferent to being mistaken for a woman, no matter how much I appeal to my inner rationalist. However, I did find a number of techniques to help me feel better right away. I continue to use them to help me function in everyday life.
Sometimes, it is possible to avoid getting called by the wrong pronouns entirely, regardless of how you look.
Introduce yourself with both your name and your pronouns
“Hey, I’m Marty and I use he/him pronouns” is usually how I greet new people. Then, I ask them for their name and pronouns.
Effectiveness: 7/10. Sometimes people get weird when I ask them about their pronouns. “Isn’t it obvious?” they may say. Occasionally, people may not even know what the question means, prompting me to give them a thirty-second crash course on transgender issues and the importance of pronouns. I ask them anyway.
Potential downsides: Confusion and discrimination from others. Some people will forget your pronouns a moment later. Continue to politely remind them for best results.
Wear a very large, very conspicuous pronoun pin
If you want to be gendered correctly without having to say a word, look no further than the two-inch pronoun pin. These can be ordered from online button-making sites and customized to fit your personal style. Stick your pin somewhere conspicuous, and others will notice.
Effectiveness: 9/10. When I wear this pin, I am regularly asked if I use he/him pronouns. I say yes, and that’s the end of it. People tend to remember when I have the pin on, if only because it’s constantly there as a reminder.
Potential downsides: This will out you to every person you see. Leave the pin at home if you don’t want someone to know that you’re trans.
Create an alter ego who is the gender you’re perceived to be
There are times where I don’t want to correct people, period. Maybe I’m going to an area where I know people will look at me as though I’m speaking a foreign language when I tell them about my pronouns. Sometimes I just want to get shit done without outing myself. In these cases, I pretend to be Mimi, a “girl” who is perfectly fine with she/her pronouns. Mimi is the one running this errand, seeing that transphobic family member, or going on that shoot — not Marty. Mimi is someone completely separate.
Effectiveness: 8/10. There are no awkward conversations and no shitty feelings to be had, as long as I remind myself that I’m playing a character.
Potential downsides: You may break character, which will cause dysphoria to come crashing down on you like a misplaced bucket from a distracted window-washer. Also, meeting new people when you’re in “other gender mode” can get weird. Use this method with caution.
Someone casually misgender you when you’re about to do something important? Want to get shit done even when you feel like shit? Here’s how to get back to your normal state after being disrupted.
Assign a new meaning for the misgender
Who says that “she,” “her,” “miss,” and “ma’am” have to mean “woman”? Or that “he,” “him,” “mister,” and “sir” must identify you as a man? Make up alternate — ideally gender-affirming — meanings for these words. I always pretend that people say “man” instead of “ma’am.”
Effectiveness: Varies, depending on the technique you use. “Ma’am → Man” is a 10/10 for me.
Potential downsides: Some alternate meanings you come up with may not stick so well. I still need to find a good one for “she” and “her.”
Correct the other person and call them in
“Actually, I’m not a lady.”
“He,’ not she.’ I use he/him pronouns.”
“It’s ‘sir,’ not ‘ma’am.’”
I try to correct people as kindly as possible when they misgender me, no matter how upset I am. It feels really good to say something regardless of the outcome, because I’m taking an active role in managing the situation.
Effectiveness: 5/10. Usually people just apologize, and I’m grateful that they know how to gracefully handle the situation. But sometimes they just don’t get it, or end up making a big deal out of my correction. In the worst case, they create a scene.
Potential downsides: Hostility from the other person who thinks that you’re condescending towards them. Potential public embarrassment and intensified dysphoria.
Repeat calming affirmations
Breathe in, breathe out. Let it slide, like water off a duck’s back. Picture water running down a set of feathers, or oil droplets rolling off the side of a glass. Repeat: I am calm. I am a <gender you identify as>. Other people do not define me. I define myself.
Effectiveness: 7/10, depending on how dysphoric I get. Affirmations usually work right away and make me seem calm, which is half the battle. However, I usually have to do this many times before I can actually calm down.
Potential downsides: Affirmations only take you so far. You may have to combine them with another technique.
Being invalidated causes nontrivial pain. If you were physically hurt, you’d tend to your wounds, right? Make sure to care of your emotional ones, too.
Rant to a friend who Gets It™
Got other trans friends who know what you’re going through? Have a subreddit full of people ready to listen to you? Let out all of that anger, and don’t worry about sounding kind or calm or politically correct.
Effectiveness: 9.5/10. Ranting about shit usually makes my dysphoria fade away immediately.
Potential downsides: You may accidentally choose the wrong person to rant to, and end up with a lecture about how you shouldn’t let things get to you, how you should be more understanding, et cetera. Make sure that your friend is okay with you venting to them, and that they know you’re just blowing off steam.
Write about it
Grab a notebook, phone, or laptop, find an empty room, and turn that abstract anguish into concrete words. Write down exactly how dysphoria makes you feel, what it makes you think of, and the questions it raises. Write and write and write until you feel better.
Effectiveness: 10/10. This always calms me down and leaves me in a light, reflective mood. It also makes for some enlightening material to look back on. I wrote the first section of this essay on my phone when I was feeling dysphoric one night. It’s a nice reminder that even when things feel intense, they can and will get better.
Potential downsides: Writing is time-consuming, especially if you have a lot to say. If you’re not a writer, this may not be your thing.
Take a break
You’ve just been hurt. Excuse yourself from the situation and go do something else. You’re allowed to sit out for a while.
Effectiveness: 7/10. It depends on what I do. For me, the most effective dysphoria breaks involve physical activity. When I was a kid, I liked jumping for hours on a trampoline or taking my Razor scooter for a spin around the neighborhood. Now, I hit up the climbing wall, dive into nice, refreshing pools, or go for long walks.
Potential downsides: If you don’t pick the right break activity, you can end up just wallowing in your feelings.
Allow yourself to get emotional
Got fury? Exasperation? Pure, unadulterated rage? Good! It’s time to get emotional. Scream, cry, punch that annoying wall — it’s painted an ugly color, anyway. Get a soft doll that represents all of transphobic society and kick down the stairs.
Effectiveness: 4/10. I’ve only done this once or twice, and I often end up feeling pretty silly because I’m not big into emotional expression. Also, walls can be hard to replace. But it can feel really, really good in the moment.
Potential downsides: If you do this too much, you may start feeling intensified emotions every time you get dysphoric, which is the opposite of calming down. This is another one to use sparingly.
Some of these coping mechanisms may not be suitable for everyday practice, but I’ve tried them all and they do work. If I’m misgendered too much and the dysphoria gets too intense, I do a more extreme version of emotional self-care — I’ll write even more, take a walk, even let myself have a breakdown if I want to.
The question of expression versus identity may be persistent, but I found my answer long ago: both. I choose both. I am a man who doesn’t like to present like one. I am a man who will likely never pass, and that’s fine by me.
Being a trans person in a cis-centric world is hard, but it doesn’t have to be complete hell. Despite all of the shit I have to wade through sometimes, I’m so glad I came out. It’s worth it, worth it, worth it to acknowledge who I am, even if it’s only to myself.
And if I’m called “miss,” “ma’am,” or “lady,” I now have the tools to handle it. ✦