Our story, part 3: Mis-pronoun-ciation and other words

Image description: Cartoon of Derek looking shocked with his hands to his mouth, as if he's just said something wrong; Lucy the cat and Veronica are looking at him; Veronica has her hands on her hips.
Lucy would like you to know that her coat is much silkier than this.*

Image description: Cartoon of Derek looking shocked with his hands to his mouth, as if he’s just said something wrong; Lucy the cat and Veronica are looking at him; Veronica has her hands on her hips.

Our cat, Lucy Fur, can be a talkative creature, especially in the mornings. She will often meow at me and I, being a civil sort of person, will say something back. And thus, we converse like thousands of other people who share their lives with cats:

“Meow”
“Is that so?”
“Mow-ow”
“Have you checked your facts?”
“Mau”
“I don’t think so.”
“MIAOOW.”

And so on.

One morning, Lucy and I were having one of our chats and after a particularly pointed riposte from her, I decided to rope Veronica in on my side with a hearty “I can’t believe you said that, Lucy. Wait till I tell your Dad!”

I immediately realized that I had misgendered Veronica by calling her Lucy’s Dad, and apologized. She laughed and said it was fine. She made a joke about it being because she hadn’t shaved that morning. For reasons I’ll explain below, we left it at that: no further discussion.

This was a few weeks into Veronica’s social transition. I’d made a few mistakes with pronouns early on, but because I’d been the one doing a lot of the “we have something to tell you” phone calls and emails, I thought I had a handle on it. I’d noticed that I was more likely to use the wrong pronoun when telling pre-2018 stories — talking about our wedding day or our first holiday, for example — so I’d gotten into the habit of pausing for a moment before telling a story, picturing Veronica now in the scene, and then telling it.

What I hadn’t considered was that correctly gendering someone goes beyond their name and pronouns. It seems obvious in retrospect, but we use so many gendered words and expressions to and about each other, in jest and in earnest. We used to say “How’s my beautiful man this morning?” just after waking up. I referred to her as “Dad” when talking to the cats and rabbits.** I’d sometimes say “Hey Mister!” or call her and her cousin “guys”. I referred to her as my husband and in pre-wedding stories as my boyfriend. We have friends whose kids called us both uncles. And so on.

The first time each of those words came up after her social transition, I would get it wrong. Those words were the default setting for each situation and it seemed that I needed to hear them out loud — or be just about to say them — to realize that I had to reset the default.

I take any moment of misgendering seriously, especially if it comes from me or the people closest to Veronica. It doesn’t matter that it was “just a joke” or “only a mistake”. Identities that are not the mainstream norm can be easily bruised and those bruises mount up. Veronica is a woman and deserves to be recognized as such.

Importantly, it wasn’t actually as difficult to reset my language as some people claim. It is just a matter of being thoughtful or mindful when speaking.

If you don’t know anything about the impact of misgendering, there are plenty of resources to help. For example, Janet Mock explains why gender pronouns matter here. KC Clements writes about the impact of misgendering here. And Rose Dommu wrote a guide about it here.

Getting back to that moment with Lucy and Veronica: I mentioned no more apologies. Why not apologize again to show how serious I was?

Transgender and nonbinary people are often put in the situation of feeling like they have to make it okay or easy for cisgender people. I misgender you; you flinch or frown; I apologize; you say it’s okay even though it hurt in the moment; I apologize again; you reiterate that it’s okay; I make another apology; you start to feel obliged to make me feel better… and suddenly it’s you apologizing to me because I’m somehow inconvenienced by the challenge of being thoughtful or speaking mindfully.

A similar situation occurs when people say that they’re transgender or nonbinary and provide their name and pronouns. People often respond with “I’ll probably make mistakes.” or “I’ll try, but you know me!” What is a transgender or nonbinary person supposed to say to that? “That’s okay, I get it”? “It is difficult… don’t worry about it”? No! If someone tells you their name and pronouns, say thank you and get to practicing in your head!

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve ended up making someone feel better even though they’re in the wrong. I remember trying to make a restaurant server feel okay about having forgotten to tell the kitchen about my food allergies; letting a stranger in a bar feel okay about spilling their drink on me; and even saying “oh, don’t worry, the dog couldn’t help it” to someone whose dog peed on my wheelchair while I was sitting in it. I always feel annoyed with myself afterward. Why not just accept the apology? If that’s a familiar feeling to you, I recommend channeling it if you ever misgender someone, so that you can make one sincere and clear apology and not make a transgender or nonbinary person feel like they’ve inconvenienced you.

*Danielle Corsetto is right that a black cat is very “ink blob” in a cartoon style.
**But not the chickens, because that would be silly

2 comments

    • My parents and friends of their generation are getting the name right but they’re the most likely to get the pronouns wrong. I understand what you mean about wondering whether to feel grateful for the “at least” or push for better!

      Like

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