Over Thanksgiving break, I was able to meander my way across the United States to the East Coast, primarily to visit colleges in Boston, but also for the sake of much needed junior year destressing. I witnessed the grandeur of lecture halls, academic buildings, libraries and (relatively) well-kept dorm rooms. Over the course of my stay, however, I found that my more memorable experiences in Boston were not dominated by campus tours, but instead, repeated miscommunications that began with a flight attendant before I’d even left the PDX airport:
“Mr. O’Gara and Mr. O-… Oh… Ms. O’Gara, yes, Ms. O’Gara. Would either of you like something to drink before we take off?”
And there it was. The first misgender.
Over the course of the next five days this would happen to me 20 more times, or rather, 60 if I count the number of glances I received while walking down a street, sitting in a restaurant or perusing a storefront. Whenever I told a hotel concierge that I was traveling to visit Smith and Wellesley – two all-women universities – he would stare at me for a hard, heavy second before briefly shaking his head; as if flinging away the perception of me he had previously held.
Misgendering is a concept not unknown to me – after all, my short hair, makeupless face and masculine wardrobe doesn’t exactly illustrate me as conventionally female. But what made my experiences in Boston
so startling was that direct misgendering – by which I mean incorrectly assuming my gender while face-to- face with me – was something I’d managed to avoid since the beginning of my 2016-2017 school year. The calculated nature of my regular schedule, be it school, work or extracurriculars, doesn’t allow ample room or time for meeting new individuals. Across the country, however, the floodgates open for false assumptions of my identity.
Directly assuming my sex isn’t the sole method through which misgendering can take place. Often, a lack of assuming is even worse.
My journey toward androgyny began just a year ago, and even in this time I’ve perceived a noticeable decrease in my communication with strangers. Oftentimes, avoiding confrontation is seen as preferable to incorrectly assuming an individual’s identity, a recent development that may have stemmed from a reactionary culture, or from the upswing of social justice and political correctness. Regardless of the cause, the effect essentially deems me unreadable, and therefore, unapproachable. I’m infrequently, if ever, assisted by store employees, selected for activities during large group events, called on in extracurricular lectures or activities or even spoken to by strangers in the efforts of small talk. These consequences, while seemingly desirable to misanthropes and those claim- ing to be “socially awkward,” only leaves me feeling more invisible to the point that I’ve actually considered writing my pronouns on a button and pinning it to my chest so as to allow individuals reassurance in speaking to me. At this rate, I would rather be misgendered than completely written off within public spaces. Also unnerving about my Boston experience was the paradoxical nature of it: because I was only visiting women’s universities, I would often be misgendered within a local town, walk 50 feet past the gates of a campus, and suddenly receive the correct pronoun. My day-to-day reality was constantly shifting titles: “Mr.” versus “Ms.,” and “gentleman” versus “young lady.”
And while this isn’t as severe in a community like Lake Oswego, where I’m relatively well-recognized, LOHS certainly isn’t void of misgendering either. Even in a building where people have observed my shift from femininity to androgyny and largely accepted this transition, I still feel apprehension when entering a women’s restroom for fear of being misidentified.
(As a result, I can confirm that the genderless, wheelchair accessible restrooms located beside LOHS’s attendance office are among the most well-kept bathrooms within the school.)
Yet despite my experiences in misgendering, I still represent a relatively privileged perspective in regards to this topic. For one, I live within a wealthy, predominantly liberal community that supports my choice of expression. For another, my gender identity is fairly simple: I am merely a woman who chooses to present as androgynous, albeit masculine-leaning. While not cisgender, I still prefer she/her pronouns, and I tend to uphold other typically feminine traits. I’m not non-binary or trans, nor do I belong to a group within the gender spectrum that might receive greater criticism for its gender presentation.
Imagine, therefore, the experiences of those who may not benefit from my advantages. Gradually, you may begin to see the unfolding of a grand issue in which we assume the identities of strangers based solely on their outward expression.
Beyond the discomfort I feel toward the reality of misgendering, I acknowledge that condemning those who do it isn’t the answer to solving it. As someone who presents as traditionally masculine, I understand that societal normalities don’t define my gender expression as common. I will never blame an individual who utilizes the wrong pronoun, or calls me “Mr.” or “gentleman,” so long as he corrects his error when I notify him of it. We are yet to live on a planet that isn’t dictated by the gender binary, and I find it unreasonable to incriminate those who may be unaware or unadjusted to something without having been educated on the matter.
Misgendering is a plague that can end only by asking and not by assuming. Universally requesting pronouns from those we connect with, even those with identities that can be reasonably assumed, eliminates misgendering and prevents those who don’t “look cisgender” from being singled out.
Let’s take the example of a popped balloon: it’s simply more advantageous to get a new one than to attempt to patch its numerous holes. Similarly, it’s better to reinvent the way we identify gender than to attempt to fill the craters of a broken system.