Cis People Can’t Be Misgendered
Posted by Aleo Pugh
December 6, 2016
I honestly cannot tolerate another instance of a cis person recounting their experience being “misgendered”.
The stories all follow the same predictable format – a late night grocery store run, clothed in sweats and a baggy hooded sweatshirt turns into a comical story of being mistakenly called “Sir.” These back-pocket stories seem to be collected meticulously as if to sooth me of my pain, as if to say “It’s okay, we get misgendered too! And it’s funny!”
But my experiences being misgendered aren’t eagerly collected, nor do I find them entertaining or the least bit amusing. Perhaps that’s why cis people are able to dole out these stories so seamlessly. For them, being mistaken for the wrong gender is a laughable one-time experience while for me, each instance of misgendering is a deeply painful reminder that I am the wrong gender as far as cissexism is concerned.
Being misgendered feels like carrying around one of those opportunistic cartoon devils on my shoulder who keeps shouting “YOU”RE A GIRL, YOU’RE A GIRL, YOU’RE A GIRL.” This voice is virtually inescapable. Even in the isolated spaces I have carved out for myself, internalized transphobia and cisnormative media still permeate my reality. It often confronts me at my most vulnerable moments and demands that I answer for my sins. Every day, with each encounter, I am forced to contend with my reality as someone who does not live as their assigned gender. My punishment? Being reminded on a daily basis with each “she,” “ma’am,” and “miss” of my failures.
Although trans people can and do have a range of emotions associated with misgendering, it is really a tactic of humiliation rooted in power. Regardless of whether misgendering is done intentionally or not, it makes trans people public spectacles to be gawked at and shamed for our refusal to align with cisnormativity. It is about maintaining cissexism so aggressively that in every encounter, trans people are either coerced into conformity or are bruised into exile. It is about denying us agency in choosing what things affirm are genders and what things are insignificant. Cis people, even cis gender non-conforming (gnc) people simply do not experience this.
In the instance of a cis person being mistaken for a gender they are not, the short-lived embarrassment that may follow can easily be placated by an uninhibited correction. I, however, cannot imagine correcting a stranger with such conviction. Before even adjusting my mouth to speak, I cycle through an intense inner-dialogue, balancing the benefit of correcting people, assessing my potential level of danger, deciding if its effective, and how much invalidation I’m willing to endure in a particular day.
Having id’s, birth certificates and other forms of legal documentation behind them makes this not a part of cis people’s realities. In spite of a singular incident with an unknowing stranger, cis people have an entire system behind them that affirms their claim to their gender. Every gender reveal party, ‘M’ marked on a birth certificate, and medical system validates the way by which cis people know themselves. In fact, many cis people rely on this system, the same system that literally kills trans people to validate their own gender. In the event that they are mistakenly gendered, many will invoke this system by simply stating “no, I’m a real wo/man” to resolve all confusion. What this really means is, “I am cis and thus my gender is more authentic and legitimate because of it.” What this really means is “I am a real wo/am and that’s why I deserve to be correctly gendered,” not because everyone has the right to indisputable gender.
This desperate cling to authenticity; however, cannot be neutrally made. For everything “real,” there is a “fake” counterpart. The ways that cis people affirm their genders undermine the ways that trans people know ourselves. The investment and reliance on authenticity construct trans people as a false “Other.” This is one of the core differences between being misgendered and being mistaken for the wrong gender: claims to authenticity can be relied on and are sufficient. Cis people’s correction usually leads to profuse apologies and flushed faces of embarrassment on the wrong-doer’s behalf. There is no rebuttal, no argument, no room for debate or challenging. There is merely acceptance that their gender is an unobjectionable truth, but what does this mean for us? When we have no claims of authenticity to cling to? When we cannot dispense documents that affirm us?
While embarrassment may be characteristic of being mistaken for the wrong gender, it is not the same as being misgendered. Being wrongly gendered is not a literal challenge to one’s gender like being misgendered is. In fact, being incorrectly gendered is only a testament to the severity of cisnormativity, since even cis people often fail the test.
Misgendering makes me feel anxious, it makes me angry, it makes me tired, it makes me feel hopeless. Being misgendered can be so debilitating that it can completely change the course of my day. Sometimes I don’t want to be around anyone to eliminate the possibility of being misgendered. Sometimes the inevitability of being misgendered makes me hesitant to meet new people because I can expect to either immediately correct them, often followed by a defense/explanation of my personhood, or just deal with the discomfort.
Misgendering is so intolerable that people who continually do so are cut off from my life without much consideration. Being misgendered feels like having my personhood, so inextricably tied to my gender, made malleable at the whim and will of cis people. Being misgendered is painful, but not just because it is the wrong gender, but because it is a denial of agency. Because it’s having people assert that they know me better than I know myself. Because it is introducing myself to people time and time again only to have them override my own identity for what they see better fit. Because although each instance of misgendering is painful, it not about a single, isolated transgression. It is about a series of culminating acts committed against me since I was assigned female at birth. Misgendering is merely one of the many ways that this system materializes, so cis people cannot co-opt are reality, especially when they actively participate in and benefit from the same system that crushes us.
This is why most cis people recount instances of being mistaken for the wrong gender with witty responses or laughter — because they have the protection and validation of institutions behind them to assure them they are “real.” A late night grocery run is virtually irrelevant when you can have the correct gender marker on your birth certificate, when you don’t wait for background checks in fear that your trans-ness will interfere with potential job security, when you don’t have to battle with TSA, when you aren’t murdered for “tricking” cis men. Cissexism ensures that most cis people face no real danger for being incorrectly gendered. This claim to authenticity ensures that they know themselves as the wrong target, and this authenticity can be used to ensure others know them as the wrong target too. Systems of power cannot work in reverse. Cis people can’t be misgendered because they simply aren’t.