The terms misgendering and deadnaming are foreign to many people. Some that are not familiar with these terms and what they mean believe them to be “politically correct snowflaking”. Some are so lost when it comes to transgender concerns that they would rather believe dangerous and backward-thinking ideologues like Ben Shapiro or Ben Carson than to listen to actual experiences from the people who live this life. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? In many tangential ways, it’s like Jim Crow all over again but with a new demographic.
Before we get into the effects of these words and actions, let us first take a look into what each of these terms mean.
Misgendering: refers to someone, usually transgender using language, especially a pronoun that does not correctly reflect their affirmed gender. Examples include calling a transgender woman “he”, “him”, or “sir”.
Deadnaming: is the use of the birth or other former name of a transgender or non-binary person they no longer use, whether a legal change or not. While it is understood that deadnaming is not always intentional, it is important to understand the significance of deadnaming to remain a true ally to the transgender community.
In many ways misgendering and deadnaming are actions more than just words. Too often, it is a way that people with a bias can use them as weapons against people that are transgender. Too often, trans people who are “clocked” (when a transgender person is profiled as trans and not their affirmed gender), or not “passable” (both words, I believe should be stricken from our vocabulary) bear the brunt of the burden. That said, let’s be clear. There is no such thing as “not trans enough”. In other words, some transgender people transition to a point where they become, “stealth”. Stealth simply means they present cisgender (a person born congruent; like 99.4% of the population) to the gender to which they identify. Men and women come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of attractiveness. But as a species, we have subconsciously learned to profile within milliseconds, the difference between male and female, even when it’s a bit vague.
What humanity and the human brain did not account for, is the vast diversity of the human condition that renders this method of unconscious profiling ineffective; at least for a little more than .6% of the adult population; that’s about 1.4 million people. When we think of all of the closeted adults and individuals under the age of eighteen, that number raises quite dramatically.
So what actually happens when a transgender person is misgendered or deadnamed? The answer is extremely personal to each individual as to how they cope with adversity; however, by-in-large, when someone is misgendered or deadnamed, the consequences are additive and usually devastating. The best way to explain it is through examples.
As a transgender woman, I have had my fair share of misgendering and deadnaming; accidental and violently intentional. I had just finished putting on my face, fixing my long hair, and getting casually dressed. I looked into the mirror that I had avoided for nearly 37 years and said, “There she is.” I felt wonderful about myself. I could finally start to see me after two years of hormone therapy, painful laser hair removal, and even more painful; electrolysis. I was ready to go to work with a wonderful sense of confidence.
On my way, I stopped at the local Dunkin Donuts for my typical pumpkin spice iced latte. I pulled up to the drive-thru ordering menu. I placed my order and the girl said, “Anything else, sir?”
I quickly and politely replied, “Yes. I’m not a sir.”
“Yeah. (laugh) okay. please pull up…(pause), Sir. (more laughing).
When I got to the window I was already feeling very down-trodden, as I had felt so confident and pretty today. She opened the window, handed me my drink as I asked her what was so funny? There were two other employees still looking out at me and laughing with one another, so I asked, “Can I speak to your manager?”
“Nope. She just left. (laugh), then she closed the pick-up window and walked away from me. Not only was I personally humiliated, but I was now emotionally drained. I had a feeling of dread. “No matter what I do, people are always going to be shitty to me for no reason.” I cried to myself.
I drove to a parking space in the mostly empty lot and proceeded to call the phone number for this particular Dunkin Donuts.
“Hi. Can I speak to the manager? I have a quick question.”
“Hold on, please,” The voice replied. Obviously the manager was there. “Hi. This is ——–, the location manager. How can I help you?”
“I was just at your drive-thru and got misgendered and humiliated by several employees on your crew,” I explained.
“I’m sorry that happened to you, but I’m driving right now, so I will handle this when I return to the location.”
“Wait. You mean to tell me that your employees are working without a manager onsite?”
“I will be back at the location shortly. I need to hang up because I’m driving.” The woman on the phone said this while she was walking out the front door of the building with her phone up to her ear. My window was down, so I could hear both her actual voice just feet away from my car, and her voice a second later on my smartphone.
“Do you see the black Hyundai Tuscon to your right with the person waving at you That would be me. Thank you for your time, but I will be calling corporate. Have a nice day.
A lot of us do not get confrontational in these types of situations. We simply let it all stack up inside of us like heavy bricks weighing us down. But I did call corporate and filed a complaint after speaking to a transgender attorney ahead of time. This story has a bittersweet ending. The Dunkin Donuts location to which I refer had a complete staff replacement. The location underwent diversity training. And they no longer gender anyone at the drive-thru.
I have been back countless times to that location and the girls there now are so super-friendly. They heard of the incident and said, “We don’t have time for transphobic shit like that, girl. I love your nails by the way,”
The long term repercussions of that incident are difficult to grapple with. It leaves an indelible mark on your psyche. We just want to fit in. We require the simplest of affirmation. But when that affirmation or acceptance is deliberately taken from us, we become more and more despondent each time it occurs; whether it’s intentional or not.
People have misrepresented transgender people by stating that we hate ourselves and that is why the suicide rate is so high in our demographic. The vast majority of suicide contemplations and attempts result from family rejection, bullying and harassment, or feeling unsafe for simply being who they are. The fact is, we do love ourselves despite our incongruity. The problem is that too often we are made to feel unloved by others; thus the high suicide rate.
Each time one of us is misgendered or deadnamed a little part of us dies. We are left with a diminished sense of affirmation or self. We begin to feel less human; less worthy. Our self-esteem takes a huge hit with each encounter. Many of us describe the feeling like someone stabbing us in the stomach with a knife, then twisting the knife so the bleeding doesn’t stop. A graphic, but an effective metaphor. There are many of reasons many of us are under the care of a psychologist. One of the biggest reasons is not, as people try to put it, “They hate themselves.”, rather the enormous impact certain people within our society have on each of us. Just like a woman that is continuously beaten down by an abusive husband; her mental health suffers from each encounter–so it is with people that are transgender.
I am happy to see small advances in how society views transgender people. But, as we have seen with people of color; the racists still exist long after the civil rights movement. The transgender community will, unfortunately, remain extremely vulnerable to discrimination, stereotyping, violence, and suicide for the foreseeable future. But as society awakens to the truth that there is more to the human condition than meets the eye, new forms of universal acceptance will begin to take hold. We are seeing the beginnings of it right now. Unfortunately, the true fruit may not be tasted by the majority of us reading this article now.
Maybe this is a case of lead by example. Here is what I do at least once a day. When seeing or speaking to anyone, typically another woman, I will affirm and compliment them. Is it so hard to say or do something good for somebody that is different than you? Tell her you love her nails, or her hair is gorgeous, or how pretty she looks. Tell her something positive about herself or why you are such good friends. People–and I mean all people, need affirmation. The smallest gesture can make or break someone’s day, week, year, or life. Trust me; I know.
So if you do find yourself misgendering or deadnaming someone, simply apologize. I know so many people, even relatives that accidentally misgender or deadname me and don’t apologize, but rather, become defensive. Advice–don’t.