You may have noticed that at the bottom of several of my posts I have a Homework Assignment for my readers. These are intentionally meant to be challenging, in the hopes that they will increase your understanding of what it’s like to live in our society as someone who is transgender.
I’m here to confess that this past week I was challenged by my own Homework Assignment from Part One of this series: Notice your own use of “ma’am” and “sir”.
Here’s How it Went Down
The setting was the DMV in my smallish Colorado town. I was there to change my last name on my driver’s license. It was an exciting occasion – now that civil unions are legal in Colorado I am finally able to hyphenate my last name with my wife’s. The middle-aged man behind the desk was dressed in a rumpled shirt and tie and sported a nice-sized mustache.
I was a little nervous about handing over my Civil Union license to him as the reason for my name change. A few days earlier the clerk at the Wells Fargo in my town said she had never heard of a civil union, so I took a few moments to educate her on it’s legality and meaning. It’s not that I mind doing that, but it had been a long day and I was hoping not to have to do that again.
Well, my DMV friend gave the license a very normal look-over and processed it without question. Happy day! With my nervousness behind me I decided to take our relationship to another level and chatted with him a bit, asking if he’d had a slow day. He said it had been “hell” for the most part and had finally begun to slow down. I made appropriate noises of sympathy.
He then asked me to step over to the wall where you get your picture taken. I was preparing to give my fake smile when he asked me to remove my sunglasses from the top of my head. And I said, “Yes, ssss…” It almost came out! What kind of hypocritical blog-writing-gender-therapist would I be by calling this person “Sir”!
But it felt so strange not to.
A Change of Perspective?
In the days following I did the next part of the Homework Assignment, which was to ask myself why I was wanting to address him as “sir” in that moment. Was it to show respect? That didn’t sit right with me – not that I didn’t want to show him respect, but it was something more than that. I thought about how nice it was that he didn’t quiz me about the validity of a civil union, and how I knew a bit about how his day had gone. And it was then that I realized… I just wanted to be friendly!
If I had known his name, I would have said “Sure, *insert name*.” It felt strange not to add something after the comma. I wanted to acknowledge that I was enjoying my experience with him. It seemed so shallow to just say “Yes, sure, okay.” So I asked myself, when we don’t know someone’s name, do we sometimes use “Ma’am” or “Sir” instead (or even “dude” or “girlfriend”) as a way to connect with them? As a way to show friendliness and, ironically enough, express a certain comfort level felt with the person?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going back on what I said in Part One and Part Two of this series, when it comes to how the constant use of “Ma’am” and “Sir” in our society can make things very stressful for people who are transgender. I stayed true to my Homework Assignment and, although it only took a few seconds, I made sure to assess whether or not the person sitting across from me was presenting themselves as male, female, or neither (i.e. agender, non-binary, etc.). Sure, it’s possible that this person who was presenting a male was, in his heart of hearts, struggling with Gender Dysphoria. However, since I didn’t see any cues indicating “female,” I went with male, feeling I was validating his gender expression (even if he more than likely didn’t know I was doing so).
But I’m willing to entertain the notion that there are still moments where using “Ma’am” and “Sir” aren’t so harmful after all. As many times as my clients cringe when being misgendered by the wrong use of those words, they also celebrate when the correct one is used.
What’s the Change that is Needed?
Although many of us believe a gender-neutral society is the answer to many of the pressures and expectations presented by a society that is gender-binary based, it’s not something that is going to happen in our lifetime. Nor is it something that everyone, including many people who are transgender, feels is necessary.
What’s needed is a society in which one can express their gender expression without judgment, without fear of rejection, without fear of one’s safety. What’s needed is a society in which someone can say, “I know I was assigned this gender at birth, but I feel more like the other gender,” and they are able to transition in peace and with support from their fellow citizens.
Many of my clients have discovered that several Native American tribes consider being born with gender variance (i.e. “Two Spirited”) as something to be revered and honored. This is usually shocking news to them, since all they have known is our own culture’s opinion on it.
What is that opinion?
As much as it feels like progress is being made, all it takes is a story like the ruling in favor of Coy Mathis to remind us just how much fear, anger, and hatred still remains when it comes to something as non-threatening as Gender Dysphoria. A few quotes from the Comments section of an article regarding the Coy Mathis decision confirms this:
“This is a REALLY disturbing decision! These parents used their kid as a TOOL and they should be ashamed. And now other kids are forced to use the same facilities? Wrong and disgusting!”
“A 6 year old cannot vote cannot drink cannot smoke cannot have sex yet they know their sexual orientation eh? not to mention until it is snipped it is still a boy and therefore should not be allowed to use the girls bathroom.”
“Good; then remove his gentalia now. I’m sure he wants to be fully equal, no? …hums…All I want for Christmas is a va-gi-na, a va-gi-na, a va-gi-naaaa…”
And this is what people say in regards to a child. Imagine what people say when the person who is being discussed is an adult?
What are we asking for?
I understand that a lot of people don’t like the idea of not being able to use “Ma’am” and “Sir” in conversation anymore, which is why I wanted to share my latest revelation around this topic.
Myself and other trans allies are not asking for our society to entirely change itself to accommodate the needs of the transgender population. We’re asking for compassion, understanding, and support for those who have Gender Dysphoria, for those who are gender variant, and even for those who are cisgender and don’t happen to conform to the stereotypes of what it means to be male or female.
Maybe one day our society as a whole will be even able to learn from those who are trans, when it comes to understanding the balance of masculine and feminine energies within us.
In the meantime, you can take a very simple step towards making this a reality.
Read this. It’s an exert from “Are You a Boy?” by Stephanie Mott, Executive Director of Statewide Transgender Education Project:
A 4-year-old boy asked me once, “Are you a boy, or are you a girl?”
I responded, “That’s a good question,” buying myself a few moments to think about how to answer. I didn’t look very much like a woman at the time, and I didn’t exactly look like a man either. It was an awkward time in my transition, when questions like this one were just beginning to become an expected part of my day, although seldom as innocent and honest as was the question on this day. After a few seconds, I stopped and turned to the boy and asked, “What do you think?”
He stopped and looked at me and said, “I think you are a girl because you have a purse and you are wearing a necklace.”
I said, “That’s a good answer.” And from that moment on, I was a girl in this young man’s mind. The question had been asked and answered. That was that. No need to spend any more time trying to figure out what it all meant, or if it was right or wrong. It just was.
Remember that the next time you are unsure as to whether or not someone might be a male or a female. What cues are they giving that indicate “male” or “female”? Regardless of what you think their height, voice, hand size, bone structure, etc. says, take in the whole person, not just the details. Then use “ma’am” or “sir” to your heart’s content. You may have just made a transgender person’s day.
Note (added June 29, 2013): The above Homework Assignment is suitable for when you are engaging with someone for a relatively brief amount of time, maybe just a few minutes of interaction at a retail establishment, business, restaurant, etc. However, in regards to people you will be seeing on a regular basis, there’s another step that can be taken as well.
I was reminded by a reader of this blog to, when in doubt, ask the person “How do you identify?” They might say, “Girl, guy, neither, gender queer, trans man, female…” What’s important is that they are letting you know how they self-identify, so you can then respect this during your interactions. As the reader commented, it can be awkward at first, but in the end it can really enhance the relationship you have with this person and help them feel welcome.