“Ma’am” and “Sir” in a Transgender World: Part One

Edited 9/4/19

I went to the dry cleaners the other day to pick up my wife’s fancy outfits that she has to wear to dog shows. On my drive there I reflected on how this errand had a “husband-ly” feel to it. The dry cleaners is not someplace I personally feel the need to frequent. But the part of me that really enjoys feeling like the hero was excited to fulfill this task for my fair lady, and with a ridiculous amount of pride and honor.

So I enter the dry cleaners, wait my turn in line, pay the clerk, at which point she says, “Thank you, ma’am, have a nice day.” I could tell I felt…disappointed.

Now, it’s normal for me to feel a pang of annoyance whenever a stranger calls me “ma’am,” thanks to how conscious I am of how the incorrect use of “ma’am” or “sir” can affect my trans and nonbinary clients. But disappointed? That was a new one for me.

I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this blog post that it was because I had entered the dry cleaners in a more “masculine” head space. It’s a place I find myself in quite often and have spent many years working on embracing that very natural part of who I am. Being called “ma’am” derailed me in that moment. It felt like she had a fleeting impression of who I was, unconsciously assigned a word to it, spoke it, and it was…well, not right.

It’s called being “Misgendered”

I immediately wondered, “What makes her think I’m a ‘ma’am’?” Since ma’am tends to = definitely female and I wasn’t even close to feeling “definitely female,” I looked down at what I was wearing. Jeans and a t-shirt, a ball cap, no makeup, no earrings… Was it my voice? Was it my chest? Was it something about the shape of my face?

What I experienced at the dry cleaners is only a small percentage of what it’s like for someone who is trans or nonbinary. *note: I wrote this in 2013, before I realized I am nonbinary and trans*

Think about it – how many times a week do you find yourself in an establishment in which you will more than likely be called “ma’am” or “sir”? You’d be amazed at how often you are labeled by strangers as a female or male once you start paying attention to this. And we haven’t even touched upon the subject of misgendering (the act of gendering someone incorrectly) that occurs over the telephone.

“Hey, Girl” & “Hey, Buddy”

As I’ve been writing this post in a local coffeeshop the barista has addressed every person who appears to be a female (including myself) “girl.” This can make the heart sing of someone who is trans femme, and make the heart plummet of someone who is trans masc. She also called every person who appeared to be male “dude” or “buddy.” Again, this can feel highly validating for someone who is trans masc, and devastating for someone who is trans femme.

Don’t get me wrong, my trans clients generally don’t harbor ill will towards a customer service person who misgenders them. It’s ingrained in our culture as a method of showing respect, and isn’t something that’s going to change anytime soon, if ever.

My hope is that the readers of this post become more aware of the use of “ma’am” and “sir” in our society, and develop compassion for those who are negatively impacted by their use.

Note:  I’m coming at this from a somewhat limited perspective, in that the majority of my clients live in the Southern Colorado area, which has a high population of military personnel in the area, and are mainly Caucasian. The frequency and intention of use of “ma’am” and “sir” absolutely varies in different parts of the country, as well as with ethnic backgrounds and cultures, religious background, etc.

This is a very complex subject matter, which is why this is only Part One to this series.  It may seem like no big deal to those who have never had to experience what it’s like to be addressed as “ma’am” or “sir” in relation to their identity and sense of self. But for someone who is trans/nonbinary, it can be a daily ordeal.

Part Two of “‘Ma’am’ and ‘Sir’ in a Transgender World”

In Part Two we’ll look at the challenges many trans people encounter when they are “going out” (i.e. doing normal things like shopping, eating out, going to work, etc.) Whereas cisgender folks oftentimes don’t give it a second thought, there’s a self-conscious process trans folks will often go through when deciding how to dress and present themselves so they will not be misgendered. Including the decision of whether or not to speak out loud in public.

“Ma’am” and “Sir” in a Transgender World: Part Three

Homework Assignment

Become aware of how often you are addressed as “ma’am” or “sir.” Why do you think that person assumed you were a female or a male? Notice your own use of “ma’am” and “sir” as well.  If using these labels is too ingrained into your psyche to stop using them, come up with an alternative term you can use for when you encounter someone who’s gender identity you are uncertain of (such as “friend”). Or don’t use a label at all in those circumstances (“Have a nice day,” followed by a smile).

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  • Joe

    June 10, 2013 at 9:39 AM Reply

    Great post! I can totally relate to this soooo much.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      June 10, 2013 at 3:35 PM Reply

      Am so glad to hear that, thank you for your comment. 🙂

  • Jessica Hildebran

    June 10, 2013 at 11:36 PM Reply

    As a military wife, all I ever heard my husband say was “sir” or “ma’am” to anyone not wearing non-commissioned officer rank. However, as the years between him and the military pass, the less frequently I hear him use those terms to address people. He and I both use them out of politeness, but no longer as a part of a job requirement.

    Great thought provoking subject!

  • Eve

    June 12, 2013 at 6:22 AM Reply

    Fantastic post, I can`t wait for part two on this…It definitely made me think, although being German, I usually refrained from calling anyone “sir” or “ma`am” anyway. It always felt awkward to me…

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      June 14, 2013 at 6:52 PM Reply

      I’m always intrigued to hear how other countries and cultures handle such things. Thanks for your insight. 🙂

  • Erik

    June 21, 2013 at 1:44 AM Reply

    Great post, I as a transmale myself know how shitty it feels if someone misgenders you. It’s like a blow in the face or something. And even worse than the misgendering (is that even a word? Lol!) is the milling that comes afterwards “WHY did that person gender me as female?”
    My mum is also a real game-breaker, as she calls me ‘girl’ an inhuman amount of times, even if I WERE an actual girl I’d get pissed by it, lol! She also just tells people about her “daughter” before they can even decide for themselves what gender I am. It makes me so sick… Of course I’d prefer a REAL male body, but I could cope with all of this if society could at least accept me as a man, even though I don’t look like one.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      June 21, 2013 at 11:40 AM Reply

      I’m so sorry to hear about what you are having to endure. I understand it might take a parent a while to adjust to calling their child by a different name and gender marker, but there’s definitely a line that is crossed when it’s a flat out refusal to do so. Hang in there sweetie, and thank you for sharing your experience with us!

      • Jan

        July 30, 2014 at 9:23 PM Reply

        I have become much less likely to use gendered comments to strangers, knowing how it effects my trans child. I worked very hard to get the pronouns correct. My Mom is very supportive, but she’s in her 70s and I swear the pronouns will never switch over. It makes me nervous and upset that she will “out” him when that’s the last thing she would want to do.

    • Ashley

      June 28, 2013 at 8:47 PM Reply

      Hey Erik,
      It sounds like she is still in denial; as if saying it over and over will change reality.
      Stay strong, hon, we’re with you.

  • Finn

    June 21, 2013 at 5:45 PM Reply

    I get misgendered all the time (and here in the midwest, people use gendering titles like ma’am and sir constantly). It makes me feel really confused and depressed when people make all those gender assumptions and assignments, but it makes me equally depressed when I fail to speak up on my own behalf. I am not currently taking testosterone, and I have decided that I need above all to learn to say (at least some of the time) I am transgender and I’d prefer to have this conversation without all the ma’am and sir. I actually made up a song to help myself–knowing the song in my head might make it easier and friendlier for me to give my little speech. But it’s still really hard. There’s always a reason why this time it’s just too awkward or “not worth it.” I’m still trying, because I know for sure that once I can do this, it’s really going to all be worth it.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      June 22, 2013 at 5:08 PM Reply

      I’m glad you brought up the issue of trying to speak up for yourself when misgendering occurs – I have a lot of clients who have a tough time with that as well. I’ve heard it described as trying to find a balance between making it an educational moment for the other persons and sometimes just not really feeling up to the extra effort that takes.

      (I’d love to hear the song by the way). 🙂

  • […] 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 […]

  • Kyra

    June 29, 2013 at 8:47 AM Reply

    On the topic of speaking up when some misgenders me, a lot of times, it’s scary. Especially living in a more conservative town like Colorado Springs, it’s tough, because I’m always afraid, what if I say something, and then I get beat up. Luckily, it doesn’t happen to often, but when someone does misgender me, I generally won’t say anything out of fear.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      June 29, 2013 at 11:29 AM Reply

      For sure, I hear that concern come up a lot, since I also practice in Colorado Springs. It seems like it becomes a question of “is it really worth it?” in that moment – having to gauge the setting, the person, the other people around, whether you are alone or not, how long the interaction has to be, etc.

  • Josie Augusta

    July 22, 2013 at 3:13 PM Reply

    It doesn’t bother me if someone calls me “ma’am” when I am dressed in either mode, male or female. I feel I am accomplishing my feminity a bit.
    Josie of Augusta, Georgia
    Facebook: Josie Augusta

  • […] “Ma’am” and “Sir” in a Transgender World: Part One […]

  • Michi

    February 17, 2014 at 4:37 PM Reply

    I never even thought of this. Mostly because I viewed it as a respect thing, I have relatives from the south who call everyone by “sir” or “ma’am” even their mother at times, even me, their aunt. So I was always thinking , yep I don’t care where we live or if it is common or uncommon my kids will learn this, because I have seen just how much it teaches to those kids about respect. So this was really interesting to read. I always thought of pronouns but I didn’t think of this

    • darahoffmanfox

      February 17, 2014 at 7:05 PM Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and glad you found it to be interesting!

  • Tiarnán

    July 16, 2014 at 11:31 PM Reply

    I’m not out at work, and I take orders in the drive-thru so I get misgendered a lot! “Oh thank you ma’am” I know the customers mean well, and since I’m not out at work there’s nothing to really be done about it… but it sucks. I’m glad that as employees we’re actually taught not to (for the drive thru at least) use gendered terms like “sir” or “ma’am” when working. You’d be surprised by how many times you’d swear you were taking the order of a woman, only for ‘her’ to get to the window and have them be a man. Some cis guys have really high voices and some cis women have very low voices and so we are just taught not to, to avoid mis-gendering.

    When I’m out and about (binding… possibly packing… and generally having a great day) is when it’s the worst. I’m pre-T and while my voice sounds low-ish to me, I know it doesn’t pass, so I try to speak sparingly. There’s nothing worse than doing some grocery shopping, getting up to the cashier and having her go “How are you today sir” (YES!!) Answering and then getting the inevitable “Oh I’m so sorry ma’am, my mistake”

    I really wish I could speak up and correct them that they got it right the first time, but I’m really, really shy… add to that the fact that some fear definitely comes into play, and that’s definitely not happening.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      July 31, 2014 at 3:45 AM Reply

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Much luck to you as you continue on your journey. 🙂

  • Kristy

    July 30, 2014 at 4:41 PM Reply

    When I was traveling a fair amount about 10 years ago, I would dress androgynously when I could. I really didn’t care how others felt, but I found that it wasn’t individual items picked people up on, but the whole package. One trip in particular, I was flying home from London and I was wearing a red sweater and had my hair styled in a feminine manner. No breast forms, no make up, or jewary. I guess over the course of the day, I had sort of forgotten how I looked and when I landed in the US, did the routine with Customs and Immigration. My passport was of my male self, and the Immigration Officer made sure he emphasized, “Welcome home, SIR!” when he gave me back my passport. Took me back when he did that, but I guess he was trying to make a point.

  • jodiw

    August 2, 2014 at 11:22 PM Reply

    I guess in the UK, Sir and Madam are much less used because of its’ association with class, which we slowly try to erode away. However, it is still used in the service industry a certain amount as an introduction – mainly supermarkets and coffee shops where they train staff heavily in engaging friendly customer service (e.g. all checkout staff in supermarkets will say hello to you). I personally take it as an insult to be misgendered when it’s obvious what gender I’m trying to be. A common thing I hear people tell them to overcome this rote training is “If you’re not sure what someone’s gender is, don’t say anything”.
    Thought I’d mention one way of correcting people that I found by accident (or I just fancied telling you all a story ;). I’d had a really bad day at work, anxiety attack, the works. I literally ran out of work it was that bad. I needed somewhere to gather my thoughts. I went into a coffee shop and a continental-looking chap with a huge quiff like some hair gel advert, who was mopping at the time, said “Hello, Sir” in a chirpy way. It was literally the last straw for me. I couldn’t think what to do, just break down in tears, shout my head off, do something violent or just plain walk out. In the delay of all this going on in my mind, some time must’ve passed because when I next look up there’s a young pony-tailed girl smiling at me asking me for my order. The guy probably realized something was up and decided not to deal with it so got his colleague to serve me instead! I guess he’d rather mop!
    So that made me think that if someone who is about to serve you misgenders you, just don’t respond. Not just carry on with the exchange in silence, but stop dead and give them nothing to work on. They can’t take your order, they can’t strike up some cheerful chat and carry on as though you haven’t insulted them. Their purpose of offering polite customer service is interrupted. Hopefully they get the message and make the connection that it’s what had been said. You shouldn’t need to say anything to correct them, and may even get an apology. This is obviously not usable everywhere, but is merely another option available to you.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      August 3, 2014 at 2:46 AM Reply

      A totally valid option indeed, I’m grateful you shared your experience with us! I bet it will help someone else for sure. 🙂

  • Rik

    May 23, 2015 at 6:30 PM Reply

    I just wanted to add that for agender people like me, “ma’am” and “sir” both hurt.

    I wish there was a gender-neutral equivalent.

  • Nadia

    January 3, 2016 at 4:27 PM Reply

    I HATE being called “sir” I don’t know how to respond in public to it. I’m part time currently but even when I’m presenting as “male” for the time being I consider it really rude to gender someone when you don’t know them. It’s old language. It also happens every day and it’s really deflating and infuriating. I just wish I knew what to say without it sounding hostile. I thought about even wearing a button that says “Don’t call me “Sir” THANKS!”

  • Bruce Wilson

    August 30, 2016 at 7:10 AM Reply

    In Southern California, and now at my new home in Fort Collins, CO, lots of females wear jeans, sweats, ball cap, no earrings, no make up. They are still women, because these things have nothing to do with ones sex. If the lady called you ma’am, the giveaway is two things: the shape of your face and how you walked. Females tend to have more of an oval shape to their face, with a pointed chin. Women’s hips are structured differently from male hips. For some reason women are hip to these differences, while males are usually quite oblivious.

  • davina

    July 2, 2017 at 12:14 PM Reply

    I think this was a great article. I can relate to it as I am a trans girl myself. I am just starting my transition and learning how to do makeup for myself, so I know the feeling of being called sir as making me uncomfortable. I have been called ma’am a couple times on the phone as I worked at a call center for a couple weeks and it was a great feeling.

  • Jared Mell

    July 5, 2017 at 11:06 AM Reply

    Daring to appear in public when you have the mere hint of androgyny is borderline criminal activity in parts of the US. I don’t know how the proponents of bathroom laws miss the fact that despite being engineered to punish people who happen to be trans (trans women, more specifically) these types of bills, if enforced in practical terms would potentially subject anyone who doesn’t fit a clear gender ideal (whatever that happens to be) to a genital inspection for needing to use a public restroom. This would seem to have consequences the authors of such bills did not intend. but I think the reason they persist is that they feel irritated when they get the ma’am/sir thing wrong. They are trying to be politely dismissive and having their misgendering of someone brought to their attention has disrupted their universe, giving them anxiety and spotlighting their rude behavior. And these are the lengths these folks will resort to in order to maintain that politely dismissive is the same thing as kind. It isn’t though, because it doesn’t feel that way. Feelings get dismissed when discussing things like legislation. Logic is supposed to prevail instead. But people so used to dismissing feelings are unable to recognize when their own logic has been compromised by theirs. Hence you get cold pieces of hateful discrimination that are self contradictory, unconstitutional, selectively enforced, and passed off as the preservation of someone’s rights, ostensibly, though whom is never exactly clear. And these same folks who propose these bills will tell you political correctness has gone too far. Ya don’t say?

  • Quill

    July 6, 2017 at 12:34 PM Reply

    I am a black cis woman and have a daughter whom I have taught to respond to me with “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” out of a sign of respect for her elders as I was taught in my culture. I have struggled with whether or not I teach her to do this with other folks outside of our family because of this issue of possibly misgendering someone but I still want her to be respectful of her elders so I’ve been at a loss and maybe it’s something I need to unlearn or not pass on to her. I still respond with “ma’am” and “sir” with folks who are elderly but I question if I should continue this?

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