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

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.

Homework Assignment

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.

Additional Reading:

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

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

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.

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  • Debonee

    June 28, 2013 at 7:46 PM Reply

    Great stuff, Dara. I’ll be sharing…

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      June 29, 2013 at 11:31 AM Reply

      Thanks for sharing it and keeping the conversation going! 🙂

  • Dionisia

    June 28, 2013 at 11:07 PM Reply

    Enjoyed Reading this Dara. Thanks.

  • ennejoy

    June 29, 2013 at 3:08 AM Reply

    Hi there!

    I would like to point out something: there being other genders than just “ma’ams” and “sirs”, and the fact that “gender presentation” doesn’t always match with “gender identity”. An example: I was assigned male at birth and usually wear clothes etc. typically thought of as “men’s” in this culture. However, I identify as genderqueer, “neither”, “other, what?”. This means that the clothes I wear, the body I inhabit etc. aren’t “men’s”, and I’m not “presenting male.” They’re mine – and I’m not presenting gender at all (there’s nothing I could look like to make people see me as genderqueer, because there’s not such an option in most people’s worldview), I’m presenting myself.

    So, in contrast to your homework assignment, I would advise something like this: when you meet a new person (regardless of whether or not they look transgender), you can’t know what gender they are. If you want/need to know (for example for using correct English pronouns for them), don’t try to figure them out for yourself. Ask them. Most people won’t understand why, but some will, and will respect you for it.

    In my language (Finnish) this is easy, because we only have one, unisex third person pronoun, and there’s no “sirring or ma’aming”. This makes life for me so much easier than if I lived somewhere else. And because of this, it’s natural for me to use the pronoun “them” about anybody I haven’t had the chance to ask for their preferred one.


    Enne Ilo

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      June 29, 2013 at 11:36 AM Reply

      Great point, in fact I am going to revise the Homework Assignment based on your response. When I was creating it I was thinking more along the lines of those briefs encounters we have throughout the day that last maybe a few minutes with the potential of never seeing that person again. But when it comes to someone you’ll be spending some time with, then asking them how they identify is an excellent idea and one that I will be sure to encourage.

      How interesting to hear of the unisex third pronoun in the Finnish language. I’ve heard of other countries beginning to implement “third gender” as an option on applications and would love to see that sort of evolution in America.

      Very much appreciate your comment, stop by again! 🙂

      • ennejoy

        June 29, 2013 at 1:39 PM Reply

        It was difficult to start asking people for preferred pronouns, but once I got around to doing it, it’s gotten easier. At least in the trans* circles of Internet that I sometimes visit – otherwise, most of my identity discussions take place in the safety of Finnish language, where you don’t ever need to know a person’s gender to speak to or about them.

        Most of the other Fenno-Ugric languages I know (e.g. Hungarian, Sami, Estonian) also have unisex 3rd person pronouns. I’m not a linguist, but I’d love to know how it’s got to be that way, with the surrounding Roman and Germanic languages (French, Italian, German, Swedish…) all being very thorough in their separation of genders by grammar. Or, of course, the other way around.

    • Amiko-Gabriel Stocking

      July 2, 2013 at 4:18 AM Reply

      What Enne Ilo said! I myself prefer to go by they/them/their pronouns as well as welcoming the zie, spivack, and yo sets (basically, any gender-inclusive/neutral set). ^_^

  • transiteration

    June 29, 2013 at 1:11 PM Reply

    The comments on a Coy Mathis’ news page were also troubling to me. When we scroll down the comments and maybe 1/100, if that, is a positive one, how do we deal with the negative ones? I’m planning on continuing to come out to people at my university, but seeing that makes me really nervous about doing it. I also worry about people that see that stuff on the internet and don’t have anyone in their life that supports them either. I’m really lucky because I do, but I worry for those that don’t.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      July 1, 2013 at 9:57 AM Reply

      Although it’s hard for me to speak about other parts of the country, or even the world, my hope is that the people who are posting the negative comments are a small yet loud bunch that tend to overshadow the positive comments with how caustic and shocking they can be. I would advise to proceed with a healthy dose of caution as you continue to come out, but don’t let the voices of those negative commenters hold you back. Many of my clients feel like “trailblazers,” in that they are many people’s first trans person they have encountered. This can be a very positive and educational experience for all. It can be xhausting and exposing as well, so be sure to take care of yourself in the meantime from your support system.

      I’m hoping blogs like this, and the many other forums and websites online as well, can help those who are isolated at this time of their lives. It’s heartbreaking indeed, and we can only hope that we’re moving closer towards this not having to be a continued reality for them.

  • Diane

    June 29, 2013 at 10:26 PM Reply

    I have a friend who is caring and respectful and truly wants to be a good ally. When we visited her during our travels this spring, she invited us to join her for a “Gospel Brunch” at a local gay bar. We accepted with delight, and on Sunday morning, met her and her boyfriend for breakfast and the drag show version of church. We enjoyed the great fun and great food, and we laughed through the entire show.

    At some point, I said something about one of the performers, using “she” and/or “her”. My friend expressed her surprise, and asked why I addressed the actor using the feminine pronouns. I explained to her that when someone is presenting as one gender or the other, that is how they should be addressed.

    Sometimes, even well-meaning people make mistakes. A gentle explanation can make all the difference. I was very fortunate to have been introduced to some of the courtesies of straight/GLBT relationships by very caring gay and lesbian friends when I was a young adult, but not all straights have that opportunity.

    Please help allies to be respectful by understanding that not everyone has the opportunity to learn from the source . . . most are doing their best. Please forgive their unintentional errors and respectfully give them the information they need to treat you with respect! It’s win-win at its best 🙂

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      July 1, 2013 at 10:01 AM Reply

      Thank you for sharing your experience Diane, it is one that is crucial to the LBGT movement and an especially good example in regards to the trans* topics we discuss here. This weekend I was fortunate enough to participate in a wedding between a local drag queen and a transman – talk about a great learning opportunity for newbies to learn about gender identity and gender presentation! Thanks for posting, please stop by again!

  • Xanthia

    July 1, 2013 at 8:12 PM Reply

    Is amazing how much a… pronoun.. a single word in a sentence can affect my mode and self validation. I cringe every time I hear the word sir, He, Him…
    Hearing it from the people that you meet everyday can hurt quite a bit … hearing from the people that you love… who know you and know how much it hurts you is devastating.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      July 2, 2013 at 9:41 PM Reply

      It must be difficult to try to find a balance between not letting a pronoun mean so much, and yet knowing that it really can mean so much. Perhaps it’s all about the context? – someone using it accidentally and correcting themselves if prompted, and then there’s those who use it as a method of showing their unwillingness to affirm your gender identity…

  • Amiko-Gabriel Stocking

    July 2, 2013 at 4:08 AM Reply

    Looking for “cues” prioritizes one culture over others. It can also appear as gender policing, which doesn’t always sit well with gender-variant folks on the receiving end. Asking for a client’s PGP’s (preferred gender pronouns) could help therapists avoid triggering old trauma’s. Here is one example from within a binary gender culture, in which not asking could cause a client distress: Let’s say the client comes in. They dress in a way one culture deems “masculine” and they are binding. The therapist “sir’s” them. As it turns out, the client is an MtF (male to female) butch. Their identity has possibly just been invalidated, their expression deemed unintelligible by someone in a position of authority. Because of this, rather than saying “the person expressed”, we can say that “I read” the person as “X”. We can own our own assumptions this way, because how we read someone does not always translate into what they intended to express.

    If you are interested, I am a gender educator. I am a non-binary genderqueer, trans-identified person and have first-hand experience navigating ever changing worlds of gender identities, customs, and socially-inspired traumas. My capstone involved creating an organizational training guide for gender-inclusive language that has already been taught as a workshop for the Maslow Project, Lotus Rising Project, Southern Oregon University, and Oregon Action. I would love to send you a free sample of the guide. Just go to http://www.lotusrisingproject.org -> About Us -> Contact US and tell them that A-G sent you for a free sample of the gender-inclusive language training guide. 🙂

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      July 2, 2013 at 9:46 PM Reply

      Thanks for the offer for the guide, I’ll be sure to check it out. 🙂 I sometimes wrestle with how to write these blog posts – knowing that my audience is varied. I appreciate your point about how a therapist should approach this, because in my own practice I would never assume a person’s gender identity – in fact I have a place on my intake paperwork asking them to fill in how they identify. My suggestions in this post were more for the person who needs a basic education as to why they should watch for how they assume gender in the people around them. However, I know there are readers who are wanting to become gender therapists who will read this as well, so I’ll be sure to include caveats next time to bring this to their attention. Thanks for sharing your insight!

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

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

  • elahe farsad

    November 29, 2014 at 1:14 AM Reply

    dear dara; I’ll be sharing too and thank’s:)

  • Daniel Or Danielle

    March 1, 2015 at 8:17 AM Reply

    I don’t fully see myself as male nor female. I have days where i feel really feminine and other days where I feel really Masculine, but fro the most part the two blind together. However, for me when I’m dressed like a woman, I prefer Ma’am, and when I am dress like a man I prefer Sir! For the most part however, I expect Sir even when I’m dress like a woman. lets face it My body is still male so why try to change people? If they want to call me Sir or ma’am then I will let them. I actually like it thou if people would refer the right pronoun to me that fits with me Gender Expression at the time they meet me!
    As for your Homework Assign I have always tried to refer to people to the way they come across to me. If they display masculine tone (even they are in a dress) I will address them as Sir! if they display a feminine tone (regardless of their dress or Job) then I will refer to them as Ma’am.
    I see now that I might have been wrong enough with that approach, Because some people can’t decide or figure out if they are Feminine or masculine. So I bring asking them what pronoun they prefer. so far not bad!
    Daniel or Danielle

  • Wondering

    November 23, 2015 at 9:00 PM Reply

    Can’t there just be a universal tital, for all adult humans, like there is in some important titles, like Capt., Col, Dr. Pastor, Rev, ect.

    Something short everyone could go by?

    Wasn’t there something like that going on related to the people in Star Trek?

    En. Ensign. and others, after all, some aliens might be neither he or she’s.

    I’d like that, a general tital for civilians, then no one would have to feel aprehensive, or insulted.

    Pardon me, ummm, ah, you dropped your wallet. 🙁

    Pardon Me, Sai (sss-eye), you dropped your wallet.

    I picked Sai, because it sounds nice, but maybe to much like sigh. 🙁

    Gai, no, too much like guy, mai, too much like my.

    There has to be something out there, a nice “nonsense” word, that could be given a meaning.

    M, is kind of odd.

    Pardon me, M, you dropped your wallet.

    Zei (Z-ee), is nice, but maybe odd too.

    Excuse Me, umm, ah, where is the elevator? umm, ah, would you have the time?

    What IS the Finnish 3rd person title word?

    How about Bai (bye), as in two? Maybe not if I’m one.

    Maybe German Einz [spelled wrong, I know} (one)

    Einz, would you have the time? I like it.

    How about some nice sounding word in a language, that means unity?

    That would be nice, because one title, a unified title, would make everyone hopefully feel unified, so the don’t need to worry about gender perceptions at all, and feel unified in society, because everyone is called the same thing.

    If enough people decide to use one same unified title, it would slowly become common usage, like the word snark (snide-remark), and other blends I can’t remember right now.

    In my opinion, the word “queer”, is a bit insultive to human beings, as the original meaning meant, odd, unusual, strange, etc.

    I don’t think most humans want to be labled as odd or strange,

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