Charleston's Thoughts on Gender (Pt1)
This week the discussion here is going to be a little more uncomfortable. Rev. Amy asked me to speak to you about an issue that’s both quite personal and very important for our community to understand. As a transgender person, I encounter lots of folks, even well meaning people, who struggle with validating my identity. I’m writing this letter hoping to shed some more light on the genderqueer experience. I can’t imagine this will all fit into one newsletter so you will get part two next week. I’ve bolded some of the more important takeaways.
Before I get into it, I want to be sure we are on the same page so I will lay out a couple of terms that might not be as familiar to all of us.
Being “misgendered” is when an individual is referred to by an incorrect pronoun. This can happen to cisgendered people as well, but it doesn’t happen often. My pronouns are they/them, and I feel best when people use those for me. I feel okay when people use he/him/his pronouns for me. I don’t feel comfortable when people use she/her/hers for me. Feel free to ask me any questions you have about my pronouns when you see me; I would love to help anyone understand more about this.
A person’s “deadname” is the name they were given, but do not feel comfortable using. I refer to my deadname as my legal name (although I am in the process of having it changed!) partly because people are more likely to understand what I'm talking about and partly because I prefer not to reference death in this scenario as it can create confusion, or sound flippant.
Some people think of a trans person as someone who was a certain gender, and then became a different gender. This is not an accurate portrayal. There was not a woman within me who died and became a non-binary person; I’ve been nonbinary since I began existing. Other people’s perception that I was a woman at all was a misconception.
For me, being misgendered and referred to incorrectly feels as though someone is actually trying to steamroll who I know I am and make me conform to a gender role they can more easily accept. Their focus is not on me and how to help me feel valued as a human, but rather on themself and how to alleviate their own discomfort.
Let me give you an example from a day in my life. An incident happened at one of my other jobs just a few weeks ago in which a coworker not only misgendered me in front of a client, but worse, asked me for my legal name, even though we had spoken before and she was already aware that my name is Charlie. Here are just a couple of reasons why this was such an egregious mistake.
Firstly, this made me feel as though my coworker has no interest in understanding or validating who I am. I felt like even though I’ve spent all 25 of my years with myself and have worked hard to understand my own inner workings and present myself as accurately as possible based on that knowledge, it means nothing to her. I felt like she believes she is somehow more of an expert about me and my life than I am, even though she barely knows me. Like she was looking past me rather than at me. As if her belief in the gender binary is more important and more accurate than my life experience.
Secondly, my clients (and anyone currently in my life) know me as Charlie or Charleston. That’s my name. It’s how I think of myself and it is in alignment with who I know myself to be. Confusing my client by implying that I don’t use my “real name” not only gave me the sense that she didn’t trust that I understand myself, but also undermined my credibility with an individual that I work with personally on a daily basis. My clients are under my care for months to years at a time and damaging that relationship in such a way is harmful not only to me but also to my client. My client didn’t know what to say and I had to have a much bigger, more personal conversation with him than I had planned to about my gender and my name.
This same principle bears out with any other relationship in my life. When other people don’t use my correct pronouns or name, it forces me to have a discussion that I may not be ready to have with the next person.
All of these conversations take time and energy away from me. I have the same 168 hours per week as everyone, but I spend many more of mine trying to accurately convey who I am and how I feel so that I’m not completely misunderstood. I am very comfortable as a nonbinary person. But it’s exhausting to constantly hear others messaging about who I am and how I ought to present myself so that others feel more comfortable.
Unfortunaltely, this is a common experience for me and other nonbinary people. Somehow, truths that I tell about myself often mean less than what others believe they perceive and choose to focus on. I don’t think I can accurately explain how demoralizing and dehumanizing that feels.
Can you imagine if you introduced yourself and the person you were speaking to simply chose not to believe you? If you said your name was Bert and they told you they would only call you Joice because they felt like it fit you better, you’d rightfully be upset. Now imagine if the same person chose to use a pronoun that you had specifically mentioned was incorrect simply because they felt more comfortable calling you that pronoun.
And then imagine you have to have this concern that every new person you meet might just behave that same way towards you, because society has given them incorrect assumptions. It’s very isolating, stressful, and exhausting to move through the world having to simply hope for the most basic respect - a sentiment that probably everyone in a minority can echo from experience in one way or another.
The truth is that we are all much more similar than we are different, and the differences among us ought to be celebrated and used to better our world around us. I’m so thankful to be a part of a community like ours, where I know that is always the common goal. Thanks for reading.