I was watching a video which has been doing the rounds. It is of a fracas in a shop when a customer feels they have been “misgendered” by a sales assistant. As I watched them argue about the use of “Sir” and “Ma’am”, and saw their emotions rise, I had the thought that this is a very modern problem. My instinctive response was another nostalgic thought of “In my day we never .. .. ..“and so on. I allowed myself to imagine that such problems never really occurred when I was young, and that I, and my age cohort, had a much easier time. Though, in Britain, we would still have been upset it anyone had used the term “ma’am” as we would have felt they were being deliberately sarcastic. But later, when out running, I recovered the memories of when I had been “misgendered” in my youth. I had thought that times had changed but perhaps not.
About two generations ago, in the seventies, there was a veritable frenzy of misgendering. I was an adolesecent, thin, and boyish. I was waiting for my facial hair to arrive and longing for reason to shave. I knew I didn’t look manly or macho therefore I needed an alternative style to appear winsome and interesting to the opposite sex. It was the time of psychadelia and I leapt into this trend’s music, books, drama and fashion with gusto. Surely no one would fail to see that I was a mature man with knowledge and discernment when I immersed myself in this counter-culture. Surely no-one, or at least one person, at least one female person, could see how interesting I was and would want to start a relationship with me.
Unfortunately I had not thought this strategy through adequately. While knowing the music of Cream and Jefferson Airplane, being familiar with the books of Huxley and Thompson, and having sat through the films of Bunuel and Antonioni were valuable plus points. This knowledge did gain me entry to many conversations at parties. I was able to hang out with other wise and enlightened people. But the strategy did not work out as I had anticipated. Unfortunately the fashions amplified my problems. I grew my hair long (The hair on top of my head that is) and I bought bell bottomed trousers and cheesecloth shirts. Togged up in my purple bell bottoms, multicoloured tie-dye short, with my long freshly-shampooed hair dropping down the back of my Afghan coat, it was pretty difficult, especially at a distance, to know what I was – a boy, a man, a girl or a woman ? The psychedelic fashions rather than make me look like an adult manly-man had made me look like a young girly-boy. This was not the outcome I had planned.
I can recall many times, in queues, people behind me passing by with a jaunty “excuse me Miss“. Similarly people in lectures calling out to the “girl up there in the back. Yes, you, the girl with the long hair“. These were mortifying events for a young man insecure in his masculinity. They were public and embarassing. However, the only anger I recall feeling was with myself for my lack of machismo, or at the world for the unfairness of having this late developing physique. I knew there was no malevolence from the person doing the misgendering. I knew they had made a mistake and could even entertain the possibility that they had a twinge of embarassment. I never argued with them, the sooner this episode passed the better. I had no desire to prolong the embarrassment or to invite more people to be aware of what was happening. The less people who were aware the better for all concerned. I am so glad this was before the days of social media where my discomfort could be spread around the globe in minutes
There were of course times when the misgendering was deliberate. I recall that the barmen in the harder city pubs would make a point of noticing the long hair that I and my friends sported (“Will you ladies be having Babycham then?”). Likewise, after arrest by the police at demonstrations I never doubted that the mistakes the policemen made (“Excuse me miss is this your placard ?“) were anything but deliberate. In this situation we would generally play to the audience as we were on ‘the right side of history’ and part of the countercultural revolution. We would play up to their errors as flamboyantly as Mike Jagger could strut his ambiguous stuff on stage. On these occasions their faux misgendering was just grist to the mill and a sign that we were winning. This was not upsetting, they hadn’t made a mistake, they knew our gender they were just upset that we didn’t play to their rules.
Although I can understand the distress caused by misgendering I presume most occasions occur by accident rather then design. In these circumstances tolerance and respectful apologies seem the obvious course of action. Between civilised people these errors need not cause more than minor momentary distress. When it occurs deliberately, and without provocation, then like any other insult anger and ire are the appropriate response. Though I would still wager that maintaining the civilised posture is more likely to win the day.
I never get misgendered now. Age came and took the dubiety away. Everyone, even at quite a distance and without spectacles, clearly sees an old man. I’d be flattered to be mistaken for a boy or a youth, or even a girl, but I’m fairly certain that this is not going to happen. However, I am also happy to know that now I have left the age where I believe aspects of my identity should and do define me. It is no longer important to me whether you think I’m old or young, male or female, straight or gay, black or white, or any other distinction. The only thing that concerns me now is what you think of what I say and do and whether I think, on reflection, I have said or done the right thing.