Trans Empathy – Or, You misgendered me & I thanked you.

Today, my boss apologizes for misgendering me and I thank her.

I work in a very grey office out of a very grey cubicle in a big grey building where a little grey headset streams to me a constant flood of angry patrons who every day find a new way to assume my womanhood based on my voice. My boss, who is by all accounts a very nice woman, is usually very good about my pronouns. I know that every time she talks to or about me I would be able to breathe for a moment – something I do very rarely on the job.

For some reason, however, she misgendered me last week.

I felt as though my one tie to reality in a place where I constantly feel unreal had betrayed me. Office atmospheres are deceiving – they turn everything into the mundane.  It is easy to seem like you are not crushed because everybody behind a computer screen and a cubicle is always some level of crushed. Pain simply fades into the white noise of the place.

I knew this and I couldn’t stand it. I had to make sure she knew this mattered to me. I needed to know I could look hold onto this tiny anchor of sanity to which my boss was the tether.

I sent an email. This was a big deal for me. The last time I tried to assert my pronouns in a work setting, I was assaulted and then fired.

Today, she calls me into a private meeting and as soon as the door was shut tears well up behind her glasses. She expresses her deepest apologies – saying she didn’t know why she had done that and had been practicing pronouns on her way into work every day. She asks me to forgive her, stating she can’t imagine how hard it is to be “ma’am” on the phone all day.

I have never had someone feel so bad about misgendering me. I feel like I matter – I was not just being accounted for, I was being cared for.

I would have hugged her but instead I turn my energy into a more properly corporate response and thank her for caring so much. “It’s okay, really – most people don’t even try”.

Yesterday, I was misgendered at a family barbeque.

It was a graduation party for a family that is not mine yet but is slowly becoming so.  A young man who I had cooked for on Thanksgiving, shared drinks with, played games with, laughed with recognized me as “the new fiancé” and tried to give me a welcoming hello with a point and a “there she is” as he walked past.

The first time someone misgenders me is a moment I playback in my head for eternity. It is a constant second chance to right a wrong that I always miss.

My heart leaps straight into my throat as I return to my familiar crossroads. I feel my blood rush as it’s journey upwards pumps adrenaline – screaming at me the only way it knows how to make sure I get the “correct them this time or you’ll pay, you always do” message. My brain, however, puts its fingers in its ears and refuses to hear a word of it. I fumble into a meek smile and laugh, pointing back.

I spend the rest of the evening brainstorming ways to take back the encounter or somehow come out to this new person in my life. He’s a punky “bro” type – I think maybe being chill and putting my hand on his shoulder before we leave and coolly announcing that “hey, just so you know, it’s he” with a very masculine ‘it’s no big deal’ attitude will do the trick…but I talk myself out of this tactic, thinking about how embarrassing it has been every time I’ve tried that move in the past. I leave instead with a timid “seeya” and the knowledge stinging in the back of my head that every time this man looks at me I am still she.

I wish there was some sort of pronoun pick-up artist. A master of the ways that can teach me how to talk to the cis at parties without either of us feeling threatened by the other. Will Smith in Hitch vibes, but with a whole lot of fabulous trans folk instead of aggressively entitled men who treat women like prizes instead of people.

Tonight, it all hits me at once.

Why was I practically bowing to my boss? I supplicated myself. Somehow the fact that she had taken the time to acknowledge that my pronouns were important made her some forgiving and just ruler who had just pardoned me from execution. Why did it move me to tears that it had mattered enough to her to make an effort? Why instead did I not say “thank you, it’s important to me, now please make sure everyone else stops calling me “chicka, girlie, and she” – I have a beard for Christ’s Sake and I can take it up with HR if I’m not properly addressed”.

Why was I beating myself up after the BBQ for not sticking up for my own pronouns? Why did I fall asleep feeling a failure when instead, I should be disappointed that this other person did not make the effort to ask my pronouns in the first place or pick up that everyone else was using “he” every time they referred to me? I was not the failure in this situation – he was.

Tonight, I wonder what a world would be like where others showed the amount of stressed, desperate gratitude I do for being respected. What would a world look like where cisgender people are so afraid they will be disrespected that they carefully tiptoe around their truth and celebrate it when it’s even acknowledged.

John walks into the Starbucks. The barista asks John’s name. John knows that “John” is not the name that will match his calling on his debit card. You see, John’s full name is “Jonathon” – but he much prefers “John”. In fact, it makes his skin crawl when people call him “Jonathon”. Therefore, when the barista asks him for his name, John beams widely. He proudly says “John”. Most of the time, John is assumed to be “Jonathon” because instead of asking his preferred name, they simply read the name off of his debit card when they swipe it – assuming that is the name he likes to go by. “Thank you so much for asking my name,” John says appreciatively. He leaves a good tip and a glowing Yelp review.

No. Today – everyday – it’s John. Just John. In fact, he can even introduce himself that way “Oh, I’m just John.”

“Oh, I’m just a man.”

Yeah, that would never fly.

Trans people develop, I’m realizing, a new strand of empathy. Trans empathy exists not as a way for trans folk to relate to others but as protective armor. It is easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar. It is easier not to be ostracized, beaten, or murdered with empathy than to respond with anger that you are being disrespected and degraded.

It is tonight that I realize that I’m tired of trans empathy. Trans people do not need to exist in an endless cycle of gratitude. If others want to feel good about themselves for doing the right thing, they can donate to a charity and share it on Facebook. We do not need to thank people for respecting us. We do not have to feel like the onus is on us to make sure we are respected.

If you are trans, use this article as a “get off the hook free” card the next time you feel the need to say “thank you” for being treated like a human being deserves to be treated.  Print it out, fold it up, and keep it in your back pocket:

Hello, you just treated me with basic human respect. This coupon can be used in lieu of a “thank you”, as I should not have to be thankful for respect – I should be granted it. This coupon is also good for any erroneous, violating questions you might have about my deadname, my genitals, my “coming out” story or anything that involves the word “why”. It is good for eternity, no expiration date. Cannot be combined with digital coupons. Give your trans friend a big hug, a good handshake, or 5 dollars – whichever they prefer. Transferrable – so make sure you share this coupon with anybody else who thinks a trans person needs to thank you for using a pronoun – something everybody is doing for everybody else all the time without being thanked. Be warned: if coupon is not respected, the manufacturer has the right to revoke all respect privileges and now has the right to call you by the wrong name, pronouns, and ask you weird questions and you must thank them if they choose, every once and a while, to get it right.

Tonight is a night of revelation.

Perhaps tomorrow…tomorrow will be a day where I feel free and perhaps…

Even a little rude.

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