by Jay Johansen | Jul 5, 2022
You've probably heard of incidents where a transgender person gets very angry about someone calling them by the wrong pronoun, or some other gender-specific reference like "sir" versus "ma'am". I've seen stories in the news where a store clerk or a waiter uses the wrong word and the transgender person demands that they be fired, threatens to sue, etc.
And I got to thinking: I'm a man. If a store clerk referred to me as "ma'am" or "she", I can't imagine that I would get angry and yell and scream. I'd probably just brush it off as "they're busy and had a slip of the tongue" or some such. I probably wouldn't even say anything about it. If I did say anything, it would be with a laugh. I imagine the clerk would be embarassed for the mistake and probably apologize, and that would be the end of it. I'll have to ask some women I know how they would react if a clerk addressed them as "sir". My guess is that if the woman is obviously feminine-looking, she'd brush it off just like I would.
Maybe if a woman is unattractive and masculine-looking, she would be upset. I wouldn't be upset because I'm quite sure that no one would honestly think that I'm a woman. I'm no "Mr Olympic" but I think I'm pretty obviously male. I have masculine features, including a beard. Likewise if someone called my daughter "sir", well she's very obviously female, so I don't think she'd fret that someone actually thought she was a man and be insulted. Maybe a less feminine-looking woman would be upset because she would fear that she really does look like a man and someone might be honestly confused, thus threatening her sense of femininity.
And so I theorize that this is why transgender people get so angry and upset by someone referring to them by their actual sex rather than their wished-for sex. Suppose a man wants to be a woman. He has gone to considerable effort to make himself look like a woman: growing his hair long, wearing women's clothes, probably taking hormones, maybe even getting surgery. If someone calls him by the "wrong" (i.e. the biologically correct) pronoun, it is probably not a slip of the tongue. It is a sign that the transgender person's efforts have been unsuccessful. Much as he wants to look like a woman, someone glancing at him quickly and making a snap evaluation sees that he looks like a man. It is not just a careless mistake. It is a statement that he has not accomplished what he wants to accomplish.
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