Not a girl, thanks.
Breaking Down Gender
Firstly, it is important to make very clear that our ideas of gender have been expansive for decades if not centuries (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3). The primary drive behind the gender binary came from European colonialists who saw gender diversity in native societies as ‘against god’s will,’ and either killed out or converted people who identified as such. The modern gender binary is inherently a colonialist idea based in imperialist, Christian, theology. It has only existed for 300 years or so, compared to the documented gender diversity of native populations going back to the inception of their societies. American leftist politicians have not ‘assumed gender’ or created new genders to fit their needs, they have simply rediscovered terms to describe their experiences in a more accessible way.
Some people who identify outside the gender binary use terms in reference to their native roots, such as the term two-spirit. Since I am not a person of color, I use the more modern and nonaffiliated term non-binary to describe my experience of gender. However, there are a multitude of terms such as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, and so on that people of all ethnicities use. The terms we use to describe the way we experience life have changed an evolved as time has passed, but the essence of their content have not changed. We have also gotten much better at creating more specific terms for experiences, but again this does not mean that a specific term is any less valid than one that has been used for centuries. Just because we are now talking about it more frequently now doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter before. The simple fact is that previously we did not have the language to describe what was happening, and now we do. There is huge diversity in how people experience gender, and it is important to respect other people’s experiences, no matter how they live.
Let’s now turn to pronouns and assuming gender. It is never, ever, okay to assume someone’s gender. Full stop. No matter how people ‘look like,’ we need to acknowledge that our own perceptions of gender are inherently influenced by our culture, and by colonialism. What we perceive as feminine may not even be seen the same way if compared in two different American states. It’s not fair to label someone what you assume to be their gender when you aren’t the person who gets to decide that.
When we make assumptions about someone we rely on something called System 1 thinking, or intuition. In a description, System 1 “uses association and metaphor to produce a quick and dirty draft of reality,” whereas System 2 “arrive[s] at explicit beliefs and reasoned choices.” System 2 is used to think rationally about something and come to a principled conclusion that follows facts, however System 1 thinking is the first system that is activated when making a judgement on something. System 1 tends to rely on experience, rapid danger response, and taught stereotypes. One example of System 1 is seeing a black person in a hoodie and assuming they are a gangster, have a gun, are going to hurt you. Logically, we know that is not true of every black person in a hoodie, and that the person is most likely just minding their own business. However, because it is a common narrative that black people in hoodies perpetrate crimes, a first reaction may be one that follows that narrative. System 1 is a thought that is instinctive, and we can’t always stop it, but, with training, we can also have System 2 thought as well. This thought is one that relies on education and knowledge that you have learned later in life, such as that wearing a hoodie is not an indicator of guilt. In order to have that System 2 thought, we need to get over our gut reaction and allow ourselves to think rationally about the situation. That doesn’t mean ignoring System 1, it just means we need to acknowledge that we had that thought and reframe the situation in our head using our education.
Back to the assumption of gender. Your System 1 is may tell you “this is a girl” when you look at someone, but think about why that is so. Perhaps you notice the person has long hair, shaved legs, a higher voice, and breasts. At the same time, I could be describing a drag queen rather than a ‘real girl’ in that sentence. The only way you could really be sure is to ask that person how they see themselves, since humans are really bad at figuring out proper cues on their own. If we were to kick System 2 into gear, we could instead not assume the gender of the person and use neutral language until we had confirmation about the person’s gender identity and pronouns. There are some easy ways to do that that you can reference in my Trans 101 guide.
Why Assuming Gender is a Problem
This is the part where I’m going to be very frank. Assuming someone’s gender is transphobic. End of discussion. If you do not fully respect someone’s gender identity you are transphobic. Obviously there are people who slip up with pronouns, etc, but outright telling trans people to ‘calm down’ directly silences us in the narrative. It is not okay to tell people to just accept un-acceptance. We have been fighting for decades for recognition and respect, so the least you can do is call us by our correct names and pronouns.
Every time I hear someone use my old pronouns or name it just reminds me that they don’t see me the same way I see myself. I have worked really hard to have my outward appearance match how I see myself inside, and it feels like a knife tearing down all my hard work. Even though it may not look like I’m hurt, I will think about that person using the wrong pronoun for me for weeks. Every. Single. Time. It feels like I might have done something wrong for someone to see me as an old version of myself, like I’m not trying hard enough to be who I really am. It’s very jarring to be seen as that when you are a different person. Every time I am referred to as a woman it feels like a knife in the gut. Sometimes they are small scratches, but overtime they add up.
Sometimes it is easier to make ideas into an analogy that an onlooker is familiar with so they can better understand. Let’s consider ethnicity. If someone is biracial, are they one ethnicity or the other? The correct answer is that those identities aren’t mutually exclusive. However, at the same time, a biracial person will almost always be seen as too much of one ethnicity or too much of the other. For example, someone who is half black, half white, may feel too black to participate in white culture, but too white to participate in black culture. Even though they are both, they are considered neither.
As a trans non-binary person I am constantly considered either a woman or a man. What if I am not one of those options? Every time I step outside, I am forced to accept that no one will see me as I am. It is a horrible fate I would never wish on another person. It’s like living in limbo, being sure of yourself, but never feeling real. On good days I don’t talk to anyone. On okay days I am referred to in vague terms because people aren’t sure what to think. On bad days people look down at my chest and then call me Ma’am at the supermarket. On horrible days I have to choose one bathroom or the other because an able-bodied person took the handicapped bathroom. On hell days I have to justify why I should exist in the world to someone who isn’t going to listen to me anyway.
Don’t ever assume you know how other people experience the world. If you are cisgendered, you never need to look in the mirror and wonder whether you will be seen as you are that day. You have that privilege. You aren’t being ‘attacked.’ I’m not angry. I just wish you would also be inclusive of people like me at your table.
The world is already a crummy place, don’t add filth to it by being a jerk.