I’ve Got a Question

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

My dad sent me a headline, “Court sides with professor who repeatedly misgendered trans student” from Inside Higher Ed. The article talks about a professor who is suing his college because he was reprimanded for treating a trans student differently than his other students. Apparently his habit was to call students “Ms.” or “Mr.” He called this student “Mr.” and when she corrected him, he refused to call her “Ms.” and simply referred to her by her last name. I am not a lawyer, so I’m not going to comment on the case itself. I don’t know the relevant statutes or precedents to even begin. But something did strike me about the headline.

Before I get to that, I do want to say basic human decency requires us to treat others with respect. Part of that respect is by calling them by their preferred names, pronouns, titles, honorifics, or whatever. If I meet a Jonathan who tells me he wants to be called Jonathan, but I call him Johnny, I’m being disrespectful. It’s that simple. I worked retail for a long time, and I tutor at a community college. I’ve talked to a lot of people I don’t know. I probably spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about what to call people. I always try to be respectful. But, when talking to strangers, I don’t know if I should say “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Ma’am is especially tricky. Some women really don’t like it. But other women would be offended by sir. “Miss,” “Ms.,” and “Mrs.” can be dangerous, too. Honestly, I prefer to make eye contact and address them directly so I can stick to the second person pronoun.

Getting back to the headline, what struck me was the word “misgendered.” In all the time I’ve spent worrying about what to call people, it never occurred to me that I could misgender someone. I really don’t feel like I have that kind of power. I’m not sure anyone does. Maybe whoever fills out the birth certificate, but even then I’m not sure. I can mislabel someone. That’s what keeps me up at night. But, if I do mislabel someone, it doesn’t change anything about the person. They are who they are regardless.

I don’t want to minimize what happened here. Mislabeling a person causes real harms. At best, it’s ignorant. It can be othering or outright violent. I guess what I’m wondering is if I’m missing something. Did I misinterpret the situation? What do you think?

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