It’s Not Just Pronouns

There’s been a lot of talk in the last several years – longer than that, but it’s been much more in the public eye lately – about gender pronouns. A polite person does their best to ensure that they refer to others using the correct pronoun, so that they are not referring to someone by the wrong gender.

But pronouns are not the only way we gender people. With all the focus on pronouns, even the most careful person can still mis-gender others.

I am of a certain age where I am frequently Sirred by people I randomly interact with at businesses. When I am a stranger, they are often making an assumption about me. I do happen to be a Sir, so they are not misgendering me, but I might have been someone whose gender presentation does not match their gender identity. If I had been, then they would have misgendered me without ever using a single pronoun.

I’m not in the habit of correcting others publicly, so they will have to struggle (or not) with the possibility that they might Sir somebody incorrectly. But where does that leave me? I don’t want to misgender them, but I have no way of responding politely with a non-gendered term. I’ve discussed this before in I am They as You are They.

We talk a lot now about cis and trans:

Assigned male at birthAssigned female at birthNot assigned a gender at birth
Identify as malecistrans?
Identify as femaletranscis?
Identify as nonbinarytrans?trans??

Not assigning someone a gender at birth, whether because of being born intersex and not being medically operated upon to conform to one gender or the other, or because parents have made a conscious choice not to assign a gender to their otherwise physically gendered child, is fairly rare to date, so it is not surprising there is no language surrounding this. But as these choices become more common, language needs to follow.

But what about identity and current presentation?

Present as malePresent as femalePresent as androgynous
Identify as male??, trans, drag?
Identify as female?, trans, drag??
Identify as nonbinary???

This is much more complicated than cross-referencing identity with gender assigned at birth. There are a number of reasons one might present at odds with one’s gender identity:

  • Despite one’s best efforts, one is continually identified as being of a gender that is contrary to their identity, and is dressing as that identified gender for safety. There does not appear to be a word for this.
  • One enjoys dressing in the clothing of a different gender. People who do this were formerly labeled as “transvestite” and I believe “trans” is the favored term now, at risk of confusion with trans folk as defined in my first table.
  • One is dressing in the clothing of a different gender for entertainment purposes. This is commonly referred to as “drag.”

So you see there are many situations where we can perceive someone else gender and be wrong. If we are to be polite, sensitive individuals, we need language to step up to the plate and give us words that don’t force us to assume someone’s gender.

Male termFemale termNon-gendered term
Polite addressSirMa’am, Madam,
TitleMr.Mrs., Ms.Mx.*?,
the person’s name if known
Informal address??Friend, Comrade

*-“Miss” is considered by some to be deprecated. I am not sure whether Mx. is specifically restricted to non-binary or can be used generically to intentionally not specify a gender.

English, get to work!

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