A former distant colleague of mine is a trans woman. I'm pretty clear on the importance of not misgendering people, but I'm running into one or two slightly awkward practical issues in making sure I don't screw that up.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
By way of background: I met her once (I'll call her Sarah) about 15 years ago, before she transitioned and she was presenting as male (let's say her name was then Simon). Not surprisingly, I assumed she was a cis man, however incorrect that later turned out to be. Some years later I discovered that Simon was now Sarah, and that Sarah is now quite well known in an unrelated discipline. Her identity as a trans woman is quite relevant to her new work, but it's not especially central to the work she used to do in my field. Or, at least, no more relevant than it is to any other aspect of life.
The main issue...
All of her work in my area is published under the name Simon, and I occasionally have reason to talk about this work (and my opinions about it) to my students. In the absence of any knowledge of what her preferences would be (and I really don't feel that it's appropriate for me -- someone she doesn't know -- to randomly contact her to ask), I'm a little unclear on how best to discuss her work. As I see it, the options are
(a) The first time it comes up with a new student, explicitly mention that Simon is now Sarah, and refer to her by the correct pronoun. It sounds weird to refer to work by "Simon" using the pronoun "her", but that's no big deal. That part doesn't seem all that different with someone's maiden name if they chose to change their name after marriage.
The part that feels frustrating is that I'm calling attention to the fact that she is transgender, in a context in which her gender identity isn't relevant. The quality and consequence of her work in my field is entirely unrelated to her gender identity, but I feel like I unintentionally end up linking the two because I first say something about the fact that she is trans (in order to explain the pronouns), and then immediately go on to comment on aspects of the work that I like and aspects I don't like.
(b) Don't call attention to it. As much as possible, don't use gender pronouns and refer to her using her surname, and don't correct students when they misgender her.
This seems much worse. Yes, it has the advantage of not linking her gender identity to her (now rather old) work in this field, but I feel like I'm contributing to a rather pervasive bias in my field (i.e., ignore everyone who isn't a white middle class cis male like me, and then remain blithely ignorant of the fact we're doing so). This makes me really uncomfortable, because I feel like I'm erasing a trans woman from the field, even if she wasn't publicly identifying as such when she was in our field.
(c) Try to play it both ways. When the topic first comes up, casually mention that Simon is now Sarah, use the correct pronouns but don't make a big deal about it, and try to keep the student on topic.
I sort of like this option. I don't think I'm the best person to be teaching Transgender 101, nor is my office the best place for that conversation. But I want it to be clear from context that even though I don't want to talk about the private lives of other academics, I don't misgender and I implicitly expect the same from my students. Unfortunately, it's something I don't pull off all that well. Option (c) turns into option (a) about 80% of the time, because I'm just not that socially skilled.
An ancillary issue...
As a side note, I find that I tie myself in knots whenever I'm talking anecdotally about my now-very-dated interactions with her. Specifically, I occasionally have reasons to refer to what *I* was thinking when I saw her talk about topic X. When I thought those thoughts at the time, they were of the form "I think he's wrong about X because Y". But now that language feels wrong because even though she presented as male, I have to assume that she almost certainly felt female all along, in which case "she" ought to be the right pronoun regardless of what I knew at that time. I feel like the right thing to do is just retroactively edit out my misgendering (entirely understandable as it was given the lack of any cues) and just say "she", but it does feel weird given that I'm visualising a middle aged cis male when I draw on my memory of those times. But I should just suck it up and use what I now know to be the right pronoun, yes? It's not exactly a terrible burden.
Okay. That felt long. What I'm specifically asking is this... given that I can't reasonably ask her what her preferences are, what should I assume as my default behaviour if and when this comes up next? I *feel* like the right thing to do is: on the main topic, pursue option (c) above, and on the ancillary issue, just edit out the incorrect pronouns. But I'm not exactly convinced that the intuitions of a white cis straight middle class male nerd are the best ones to go by, no matter how well intentioned. To that end I'd appreciate any comments or suggestions as to how I should approach this situation. I'm pretty happy to change my tack if the general consensus from trans folk is that there's a better way to do this.
[The question is anonymous because my MeFi account in theory allows me to be identified, and my field is small enough that she could potentially be identified if you know my field and my nationality. Throwaway email: firstname.lastname@example.org]