Twilight Journeys: Being mis-gendered makes me cringe every time

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Twilight Journeys: Being mis-gendered makes me cringe every time

The second instalment of a new blog by Surat Knan, a female-to-male (ftm) transgender person currently thinking about transitioning.

In this blog, Surat deals with the awkward and annoying issue of gender mis-labelling, and how to deal with it.

Surat Rathberger Knan. Photo: Ajamu
Surat Rathgeber Knan. Photo: Ajamu
  • Blog Two: In the Image of God (Part I)

‘So God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female.’ (from Genesis 1:26-28)

I had a haircut today; my wonderful hair stylist stressed that it made me look a lot more masculine. I left the salon grinning from one ear to the other. With a self-assured John Wayne swagger, I walked into the next Bagel bakery where the shop assistant greeted me instantly with: ‘Can I help you, Ma’am?’

Although I’m most certainly not the most feminine-looking person, I’m on the other hand not at all a typical male  – a ‘bearded, tall bloke with a baritone voice’.

Hence, this kind of mis-gendering happens naturally quite often. And I’m saying ‘naturally’, because – let’s face it – we live in a binary world where people are automatically divided into the two gender categories ‘male’ and ‘female’.

This dividing mechanism happens by screening the ‘outside’ gender markers of other people such as hair, clothes, body shape and voice. We all do it. I do it. People will always screen other people and put them into the gender box with the most ticks.

So, I guess for the time being I still tick a lot of ‘female’ boxes. Bingo. It’s not that I mind so much. As I’ve said, I have always seen my identity as quite fluid and identify in essence as genderqueer (i.e. I also embrace some of my female traits – and why not?). Yet, it is the attitude that comes often hand in hand with mis-gendering that generally bugs me.

Transgender activist Hunter Hargreave arrives at a protest in San Francisco, calling for the Human Rights Campaign to replace gender identity protections in employment legislation.
Transgender activist Hunter Hargreave arrives at a human rights protest in San Francisco

Yes, being mis-gendered does make me cringe and flinch every time. Not so much perhaps, as I said, because I don’t really pass as male, but thanks to the odd reactions that I get from people when I tell them how I’d like to be addressed.

For example, my response could be: ‘Actually, I prefer a neutral or no gender address. Thank you’, or in a more informal social situation: ‘it’s actually ‘he’ or ‘they’, or just use my name!’

A lot of people either start giggling, blushing and apologising over and over again – this happens mainly when someone first calls me ‘Sir’ or addresses me with ‘he’ and then ‘realises’ that I actually might be a ‘she’.

Or, sometimes people get annoyed and start defending themselves and even correcting me and telling me what I’m really like – saying, for example, things like: ‘How would I know!’, ‘But you look like a woman!’, ‘Shall I call you ‘it’ then?’, or adding a stroppy: ‘Oh, whatever’.

Ouch. Let me ask you: would you feel respected?

So, what is the ‘politically correct’ way to react when having mis-gendered someone?

Just acknowledge without hoo-haa how the person would like to be addressed and start using the correct pronoun or title as normal.

In case you find this hard and keep slipping back into the ‘wrong’ gender address, don’t worry too much, and please don’t make a fuss. Awareness is the first step.

I get asked a lot how to go about it when one cannot figure out the gender of someone – say when being introduced to a new person. First of all, don’t panic. Why do we need to gender categorise everyone in the first place?

Then, best is always to avoid any gender address until either the person themselves give an indication of how they’d like to be addressed, or just politely ask: ‘what is your preferred gender address/pronoun?’ In case the person does not respond, you can always deflect the question by prompting, for example: ‘I’m (your name), and my preferred gender pronoun is (he/she/they/zhe etc.).’

It doesn’t matter here if you are trans* or cis (cisgender refers to someone whose gender matches that of the sex they were assigned to at birth). In fact, I believe, it helps us gender-variant folks a great deal when cis people also ‘label’ themselves.

And, always be mindful, a lot of trans* people are sometimes not ‘out’. This may especially be the case within more traditional religious communities, just like some gay, lesbian or bisexual Jews are not out for various reasons. Also, some trans* individuals cannot (or do not want to) have gender reassignment surgery, but this does not make them any less transgender.

Transgender campaigners at Cologne Pride 2014
Transgender campaigners at Cologne Pride 2014

A person who is questioning their gender identity might shift back and forth as they find out what gender presentation is best for them. This is how I would in fact describe my own trans* journey.

And remember, transitioning is never a walk in the park – mentally, physically and spiritually – it comes with a lot of pain and struggle in all areas of life.  Just as much as you might need our guidance in order to understand, we absolutely need your support throughout our personal gender journeys.

The Torah states that God created ‘male and female’ and thus for many of us this may feel like a simple fact of life – to accept the unavoidable binary gender system.

Yet, non-binary identities and transgender Jews exist and have always existed. Such Jews, however, may not have always had the ‘labels’ at hand to describe themselves.

I can only tell you this much: I’m transgender, I’m a practising Jew, and I do believe I was ‘created in the image of G-d’.

Any transition isn’t an easy journey. Gender transitioning can feel a little bit like being in the twilight zone. And it may at times not be as safe and comforting as a cisgender existence. On the other hand, it makes me wonder if everybody is really so clearly one or the other?

There are masculine cis women and more effeminate cis males, there are men with long hair and little body hair and women with beards and huge muscles; there are so many shapes, sizes, looks and styles that we can truly say people are different and diverse.

We look different from each other, we feel different, we believe in different things, we have different tastes and preferences, we change, we transform – and we are all indeed created in G-d’s image.

Is there really such a clear binary? May there be another motive that this male-female divide is being upheld so firmly?  Was it really G-D who created this default binary? And if so, why do I exist and have a non-binary gender identity?

Anyway, I have ordered a packet of customisable stickers from an e-shop saying ‘Hello, my pronoun is (blank)’. I’ll customise one ‘Hello, my pronoun is ‘they or he’ and stick it on my shirt.

Will that do the trick next time in the Bagel shop?

I would like to say thank you all for the incredible amount of positive feedback on my first blog instalment. This is very encouraging; I feel indeed very humbled. Thank you, Jewish News for taking the plunge.

The Asterix  symbol  linked to Trans* signifies that it is an umbrella term that refers to all identities within the gender identity spectrum

What do you think? Have you been in similar situations as Surat where labels have made you feel uncomfortable?

Please let us know in the comments box below.

Support Surat’s campaign by nominating Surat on the website before July

Surat says: “Nominate me! I believe that I have demonstrated an outstanding devotion to enhancing our community and contributing to a society built upon e quality, diversity and inclusion.

If you recognise me as a strong representative of true diversity then please give me the opportunity to receive a Positive Role Model Award for Faith/Religion by nominating me now!  Get involved and make a difference!

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