How Is Gender Used?

A reflection by Lindsey

As many people know, I’ve been aggressively job hunting for several months. I have lost count of the number of applications I’ve filled out, cover letters I’ve written, phone interviews I’ve fielded, and on-site interviews I’ve attended. Every time I enter a new environment, I’m constantly interrogating how gender is enacted. Failure to read gender appropriately might cause a disaster for me as a person who is rather easily identified as a part of the LGBT community. The majority of states do not have any legislation to protect LGBT people from workplace discrimination. (But, it should be noted that actually proving one has been discriminated against in one’s workplace regarding perceived LGBT status is incredibly difficult.)

Recently, I posted an article on my personal Facebook account where the author asked people to “please stop calling people you don’t know ‘ladies.’” I’ve posted similar articles in the past on my Facebook page, and these articles about gender tend to generate some of the more vocal conversations. On one side, I’ve heard people make an argument that boils down to “Gender doesn’t matter. Simply treat people with respect.” On the other side, I’ve heard people make an argument that boils down to “That’s spoken with a real degree of male/cisgender privilege.”

Because of these conversations, I wanted to take a step back and think about where I’ve seen gender most strongly enacted.

Gender is an essential part of our language of respect. When you call a random help desk for technical support, the person on the other end of the line greets you with the pleasantries of using a gendered title or with “Sir” or “Ma’am” as deemed appropriate. Being gendered is not the purpose of the call. Most of the time, I’m so relieved to be speaking to a human that I just want to get the call over with as quickly as possible. The gendered aspects of the call go smoothest when secondary sex characteristics match what is on record. I have a decent number of transgender friends in various states of medical transition who have had to fight any number of uphill battles because their vocal tones didn’t sound appropriate for their first names or their legal gender markers.

I think one of the reasons why people react so strongly when they are corrected about their use of gendered language is that correcting gender is akin to correcting manners. Kids as young as 3 already practice automatically gendering people they meet. Gender is supposed to be easy.

When you tell someone he or she is getting gender wrong, I wonder if that person feels like he or she has failed kindergarten. Every time people feel like their first guess of my gender is wrong, I can’t help but notice how profoundly embarrassed they are. Here they are, simply trying to be polite, and they feel like they’ve insulted me in the first sentence they’ve uttered. Going from being polite to uttering an insult by making the “wrong” choice of a 2- or 3-letter word…the idea that this is possible is in itself confusing. It’s no wonder the question, “How is gender used?” can elicit such strong responses.

Gender can reinforce valuable social hierarchies. Some of the most gendered environments I’ve been in are the military and educational institutions. There’s a reason why the military wants lower-ranked people to sound off “Yes SIR!” and “No MA’AM!” It seems you get a gender when you’re important enough to pay attention to. I’ve been in many a drill environment where people have been dropped for push-ups because they have misgendered their interrogating superior. After all, “attention to detail” is a core skill being taught to newcomers. Less cynically, it seems that gender is used in educational environments as a way to teach children about respecting their elders. The adults have a last name; the kids have a first name.

Gender can imply to women that they are included in a particular conversation. The Declaration of Independence begins with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” A student of history knows that the writers of the Declaration focused on the rights of land-holding, white males. Many feminist movements have included an effort to adopt more inclusive language in many areas of life that clearly reflects the presence of both men and women. Shifting language from “man” to “human” can do something psychologically where people clue in that we’re not just talking about the male gender. Clarifying that a community development program wants to support “male and female farmers” can correct an assumption that “All farmers are male” in a proactive fashion. I’m of the opinion we’ve gotten so much better at adding gender where it’s important that we have developed this odd tendency to insert gender where it shouldn’t matter.

I’ve been cultivating the practice of waiting to hear a person use pronouns before adopting a set of them myself. Admittedly, I started this habit because I lived in England and heard a person call his spouse “partner.” Being an American, I’m so used to “partner” being a covert way for a person to come out as LGB that I had to do a double-take when his next sentence uttered was about his pregnant wife. When my gut reaction was to try and puzzle out how this guy had both a partner and a wife, I knew I had to check my assumptions. Learning to listen for the pronouns (and practicing framing sentences where I don’t quite know the right pronouns yet) has saved me tons of embarrassment.

How might these three observations interact in the request, “Please stop calling people you don’t know ‘ladies'”? I think the standards of politeness have shifted towards indicating that we see humans as gendered beings. I’ve observed more than one situation where a group of women harangued a person for addressing the group as guys: the women asked, “Do you see any guys in this group?” in a way that deeply shamed the person who had unwittingly failed the gendered aspects of politeness. However, I also think that the request is fundamentally raising awareness that our standards of politeness ought to be inclusive of transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals. The word ladies is a profoundly gendered word. Ladies suggests not only that a person is female, but also that she has developed a particular kind of decorum appropriate for the upper class. It’s often conveyed either as a compliment (a girl is so grown up that she’s become a real lady) or as a disciplinary measure (adults working with a group of girls running amok yelling “LADIES!” to get their attention). But it’s often hard to read the true subtext.

It can be okay, and even linguistically survivable, to hold off on gendering someone you’ve just met. One potential default greeting for a business could sound like, “Hello! We’re so glad you’ve chosen to visit us today. How can I help you?” Many groups of 3 or more have an organic way of using pronouns to refer to other members in the group. I’ve had a lot of fun talking about people in a way that does not automatically assign gender. One of my personal favorites is, “I’m so excited that two of my friends recently had a baby. Both parents and the child are doing well, but they’re still adjusting to life together.” With some people, I’ve observed palpable discomfort when they figure out I haven’t given them any clues as to whether the child is a boy or a girl. These people frequently follow up with “Is it a boy or a girl?” as an immediate question. With other people, I can tell they are perfectly comfortable speaking of a human as a human first rather than as a gendered being.

As I’ve been interviewing, I have been incredibly guarded about how I disclose my relationship with Sarah. I keep my antenna sky high as to whether I should be discreet (using words like family) or if I can actively test the waters by using the word partner. I can’t help but feel extremely relieved when someone has noticed I haven’t assigned a gender to my partner. Some people ask questions right away to get an appropriate pronoun. Other people follow my lead of sticking with the word partner. Either strategy indicates to me that there’s enough cultural competence around LGBT issues that I’m more likely to be safer in that workplace. To be sure, people are actively gendering me, but I like to think the more culturally competent have at least consulted the gender marker I’ve put on the application. And I look forward to the day when one does not need to disclose one’s gender at the beginning of the job hunting process.

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6 thoughts on “How Is Gender Used?

  1. I attempt to avoid gendered pronouns in my twitter tweets. I don’t intend it to be a trap or impolite, but as I was reading your post I began to wonder if I am actually passively/agressively challanging folks.

    • Thanks for sharing! Have you received any critical feedback about the absence of gender from your Twitter stream?

  2. I was thinking recently about how in our culture the first thing people want to know when you say you’re ha ing a baby is if it’s a boy or a girl. We live in a world where from the beginning of our existence that is the #1 label. Left to my own devices I don’t know that I would think it is super important, but since I’m not stranded on a desert island somewhere I have to adapt to being a part of a society that places a high importance on it.

    Not only that, but I live in a society where we often treat boys and girls very differently. My life experiences would have been vastly different if I had grown up labeled a boy instead of a girl.

    There’s also the issue of gender binary. My personal experience with people who reject that idea is that the vast majority have extremely rigid ideas about gender and what it means to be a man or a woman. I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s like they believe that there are 10 characteristics that ONLY men can have, and another 10 that ONLY women can have. And if you have a combination of some from each group, then you somehow ‘prove’ that get der isn’t binary. On the other hand, I think that you can be a man and have any combination of the 20 total characteristics…and you can even be a woman and have the same combination of characteristics as a man. In being a woman, I don’t limit myself to a stereotypical list of attributes. I had a friend try to imply a few months ago that I might be trans, I think primarily bc I didn’t fit her narrow view of what it means to be a woman.

    Just some random thoughts from a rambling Rhea on the subject 🙂

    • Thanks for the ramble. It’s tricky, because I’m personally of the opinion that we tend to “right-size” how we gender the people we are closest to. If a woman sees herself as a “girl’s girl” then her friends adapt appropriately. One seemingly just knows whether friends appreciate being strongly gendered.

      The issue of the gender binary is a good point to raise. I hope to address the topic in a future post.

  3. Friends, I always use the word lady of just about anyone who bakes bread. Sometimes I do fall into the gendered use of it, but more often I use it in its original meaning because it’s SO FUNNY what happens as a result of the train wreck between original meaning of the word and the gendered perception of what we THINK it is supposed to mean. Maybe this isn’t the most helpful, but for me, anyway, I’m trying to challenge perceptions by using the word as it was originally defined. Gets people thinking, and, if I’m lucky, laughing and checking their dictionaries!

    BTW, thanks so much for your consistently helpful reflections, Lindsey and Sarah. <3

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