The Sting of Mis-gendering

So… preferred pronouns. A few years ago, I did not understand them. I didn’t balk, necessarily, (like some) but I didn’t get it. After yesterday, though, yeah. I do. At least from my own cis-gendered mom to a sparkly son perspective.

Yesterday was a day of frequent mis-gendering. None of it was bigoted or intentional, but innocently misguided. Now, I understand that my 6-year-old sparkly son was self-styled in feminine flair fabulousness, but it didn’t make the well-intentioned mis-gendering any less frustrating.

The first time a lovely librarian helped my son find a unicorn book. He’d asked me to help him in his search but I was in the middle of settling a Lego squabble at the block table between my littlest and another pint-sized builder. So, I recommended that my 6-year-old ask the kind librarian who was shelving books for guidance. Fearless as ever, he brushed a flyaway hair off of his brow and sashayed over to the librarian. A few minutes later, he happily returned with a book.

“What great book!” I responded when he happily showed me his find. “Thank you,” I said to the librarian who had resumed shelving duties nearby. The librarian smiled and replied, “She asked me for a unicorn book but that’s not my specialty so I looked around for her and we found one! I hope she likes it!” Despite the librarian’s kindness and warm smile, every mis-gendering pronoun landed like a bee sting to my heart. I struggled to hide my agitation and maintain my smile despite knowing my son just witnessed this entire exchange.

We’re used to this by now and it was a fleeting interaction, so — given that my son didn’t do the telling shirt tug and wide-eyed glance up at me reaction — I knew it wasn’t worth correction. I exhaled and shuddered, trying to release the unintentional offense.

Not 10 minutes later, my sparkly son approached an assistance desk. A young librarian with stunning red hair and a tiny nose ring that twinkled in the iridescent overhead lighting greeted him. My son drove right into his request; he wanted to open a library card for his little brother. My son looked across the children’s section to me and I smiled knowing he’d likely baffled the librarian with his request. “I don’t have I.D., Mommy.” He said locking eyes with me as he shrugged his delicate shoulders. “What? You didn’t bring your driver’s license?” I teased, nudging him with my elbow as I fished my license from my purse. I explained his request to the librarian. She asked my sparkly son his name. “We have the same name!” the librarian said kindly, not realizing that his name was the identically pronounced male version of her own. Then the librarian noted how brave “she” (referencing my sparkly son) was in approaching the desk on “her” own. Two rounds of bee stings in such a short time, ow!

My son hadn’t heard any of this last mis-gendering — thankfully — as he was too focused on finding a ballet book in the shelves nearby. I, on the other hand, was chafed by the two closely timed social stumbles. As this was a fleeting and understandable mistake that hadn’t impacted my child, I didn’t correct the librarian.

Shortly before leaving, I had a brief interaction with another patron who saw my three children and, upon seeing my middle son’s attire, witnessing his interest in ballet and unicorns, and seeing his floral-hued ensemble, logically assumed he was a second daughter of mine. She had complimented my littlest’s kind playing habits and I thanked her. She noted that he seemed to enjoy the blocks. (He was roaring around the block table while holding a Lego creation at that precise moment.) I commented that he had stereotypically “masculine” interests — trucks, dinosaurs, anything that destroys stuff — and she said, “all boys do!” I cocked my head to the side, entirely releasing my attempt to conceal my inner workings, and said, “Hmmmm. Both of my boys and my daughter are different from one another.” I smiled then continued, “It’s amazing how three kids can come out so differently. Same gene pool. Same playroom. Same home. All different.” The patron smiled and nodded, then we, in friendliness, went our different ways.

Our library adventure was positive experience as a whole, with kind librarians helping us at every turn. It’s a shame that the sting of mis-gendering sullied the outing.

Do I blame the individuals for assuming incorrectly that my son was a girl? No. Am I offended in some quietly sexist way that my SON was thought to be a DAUGHTER? No, absolutely not. Am I angry at those who unintentionally mis-gendered? No.

But I’m fed up. I was sick of having to accept the stings with a smile. I was exhausted being mama Canada goose constantly on guard to protect my child.

I’m frustrated and annoyed and sometimes, at the end of a long day of verbal bee stings, I just feel like inappropriately yelling at people who are doing the stinging. But that wouldn’t help anything. It would only leave a bitter taste in their mouth that may unfortunately linger and sully their next interaction with a gender-bending individual. And I can’t be responsible for that.

Still, it gets tiresome. It’s lonely.

I know only one other mom of a young boy who truly allows her child to sparkle when, where, and how HE chooses. This loneliness gets heavy.

And, full-disclosure, in some typically less liberal, generally unaccepting locales, my sparkly son’s unisex name and ability to “pass” as a female has offered us a safety bubble from potentially unsavory feedback. Those erroneous assumptions allow my son to frolic freely in his mermaid-unicorn top, pastel shorts, and carefully French braided cropped hair. Onlookers simply and incorrectly assume he is a petite little girl with an edgy haircut. Meanwhile, my husband and I look on with the protective inclinations Canada geese, ready to run in to his or nip if needed.

With all of this exposure to the intricacies and frustrations of what some may deem “microaggressions”, I have developed a greater understanding of the need, value, and reasons for “preferred pronouns.” Just because an individual strikes us as obviously fitting in one gender category or the other, solely due to our antiquated and faulty societal conditioning, it doesn’t mean we should impose our assumptions on that individual. We certainly shouldn’t regard ourselves as some sort of gendering judge whose assessments should be wholeheartedly accepted. Or, worse yet, consider our convenience and ego of such great importance that we should be able to make these assumptions without correction.

Prior to developing a growing understanding of preferred pronouns, I had a certain ego-check awareness. As confusing as all of the possible terms — him, her, per, they… — were, I knew full well that my own inability to understand the concept and necessity of preferred pronouns was not indicative the topic’s validity but was more so a reflection of my own reasoning and comprehension shortcomings. But life, in its usual tongue-in-cheek way, took hold and granted me lessons by way of personal experience to truly clarify the matter. Thanks??

One day I hope more families allow their children to shine when, where, and how they want to without fear of judgment or safety. One day I hope it becomes commonplace for more gender-neutral terms to be used and the gender variances are accepted more widely. One day I hope we’ll be better humans.

We are but in the infancy of this movement towards bettering ourselves as a community. I have hope for one day.

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