The importance of what we call other people can’t be understated. Any given day on campus, I’ll respond to Sabina, Tyler, or Ty, and I have noticed that different people call me different things. My close friends on campus change up the usage of any of the three names to refer to me. However, each name offers a different contextual meaning. The one constant in the situation is my friends’ continual usage of my preferred pronouns.
My friends use only she/her pronouns in reference to me, and that is a fundamental parameter of communication that I place upon anyone I interact with. It’s a basic level of respect that I want from other people, which seems reasonable enough, considering that during my time at Columbia, I have never asked to be referred to with anything other than she/her and they/them pronouns. Despite my never providing an avenue for it to enter into my life, misgendering has become a problem for me on campus.
A lot of these interactions occur with people who have access to my ID card. I took my ID picture sometime in high school, before I was had access to hormones and when my natural hair was out in a small afro. It tends to be after someone sees this portrait of me—when it’s marked in their mind—that they are unable to decide how to refer to me. I go from Miss Jones to weird self-questioning “ums.”
This means that sometimes Public Safety officers don’t know what to make of me when they see my old ID picture. And in their confusion, I see myself also confused about the rules that I was given as a child on how to have this conversation about pronouns with mostly black and brown adults. I don’t always feel like going through the emotional labor, where I am responsible for explaining an experience that cisgender people don’t have to deal with. Some people catch on to my preferred pronouns, some people don’t—same with any other thing. However, when people don’t catch on it allows for the disrespect that I experience to continue.
I was recently having a conversation with a Public Safety officer when another girl from one of my classes approached. She heard the officer referring to me as “he.” I typically let the officer get away with misgendering me because she’s a brown woman who is older than me, and because in our conversations, it’s rare for her to even need to use gendered pronouns to describe me. But, hearing her use them this time gave the girl from my class license to think it was okay to use he/him pronouns when referring to me. She even took it a step further, mentioned that my eyelashes were long, and said that “guys have thick lashes that are wasted on them.”
I found this to be the most absurd conversation to have with someone I’d already attended class with twice. She heard me being referred to with she/her pronouns by our professor, yet still chose to continue misgendering me, knowing that she was doing the wrong thing; it was disorienting. I wanted to tell her the reason my eyelashes were thick was because I slept with Vaseline on them, and that I hadn’t clarified my pronouns with the officer because she was my elder, and it wasn’t culturally appropriate at the time—mother didn’t raise me to be disrespectful.
This interaction with the Public Safety officer made me realize that no one has ever engaged with me in a conversation on how to deal with situations where culture, gender, and the ability to mind one’s business all collide and work against each other. I know the cultural implications of being called she/her. Calling me what I am allows for the protection and validation of my womanhood. Calling me by what I ask you to requires a personal, internal admission that I am a woman—something irrevocable regardless of circumstance or inconvenience.
I think the privilege of being referred to as one wants to be referred relies on people taking on the responsibility to make change. They must strip themselves of some of the power that comes from being cisgender. To continue living, though, I can’t wait for a massive change in the way things are. Until then, I can take refuge in the times that people get it right, and I will continue to show some hints of resentment toward people who aren’t able to respect me how I need to be respected.
Sabina Jones is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in English. Her column Transatlantic Trade runs alternate Fridays.
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