The ‘Shit Cis People Say’ Alphabet: S is for “Sensitive”

Welcome to another episode of the Shit Cis People Say Alphabet! Today:

S is for “sensitive”

Trans people (as with people in any marginalized group) are sometimes often accused of being overly sensitive about our struggles. I’ve addressed the problem of marginalized people being accused of over-reacting to things before (more than once, in fact), but the specific case of trans people merits a bunch more words on the topic, so here we go.

Somehow trans people sometimes find themselves accused of being over-sensitive even when the topic is trans people who are murdered or bullied to death for being trans. I… don’t know where to start with that honestly. If you think that yelling about shit like that is an over-reaction, you are beyond hope of ever getting it, so I don’t even see the point.

More often, though, these accusations come up in conversations about things like bathroom bills or people being misgendered. Why do we make such a big deal about things like that anyway? Isn’t it just an honest mistake or whatever?

A lot of the time, cis people will go that extra step further and insist that they wouldn’t be bothered by such a thing, so why are trans people?

…So, for one thing, I’m not going to let the implicit claim that cis people don’t care about this stuff just slip by like that. Cis people’s fears about which bathrooms they are using and who they are sharing those bathrooms with are the entire reason for trans-exclusionary bathroom bills in the first place, so plenty of y’all care enough about that shit to legislate it. And cis people, by and large, will correct you *immediately* if you misgender their baby, or even their dog for that matter, even in the most passing of interactions. With babies sometimes they will even get pretty upset about it (because nothing is more embarrassing for a baby boy than being mistaken for an identical baby girl, am I right?)

Trans people, meanwhile, very often make the call not to correct people in minor interactions, because doing so risks any number of negative consequences, up to and including death. So, there’s that.

And that brings me to my main point here. Because when cis people make the claim that trans people should just let this stuff roll off their backs the way they personally do or imagine they would do, what’s happening is a failure or empathy. Because cis people making this always seem to be talking about how they would feel if in their current life and identity, someone misgendered them. But that misses the point *entirely*, because cis people’s lives and identities are wildly different from trans people’s, in some extremely relevant ways.

Here’s the thing you need to remember, cis people: for your entire life, since before you even understood that you existed, much less that you had a gender, people have probably been for the most part correctly gendering you. If you were misgendered by random strangers as a baby, chances are your parents corrected them even then. And if you are misgendered now, people likely apologize when they realize their error.

It’s a weird thing, actually, because I think that cis people really don’t get how different this experience often is for trans people. It’s not just that it’s something we’ve struggled with sometimes for our entire lives. And it’s not just that trans people experience this sort of thing far more often than cis people do. For us, it is also far and away more likely that if we correct someone, they will act like their mistake was our fault. We will be the ones being difficult for correcting them in the first place. I’m sure this sort of things happens to cis people sometimes, too, but it isn’t to the same extent or frequency.

Over time, and through repeated lived experience, trans people have no choice but to learn that when we are addressing our own marginalization, when we are calling people out on things, that it is going to become a big deal whether we make it one or not. So yes, sometimes we take the initiative to make the thing a big deal, so that the big deal isn’t just a bunch of cis folks jumping up and down declaring that this gender thing is over, and can’t we all just get along? We need our voices heard over that fucking din, ok?


Check out the rest of the “Shit Cis People Say” alphabet!

Misgendering as “just a mistake”

I recently read this article about how intent is not the be-all and end-all of whether you hurt someone through pronoun use, or other gendered language. It’s pretty great, and it made me think a lot about what people are really saying when they insist that misgendering someone is “just a mistake”.

Here’s my thing: I know that in most case when I am misgendered it is just a mistake. I have yet to experience someone deliberately and maliciously misgendering me, in fact. I’m pretty lucky that way, so far.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And it really, really doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

But I really feel like whenever I see a person insisting that their misgendering of someone else was just an honest mistake, or whatever, and not really apologizing or even fixing their mistake (and yes, the best practice when you realize you’ve just misgendered someone is to say “Sorry” and immediately repeat what you just said but with the correctly gendered language – it will make you do better next time), they are really saying one of two things:

1. “It’s not that big a deal. Let it go.”

Newsflash: no one gets to decide how big a deal a particular misgendering mistake is except for the person being misgendered. This very much relates back to my post about why you should avoid accusing people of “over-reacting” to things. You don’t know their reality, you don’t know what they deal with every day, and you don’t know what it feels like for them to be misgendered. So you can’t decide whether your mistake was “just a mistake” or whether it was a gigantic fuck-up that really hurt someone.

And I get that the instinctive response to being made aware of a hurtful mistake is often a certain amount of defensiveness, and that wanting absolution, wanting someone to confirm that it’s not big deal, is natural.

But here’s the thing. If you suck it up, accept that you done wrong and genuinely apologize and make amends, that is how it will cease to be a big deal. Minimizing another person’s hurt doesn’t make them hurt any less; in fact, often it involves asking that person to shoulder even more burden by absolving you of that hurt, leaving them with nowhere to turn.

Just, stop trying to tell other people what is and is not a big deal to them.

2. “I don’t really care that much, and I want your permission not to try.”

Sometimes people minimize their misgendering errors because they don’t really care, and they don’t want to do the work, and they are trying to get permission to not do the work. If the person they just misgendered agrees that it was just a mistake,and no big deal, then they can use that fact down the road when the continued misgendering becomes a much bigger problem. “But you said you understood that it was hard for me wah wah wah” etc. Seriously, stop making excuses and do the work. Apologize and fix it. And do better. Because you can, and we all know it.


I mean, yes, I get that the most well-meaning person can slip up sometimes. The true test isn’t whether you are 100% perfect all the time with adjusting to new pronouns; the test is in how you deal with your mistakes. Own them; don’t minimize. Apologize for them. And fix them. It’s not that hard. And if you do those things you won’t find yourself seeking false absolution to feel better about yourself.

So, in conclusion, then?

Yes, I know it’s a mistake. Believe me, if I thought it was deliberate, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation; I would have left you far behind me a long time ago. That’s the issue at question.

The point is, it’s important. You are fucking up something important. It is a mistake; but it can and will never be “just” a mistake. So don’t try to get me or anyone else to absolve you of it. Fix it.

On “Over-reactions”

I think it’s fair to say than anyone who has ever tried to espouse and/or express any sort of social justice values has, at some point in their lives, been accused of over-reacting to something. It’s an extremely common silencing tactic, there’s no doubt about that. But I also realized something recently that adds just a touch of nuance to the way I think about accusations of “over-reaction”. I honestly think that there are instances where that kind of accusation can stem from a genuine misunderstanding.

I mean, there are certainly people out there (especially in internet-land) who will label any acknowledgement of racism or sexism (or any other -ism) as an over-reaction. Simply pointing out that something is problematic is considered going too far and being too sensitive as far as some folks are concerned. I like to call these people assholes, (for lack of a better term,) and don’t really feel the need to discuss them any further.

But I just don’t think that everyone who has ever accused someone of over-reaction deserves to be equated with those assholes. The realization I came to recently is that very often, when someone gets upset over some instance of marginalization, the people who lob accusations of over-reaction are simply misunderstanding what the person in question is, in fact, reacting to.

Because, honestly, I understand why responding with righteous rage to a (funny!) command that you make some dude a sandwich might appear to be an over-reaction. The problem, of course, is that the righteously enraged person is never responding to that one completely unfunny and tired joke, or single comment, or that isolated incident – they’re responding to a much larger pattern of marginalization, of which the joke or comment or incident in question is simply an illustrative example. And that example is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.

And this is the point that I want to make very clear, and in order to do so, I am going to seriously strain this analogy, and I apologize in advance. The thing is that when we discuss a straw breaking a camel’s back, we understand that the straw that does the breaking is not the first one, nor the second. In fact, understand that the camel must have been carrying a great deal of weight prior to the addition of that last piece of straw, and we would never accuse the poor creature of being flawed or weak for having been unable to take that last little bit of weight. We simply understand that its strength is finite, and it reached its limit.

But marginalized people never seem to get this kind of consideration. We are expected to simply keep absorbing the monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly instances of marginalization and bigotry in silence for ever. Why?

Because talking about prejudice is uncomfortable? More specifically, I expect, it’s because exposing prejudice is uncomfortable for the privileged folks in the room, while silently allowing prejudice to continue really only discomfits (disenfranchises) marginalized people. And really, marginalized people are used to this kind of thing, so they should totally be able t take, while it’s clearly unfair to expect racists who are accustomed to going unchallenged to suddenly be able take criticism, am I right?

Or am I just over-reacting?

But I digress: the real problem is that these patterns of social marginalization to which apparently over-reacting people are so often reacting are invisible to anyone who 1) is not directly affected by them; and 2) doesn’t explicitly try to look out for them (or, essentially, anyone who is in an acknowledged position of privilege). So, instead of seeing this:

A person who has been blissfully ignorant of the pervasiveness of marginalizing messages in their culture (and is thus only aware of the incident in question) sees this:


And it is from this misunderstanding that many an accusation of over-reaction has stemmed.

Of course, it’s also important to note here that being marginalized in one aspect of one’s life (or alternatively, acknowledging one aspect of one’s privilege) does not always guarantee empathy with people who experience patterns of marginalization base don different characteristics; thus, LGB people accuse Trans* folks of over-reacting to their marginalization by LGB people, even while those same LGB folk are being accused of over-reacting to instances of heterosexism and anti-LGB bigotry.

And I’ve been just as guilty of this kind of thing as next person. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the last few years is that if someone appears to be over-reacting to something, I probably lack the necessary context to properly assess their reaction. I probably don’t know actually understand what it is they’re actually reacting *to*. And remembering that one simple fact has helped me to learn so much, and become a better person. You should try it!

I promise it’ll feel good.

Brief thought: “over-reacting”

I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has ever tried to engage with other people in critiques of popular culture from a feminist, anti-racist, or otherwise anti-oppression perspective has, at some point, been told that they are “over-reacting” or better yet “pretending to be offended” (because it’s so much fun/because they want attention?). These same sentiments are generally implied whenever someone gets accused of being “too politically correct” (can we please all agree that this is the least useful phrase ever? What does it even mean? You care too much about other people’s feelings?).

This just makes me wonder: what kind of person do you have to be that when presented with someone having an reaction to something in that you’re pretty sure you would react differently to in their shoes (i.e. “if I was [a member of you marginalized group of choice] I wouldn’t worry about [phenomenon person is critiquing/complaining about]”), or otherwise having an emotional reaction that you find difficult to understand (i.e. triggered), you immediately assume “oh, they must be making it up”?

I’m pretty sure the only possible answer to that is “an asshole”.

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