A Cis-Person’s Beginner’s Guide to Transphobic Micro-aggressions
by Yvonne Hanson
Transphobia is not just anti-trans violence and hate speech. It can come in smaller, less aggressive forms that are not always intentional (and in fact, often aren’t) called ‘microaggressions’.
Microaggressions happen often, and are usually a result of the way that our culture is structured around certain gender conventions. For example, using the term “feminine hygiene” to refer to menstrual products may be said to constitute a micro-aggression, since this term excludes and erases the masculine individuals who might also use these products, and the feminine individuals who might not. When we assign gender markers to objects, behaviours, and anatomical structures, we perpetuate micro-aggressive language. Luckily, we are able to speak in English without using gender markers (besides pronouns) at all.
To a cis person (someone who identiﬁes with the gender they were assigned at birth), it may seem ‘nit picky’ or ‘overly sensitive’ if a trans-person points out a micro-aggression like ‘feminine hygiene’. On its own, this term should be ‘no big deal’, right? The difﬁculty with micro-aggressions is that they don’t occur individually. For a trans person, micro-aggressions can be like mosquitoes. One mosquito is no big deal, but a huge swarm of them coming from every direction is terrible. It can take a lot of energy to swat down and correct every single micro-aggression that comes their way; imagine swatting every individual bug in a swarm of mosquitoes. It would take much less energy to simply run away from the swarm.
For trans people, dealing with the swarm of micro-aggressive language present in our society (or CIS-ciety, at least) can feel like making a choice between staying put and quietly getting bit by a thousand mosquitoes or running away from the source of the micro-aggressions and seeking out spaces where they are not present (or at least, not as frequent). This is why many trans people feel excluded from mainstream society; imagine showing up at a barbecue with your cis-gendered friends and having to leave because all of the mosquitoes are only landing on you.
Luckily, there are some simple changes that we can make to avoid troubling the trans people around us with more mosquitoes:
Use they/ them pronouns by default when you refer to someone whose gender has not been conﬁrmed to you.
Even if you feel like you can conﬁdently judge their gender by their outward appearance, using ‘they/ them’ pronouns by default normalizes gender-neutral language and makes it easier to separate a person’s physical appearance from the language you use to describe them.
Notice and replace gendered descriptions of behaviours, objects, and anatomy.
Once you start looking for them, you’ll notice that gendered terms crop up quite often in the language that is commonly used by mainstream society. It is strange, because non-gendered descriptions are actually more accurate than their gendered counterparts. For example, instead of saying that someone’s voice is “manly” or “girly”, a gender-neutral description focuses on the pitch and pace of their speech. Instead of begrudging every small linguistic change you have to make, try getting creative and making a game of it. It can be a fun and mentally stimulating exercise thinking of suitably gender-neutral descriptions for gendered terms that you usually take for granted.
Get creative about de-gendering commonly used idioms
Subverting common expressions can be humorous in a way that the trans people around you might appreciate. Instead of saying “this one really separates the men from the boys” try “separates the children from the adults”. Instead of “man up”, try “person up”. Instead of “ﬁght like a man” say “ﬁght like someone who is good at ﬁghting!” Your trans friends will notice and likely appreciate the effort, regardless of how well the humour lands.
Avoid language that relies on a gender dichotomy
In addition to excluding trans/ gender diverse people, dichotomous language is often clunky and cumbersome. Once you notice how inconvenient it is, its hard to un-notice. For example, the phrases “men and women”, “his or hers”, and “ladies and gentlemen” take more effort to say than “everyone”, “theirs”, and “esteemed guests”.
Wikipedia defines dichotomy as a partition of a whole (or a set) into two parts (subsets). The two parts must be jointly exhaustive (everything must belong to one part or the other) and mutually exclusive (nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts). Thinking in terms of dichotomy is a habit we can easily break if we simply change the context.