Culture & Conversation LGBTQ

Ask a Queer Chick: How Do I Stop Accidentally Misgendering My Co-Worker?

Lindsay King-Miller

Also: How can I go on a date without having to kiss someone? And should I leave my husband because I'm gay?

Happy end of summer, readers! How long after you left school for good did this time of year stop feeling like back-to-school season? Because let me tell you, I am not there yet. All I want to do is buy a new planner, color-code my closet, and make a lot of big transformational plans I’ll abandon when they’re halfway to completion. Fall is the time for harvesting, but it’s also when we look ahead to what we’ll soon be sowing. What are you planting for next year? What are you reaping today? While you’re thinking about that, enjoy some fresh, heirloom, in-season advice!

I recently got an amazing coworker who uses genderneutral pronouns, and I’m really struggling. I think my issue is that they present in a way that to me reads as very feminine and my brain seems to be unable to reconcile that with their gender identity. Most of the people I know who are nonbinary present very androgynously, and it’s been easy for me to keep their gender identity in perspective.

I feel like garbage every time I misgender them, which is often daily. It’s not a matter of conscious disrespect or invalidation. I think I just can’t get over my subconscious idea that gender-neutral pronouns are for visually androgynous people. Help! What can I do to rewire my stubborn brain?

Practice! I’m serious. Retraining your brain takes actual physical practice, not just getting mad at yourself for doing the thing you keep doing. Take a few minutes in private whenever it happens to occur to you—or even set a reminder on your calendar—and practice talking about this person using the correct language.

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What are some things you might need to say about your co-worker over the course of a normal work day? Say those things out loud, accurately. “You should ask Alex, they’re handling those details.” “Did Alex send you the notes they took?” “Alex is going to bring that up at their next meeting.”

If this sounds or feels weird, run through it again until it doesn’t.

The trick to replacing a bad habit with a better one is to repeat it over and over until it becomes muscle memory. If you stumble and misgender them in conversation, apologize and move on, but make mental note of what you said—because you’re going to practice saying it the right way later. (And, I’m sure you know this, but getting all self-deprecating on your co-worker’s time is not the way to handle this. Do not make them process your feelings about misgendering them. Apologize, correct yourself, and move on.)

You can also practice not making assumptions about the genders of people you don’t know based on their presentation. This might help you break out of your “femme equals she” mental groove. I’ve been working on modeling this behavior for my child, and it’s actually changing the way I think about and perceive people. On a cultural level, it’s hard to get away from the ingrained behavior of referring to people whose names we don’t know as “that man” or “that woman,” which requires making snap judgments about gender. But it’s worth the effort to reprogram ourselves. Try referring to people by their relationship to you, or what they do, instead of by their presumed gender. So instead of “the little girl with the trampoline,” we might say “our neighbor with the trampoline.” Instead of “the friendly guy from the coffee shop,” maybe “the friendly barista.” Even more simply, instead of “that woman” you can just say “that person.”

Once you get your brain acclimated to not making assumptions about people’s gender identities based on the way they present, you may find it easier to internalize the knowledge that your co-worker is nonbinary no matter how many skirts they wear. And, as a bonus, you’re that much closer to freeing yourself from patriarchal indoctrination!

Here’s the sitch: I am 24 years old and I am very inexperienced romantically. I briefly dated a guy for about six weeks last year, but I spent the entire time trying to decide if I actually liked him.

Lately, I’ve been questioning if I might not strictly be straight. My fantasy life is more female-driven, but I’ve never had a crush on a specific girl. Then again, my crushes on boys were back in high school, so I don’t know I would count those anyway. The only person I’ve ever kissed was this guy that I didn’t even like … so how the heck do I figure out which gender I like?

I started a profile on a dating site that is searching for women exclusively, but I don’t know if I should tell them I’m still figuring it out. What if no one wants to go on a date with me because I’m not 100 percent certain how I identify? Then I’ll NEVER know!

Is there a better way to figure this out without having to have physical contact, including kissing, with someone? I just don’t want to waste anyone’s time. (And frankly, I’m terrified.)

You can go on dates with people you’re not sure you want to kiss! Figuring out whether you want to kiss is, like, one of the main reasons to go on dates. You don’t have to be dying to rip someone’s clothes off to chat with them over a cup of coffee. A date is not a sex contract (and please don’t date or sex anyone who thinks it is). If you go out for dinner, get to know someone a little, and decide you’re not interested in seeing that person again, you haven’t wasted anyone’s time; you’ve accomplished exactly the objective of a date.

I think it’s fine to be upfront with your potential paramours about your inexperience, but that doesn’t have to be framed as “scientists have yet to conclusively prove that I am gay.” You don’t have to lead with it in your online profile, either. If you hit it off with someone and want to see her again, you can mention that you’ve never had a long-term relationship before, and you want to take things slowly. Some people won’t be willing to move at your speed, and that’s fine. It just means they’re not the right person for you at this point in your life.

It might seem like you can save yourself and others from heartache if you figure out exactly who you are and what you’re looking for before you dip your toe into the dating pool. The thing is, though, it’s something you pretty much have to discover through trial and error. You may have to go out with several different people of several different genders before you find someone who makes your eyes sparkle—and then they might turn out to be an emotionally withholding nightmare and you have to start all over. It’s slow and weird and painful, except when it’s fast and thrilling and exhilarating and, oh wait, painful again. Nobody really knows what they’re looking for until they’ve had some opportunities to rule people out. Sure, there are exceptions. Maybe you know someone who fell madly in love with the first person they dated in college and now they’re married and have three kids and a cactus garden. But those occurrences are rare, and determined totally by luck, not preparation.

If you want to learn more about yourself sexually and romantically, the only way is to give it a try. There’s no formula for this. It’s just a whole lot of flailing around in the dark until you find someone to hold onto. I wish you all the luck in the universe.

I’m a gay woman and have been married to a man for 8 years. I have a gigantic back story that can explain why I’ve made the choices I have, but I won’t bore you. I have two children, a nice house, and a job. My husband is a big (ish) earner. We have all the shit that people want. From the outside, we look like a lovely couple, but inside I’m dying. I’m suffocating.

How can I make myself content with this life? I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I’m still waiting to get comfortable resigning myself to this forever. Everything has just gone terribly wrong and I don’t know how to fix it all or how to make myself happy. I don’t want to hurt anyone and certainly have no support, nor have I ever been independent. Leaving just isn’t an option. It’s a whole shitstorm and I guess there probably isn’t an answer to my question. I think I just feel better getting it out there instead of in my chest the whole time.

If you can depend on me for nothing else, I hope all my regular or even casual readers understand that I will never, ever offer you advice on how to make yourself content in a life that’s suffocating you. That is not what we do here at Queer Chick Incorporated.

You have to leave your husband. You know that. I hope you knew I would give you this advice, and you knew it’s what you needed to hear, and that’s why you reached out to me. You see very clearly that there is no joy for you in following this path. If you ever achieve anything approaching resignation, it will only be because the part of you that still hopes for something better, that still believes you are worthy of happiness, has finally been strangled. I do not wish that for you. I will not help you kill the part of you that’s beating itself raw against the bars of this cage.

Leaving will be very hard. I do not doubt it. You say you’ve never lived independently and you have no support—that will make it harder. You can strike out on your own, leave with nothing but the clothes on your back, and still find your way. People have. People do. If you are at the end of your rope and the thought of another day waking up in the same place, surrounded by people but utterly alone, leaves you desolate, you can leave. You always have the option of just walking the fuck out the door. I know that having children makes this much more complicated, but I promise your kids would rather have parents who are negotiating—or even fighting over—a custody agreement than a mother who has lost the will to live.

You can also spend some time building up your resources and support network first. Look for an LGBTQ community center near you, or find a Facebook group for queer people in your area. Establishing connections with other queer folks will help you find the path from where you are now to where you want to be. If you have even one friend or family member you can trust with your truth, that will make a huge difference. Finding a support network will also come in handy when you need to find housing, transportation, and so forth to begin your independent life.

You may also want to find a queer-friendly therapist you like and trust, who can help you navigate the various challenges of rearranging your family and changing your life. The availability of services will of course vary depending on where you live. In a major city, you can probably just Google “LGBT mental health” and have your pick of options, but in a less-trafficked area your choices may be more limited. I’m a huge proponent of good old-fashioned talk therapy, but if you can’t find a practitioner you like, or if getting yourself to in-person appointments feels prohibitively difficult, you might try Talkspace or another text-based therapy service. A therapist can help you identify the specific obstacles between you and coming out, and develop strategies for overcoming them.

You know this isn’t going to be easy. It may very well be every bit the shitshow you fear, and it will definitely be sad, disorienting, hard, and full of complications you can’t even foresee right now. There will also be moments throughout of unexpected beauty, grace, humor, and even joy. At some point in the middle of it all, you will probably be like “Fuck a bunch of Lindsay for saying I should do this. THIS SUCKS.”

Further down the road, though, you will realize that you are finally breathing with your whole chest again, after all this time. Your life may look a lot less enticing in a lot of ways: more work, less space, inferior living conditions. You may have lost some people who are in your life now, though I’ll bet you’ll have found some other loves to take up space in your heart. You might even have a girlfriend. But the most important thing you’ll have is hope. Not just the hope that you’ll stop noticing how bad things are—but the hope, and faith, that one of these days they’ll get good.

Need help? Email me: [email protected]. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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