Mis-gendering with a smile: On the ‘friendly refusal’

slithe asked:

“Hello! I’d just like to ask how you feel about when someone refers to someone as he/him or she/they when they prefer they/them using the excuse of, ‘Oh it’s okay, I’m just used to it. Plus, you don’t mind right?'”

Hi slithe! Thank you for your question.

This sounds like what I call the ‘friendly refusal’. Here, someone is actively refusing to use a person’s preferred gender pronoun, but is spending ‘friend capital’ in order to make it seem like it isn’t a refusal at all. Rather, a friendly refuser is hoping that they can mis-gender someone precisely because of their relationship: because of the trust and intimacy it provides. Poof – refusal to use someone’s pronoun magically becomes an expression of intimacy and even love!

The problem with a friendly refusal – as opposed to a hostile or outright refusal, which I have written about before – is that The Person (let’s call them TP) being mis-gendered is positioned as the one causing the trouble. After all, their friend has good intentions and cares about them, right? If TP said “actually, I do mind if you mis-gender me” then they would be the one causing conflict in an otherwise friendly-seeming/sounding interaction.

A particularly tricky thing about the friendly refusal is that a friendly refuser is likely to feel hurt if TP says no, and TP may be made to feel responsible for this hurt and seek to make it better. In the end, even though TP was mis-gendered, they can end up meeting someone else’s needs, while their own go unmet.

And so, slithe, how I feel is that this is not okay. It’s not more okay than an outright or hostile refusal just because it seems/sounds friendly. It might even be worse because it is manipulative, despite perhaps being unintentional.

I challenge the well-intentioned friendly refusers out there to try and recognize ourselves, and I implicate myself here (‘ourselves’) because there is no one who hasn’t tried to fall back on a friendship to get out of responsibility for hurting someone else, however implicitly. This includes those of us ‘in the know’ about this stuff. There aren’t good people who seamlessly use someone’s new PGP from the start, and bad people who don’t (for the most part). There are just people with widely varying degrees of willingness and ability to spend energy on making a change for people we care about.

That having been said, as insidious as the friendly refusal can be, there is something to be said for the friendly refuser’s hurt feelings. Every single relationship is its own animal with its own context and history. Frequent readers of TIMP (particularly my posts on fearing partner rejectioncoming out to a friend with little knowledge of gender diversity issues, and negative parent reactions) know that I often advise askers to be mindful of their particular relationship with a refuser, suggesting that they consider what else might be going on that needs to be addressed. A key belief of the whole TIMP project is that the difficulty surrounding pronoun change is about much more than the pronoun itself and its grammar. Sometimes that ‘more’ is transphobia of some kind, and sometimes it’s just a benign irritation that has festered over time.

The friendly refuser’s hurt feelings are real feelings. As with so much writing on white privilege, a big part of being an ally to GNP users is managing this hurt in a way that doesn’t require our hurt friend to take care of us. This doesn’t mean hiding our feelings, but offering reassurance to our GNP-using friend that our hurt feelings are not their fault. And of course, practicing.

I hope that answers your question, and have a lovely day!

Warmly,

Lee

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All questions and comments are welcome. You can ask an anonymous question to TIMP at theyismypronoun.tumblr.com.

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