Interacting Respectfully with Other Human Beings – A Guide

By Jo Benson

You might laugh when I describe my fashion/style/the way I dress as “lesbian.” I do! Of course it is, I mean, I am one, right? But it’s a thing. Flannel, short hair, and wearing no makeup sound eerily like a mashup of stereotypes, but to me, it’s scraping the surface of a meticulously constructed wardrobe. Which, now that I think about it, a little like dressing like a 14 year old boy, only 20 and a woman. A little. But let me tell you, I look fucking fresh. I am hot shit.

Unfortunately, this way of presenting myself – my sexuality, my woman-ness, things I deign “worthy” of adorning my body – is usually completely misinterpreted by the non-queer world. Usually this doesn’t matter to me: people in stores don’t usually walk up to me and comment on my clothes, and I’m used to my family and their friends shaking their heads when they see what I’m wearing. But in professional and work spaces, it matters. And I hear about it.

I’ll admit, when I applied for a cashier position at the local grocery store, I thought it would help me get acquainted with the community in small but meaningful ways. I was prepared to deal with customers who were having a bad day, “enthusiastic” about customer service, even customers who catch me at a bad moment and think I suck at my job. What I was not prepared for was downright rudeness and complete disrespect.

Soon after I started, I realized how often people felt the need to assume my gender and how often my own way of presenting my gender to the world was “misinterpreted.” I place quotations around the word because gender isn’t a mosaic of traits and characteristics a person presents for others to “interpret”; gender is something we all do, and do differently. We all know that what we wear, how we style our hair, and our general mannerisms say a lot about us. When we get dressed in the morning, we are mindful of what people are going to think about us in certain spaces based on our wardrobe. If I wear pajamas, for example, when giving a presentation in class, I know people won’t take me seriously. Likewise, we style ourselves based on how we want others to perceive us. However, others don’t always see us the way we want to be seen. So what does that mean? Is it problematic, or human nature?

Cashiering, like many other retail and service jobs, is one of those jobs where people think of you more as a machine than a human being. When you’re a machine, people feel like they can say things to you that otherwise might be labeled “rude” or “disrespectful,” and on occasion, invisible. For me, sometimes it’s as simple as being addressed “sir,” or being referred to by the pronouns he/him. Despite the fact that I wear a gender-neutral uniform, my short hair is so overpowering a characteristic that people disregard any other “indicators” of gender. I found that, completely unsolicited, people give me a funny look and ask, “How old are you?” When I tell them I’m 20, they are surprised. They usually say something along the lines of, “Oh, you don’t look old enough to work here.” After a while, I began to amend my statement to include gender. When I instead say, “I’m a 20 year old woman” the comments change. The most common reactions, in order, are a) laughing, b) commenting on how short my hair is, and c) embarrassment. What this told me was that most people assumed I was a teenage boy. Boys have short hair, can be named Jo(e) and have high-pitched voices, right? Sure. But I do, too. I’m not unique – many women and nonbinary people also share these qualities.

What do I do about it? Sometimes, if I don’t want to confront it, I wear lipstick. Lipstick almost always negates any comment about my gender. Wearing lipstick is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but necessary for a different kind of self-care: there is something especially jarring about people reacting to my gender/presentation. Even after I brace myself for it. The first thing I feel, every time, is overwhelming shame. I am embarrassed that the way I present myself translates so badly to another human being that my gender isn’t even deciphered.

I should emphasize, again, this is my first reaction. It’s a problematic one: people should not strive to assume someone’s correct gender, because traits that always indicate a particular gender don’t exist. Women, men, and nonbinary people can all have short hair and claim those identities.

“People should not strive to assume someone’s correct gender!”  Tweet this quote

My second reaction is always to control the first. For example, instead of feeling ashamed that someone assumed I was a man and not a woman, I am upset that they assumed at all. There are ways of addressing people that are gender neutral and feel natural and respectful. We assume gender for a reason, whether it be masculine, feminine, or outside of the binary: gender is a part of human nature. To acknowledge gender is to acknowledge the humanity of another human being. It’s also to assign a slew of stereotypes so that we can interact “appropriately” with a stranger. For example, one customer  – who assumed I was a teenage boy – winked at me as I was bagging his groceries and said, “Don’t worry, son, you’ll get a girlfriend soon.”

He did not make that statement because he thought I was a lesbian. If you’re not queer, I’ll let you in on a secret – no one ever assumes you’re queer, and if they do, they usually want to hurt you. He assumed that I was a boy, which led him to believe that this lighthearted comment was appropriate. It wasn’t.

You might be thinking, “So what do I do if I can’t make assumptions? How can I possibly interact respectfully with another human being?” Fortunately, it’s tremendously easy. Here are just a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Address people with gender neutral terms. This means replacing phrases like “He is such a great cashier, I appreciate his work” with “They are such a great cashier, I appreciate their work.” It’s even grammatically accurate.
  1. Don’t use pronouns at all. For example, instead of saying “Thank you, sir” or “Have a good day, ma’am” simply say, “Thank you,” and “Have a good day.”
  1. I will repeat: there are no traits that indicate a particular gender. My body is more than a mosaic of artifacts to be taken apart and interpreted. I am not a machine – talk to me.

This list is short and sweet. It could include a variety of other things. Feel free to add on in the comments!

Jo is a third-year undergraduate at St. Cloud State, double majoring in Women’s Studies and Rhetoric. She is a white, cis-gender lesbian passionate about feminism, cats, writing, and Magic: the Gathering.

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