Why I Don’t Gender People

One thing that fascinates me about WisCon is a key difference between moderators that might seem subtle to someone who isn’t paying attention. During Q&As or audience commentaries, they handle picking people in two very different ways.

Let’s say, theoretically, that a person with a red dress stands up or raises a hand to ask a question. That person has breasts and long hair.

One moderator says: ‘You, and you, and you, and the woman in the red dress.’

Another moderator says: ‘You, and you, and you, and the person in a red dress.’

The difference doesn’t seem important to many people, but it’s actually critical: Because the person in the red dress may not necessarily be a woman, and that person will feel much more welcome, at home, and safe in an environment where authority figures do not automatically presume gender on the basis of general physical appearance. Moderators who think about this and choose salient features as identifying markers, rather than presumed gender, are behaving with more cultural and social awareness.

This conversation has come up before: In fact, members of the WisCon community have specifically asked that moderators employ a gender-neutral style for handling audience comments and questions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also been a subject of vicious debate. Some people argue in defense of not gendering others without permission (i.e. if someone identifies herself as a woman, treat her as such — and if someone has provided no gender information, don’t assume — this extends to pronouns, as well). Others, mainly cis people, are infuriated at the thought that some people might feel uncomfortable with automatic gendering, and are angry at the thought of not being gendered by moderators in the interest of the common good.

As often happens in discussions about cis and trans identity, cis people seem to think that their need to be comfortable trumps that of trans people. It doesn’t hurt people to not be identified by a specific gender and to instead be treated as neutral until identified otherwise in a social space. It does hurt people to be misgendered.

Which is why I do not identify people with gendered markers until I am confident that I know their gender. At conferences and other social events, whether I’m moderating, meeting people, pointing out a person across a room, or in some other way indicating another person’s presence, I don’t use pronouns and I don’t use gendered terms. I say ‘The person in blue’ or ‘The person with the big jade necklace’ or ‘The person with the big cowboy boots.’

When I’m writing up alt tags and image descriptions online, I am similarly careful to avoid not just gendered terms, but pronouns — because while many people are comfortable using ‘they’ as a default ‘I don’t know this person’s gender’ pronoun, I am not. (And not for reasons of the great singular they debate, but because some people use it as a specific pronoun — I wouldn’t use ‘he’ as a generic pronoun, so why would I use ‘they’?) To me, it’s important that I not gender the figures I am describing, although I am careful to describe them as much as possible for the benefit of those who are blind or low vision, or are not displaying images for other reasons.

If I am posting a picture of Beyoncé, I feel pretty comfortable describing her as a woman, since she’s identified that way. The alt tag may include gendered language — ‘a Black woman performing on stage’ — and it will also include racial descriptors, because I know her race. (I do not assume that pale or light-skinned people are white.) If I don’t know about a specific aspect of someone’s identity, I never assume, in the interests of not erasing that person’s identity.

Sometimes this requires some verbal gymnastics and considerable creativity when it comes to structuring sentences. Sometimes that results in having slightly stilted, but still readable, alt tags and image descriptions. I view that as an acceptable price for not misidentifying people, and I view it as a way to remind readers and the people around me that it’s not safe to make assumptions about people.

This may make me come off as a frothing at the mouth, PC-obsessed liberal. I’m okay with that. Because basic human decency never strikes me as a bad thing, and erring on the side of caution to protect people from harm seems entirely reasonable. I don’t want to hurt someone by erasing racial identity, disability status, or gender — nor do I want to harm someone by assuming something where it isn’t. If I was describing Anna Hamilton in an image, I’d call her a white disabled woman with a cane, because I know all of these things to be true. If I didn’t know her, I’d call her a light-skinned person with a cane. The same general description is conveyed, allowing someone to understand what the image depicts, but I haven’t unwittingly misdescribed the person — perhaps the person doesn’t ID as disabled, for example, or isn’t actually white.

Thinking more consciously about how you identify the people around you doesn’t just mean that they’re more likely to feel comfortable and safe with you, and it doesn’t just remind and educate people about the variability of the human condition. It’s also a sharp reminder to yourself that you should never assume, and also that it’s okay for people to appear ambiguous in your eyes. Your perception of someone as an ‘unknown’ doesn’t need to be immediately fixed with an automatic classification into race, gender, or some other category.

You can look at the picture above and not try to discern the person’s gender. You can wait for the person to tell you, and that’s okay. It goes against the grain of our human training, which tells us to immediately put everything into a taxonomy, but it’s the right thing to do.

Image: Butch as fuck, Arlette, Flickr.