Even the most cautious and aware of us slip up sometimes. Language becomes casual, and casual language becomes standard. Behavior also becomes casual, and common behavior becomes standard as well. Use of ‘guys’ to refer to a group of both genders has arguably become gender neutral. While cisgender men and women may view certain words and actions as gender neutral, inclusive, and inoffensive, what is considered to be gender neutral cannot be when we use terms like ‘both genders’ to justify neutrality. There is no ‘both’ genders; a huge beautiful spectrum of gender identity exists beyond (and between) Man and Woman.
With a binarist view of gender, erasing non-binary trans* folk is extraordinarily easy, unfortunately common, and inexorably rampant. Unconscious erasure of non-binary and trans* folks in everyday life is a phenomenon called Casual Cissexism. Casual cissexism happens when we link genitals with gender and make assumptions based on that. It happens when we think “woman” means, by default, “cis woman” and think “man,” by default, means “cis man.” It happens when we gender toys and colors. It happens all the time, all around us–and yes, by us. Recognizing that you and I often contribute to casual cissexism is the first step in avoiding it.
Avoiding casual cissexism can be difficult. So, here are a few suggestions for avoiding behavior that promotes it.
1. Always ask someone’s pronouns
Here’s a warning ahead of time: you will receive accusatory responses. Cisnormativity fuels responses like “what are you trying to imply?” Always making sure you ask someone’s pronouns counters cisnormativity. Despite large amounts of flack, this should be incorporated into every introduction. When meeting new people in a situation where the emotional and physical safety of both parties is ambiguous (such as in a very public place), asking right away may not be appropriate or respectful. Mentioning “hey, I didn’t catch your pronouns earlier” when the situation becomes less ambivalent is just as good–what matters is that you are asking. It is easy to overlook, everyone overlooks or forgets sometimes, but to assume most people will invariably be cis and thus assume asking about pronouns at every introduction is unnecessary demonstrates how the kinds of casual cissexism we work towards eliminating manifests itself.
“What are your pronouns?” should be just as common as “What is your name?” Both are inextricably tied into identity.
2. Change your language
Language, as I have written, is an extremely important aspect of grassroots activism that can indeed change the world, but is often dismissed as petty nitpicking. At a formal event and not sure how to address the crowd? Try “honored guests,” in place of “ladies and gentlemen.” “Hey, friends” is always a good alternative to “hey, guys” and similar greetings. “Folks” is always a great alternative to gendered terms that risk misgendering people. Since the dawn of Second Wave Feminism, feminists have been proposing alternatives to sexist language in order to avoid using the traditionally masculine as a default. Among the alternatives proposed are “he or she,” “guys and gals,” “s/he,” “(s)he,” “she or he,” “she” and these, among others, such as using “human” instead of “man,” have made language–especially written language–more inclusive. However, while avoiding casual sexism, in general, has become easier due to the efforts of Feminists through the ages (some who have been extremely problematic, but must be recognized as contributing to the Herculean task of eliminating sexist language), “he or she” is still sexist.
Gender isn’t a binary. That is becoming a more accepted fact. Yet, still, even the most conscientious of us use “he or she” in conversation, and “he or she,” while benefiting inclusion of cis women, maintains the implication that cis is the default–that is, cisnormativity.
3. “Call out,” but don’t forget to “call in”
Have you ever had to call someone out? Whether for expressions of racism, classism, ableism, sexism (and all its derivatives, like cissexism), sizeism, queerphobia, and so on, and any and all intersections of such, calling folks out for these displays is uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s enraging. Sometimes, people will dismiss you entirely. Sometimes, you will end up doing it multiple times. Through this slew of possible negativity, sometimes people get it. One of the coolest cis-het allies I know came from queerphobic roots–but nobody ever told him “cut it out,” nobody had told him “don’t be mean to queer people, that’s never okay.” While he has a long way to go–like many allies–he got it.
Not everyone will get it, but those who do can be ‘called in’ after they are called out.