If you’re wondering why this post is entitled “Terms of Endearment”, you’ll see why at the bottom.
99% of people are cisgender, meaning that their gender identity is in accord with their designated gender at birth. For the cisgender majority, it is really hard to comprehend how a transgender identity could even occur. It is completely outside their personal experience.
For cisgender people, it’s hard to even distinguish where the different components of gender start and finish, because they all line up in a seamless and harmonious whole. They experience themselves simply, as a man, or as a woman.
My gender was neither seamless nor harmonious, a discordant symphony within, that produced chronic stress, depression, anxiety and other struggles. I learned band-aid techniques to manage stress, depression and anxiety, but it was far better to modify the source of these troubles, rather than merely treating the symptoms.
The seams between the different components of my gender remain visible to me. I cannot make my gender a seamless whole. What I have done, and am continuing to do, is to bring harmony where there used to be discord. I discover harmony through changing my affiliation, expression and experience of gender. This new harmony relieves the stress, depression, anxiety and other struggles, that arose out of my internal gender dissonance. Oh yes, I still have struggles, but they are no longer chronic and unrelenting. Everyone has struggles!
Even cisgender people may sometimes experience gender dissonance:
- A woman on a construction site who is required to use the men’s toilet, because the women’s toilet isn’t built yet.
- A male nurse who is automatically included in the designation “ladies”.
- A teenage boy who is teased for playing sport “like a girl”.
- A sporty tomboy who is no longer welcome to play with the boys.
- A woman who has a mastectomy to treat breast cancer.
- A stressed-out middle-aged male executive who is struggling with impotence.
When gender dissonance grows to encompass one’s entire social setting, the cisgender person may then start to experience gender dysphoria. One example might be that weak, clumsy teenage boy, who is called a girl by everyone in the school, and even the teachers misgender him as “she”. The distress of that tormented teenage boy, is comparable to the distress that transgender people may experience day-to-day.
Gender dissonance is uncomfortable, but people experience that dissonance with a very personal and individual intensity. One male nurse has no trouble being included with the “ladies”, while another says, “it’s ok”, when it really isn’t ok at all. One woman undergoing mastectomy is able to shrug it off, while for another they feel distressed about it every single day, though they never talk about it.
A Second Kind of Dissonance
There is a second kind of dissonance that people experience, which occurs when they feel forced to act contrary to their beliefs:
- An honest man, who is told to lie by his boss.
- A vegan who turns up to a dinner party, where every single dish contains animal products.
When that same very honest man, is forced to sell a dishonest product, every single day, this dissonance grows until it becomes unbearable. That, too, is something comparable to gender dysphoria. That man may have to choose between losing his house, or losing his identity as honest.
The Greatest Kindness
The most powerful tool for easing chronic stress of gender dissonance, is acknowledgement of my gender identity by others. When my friends call me “Naomi”, when my brother calls me “sis”, when people refer to me with female pronouns “she” and “her”, I smile, and know that I am accepted, and feel the peace that comes with that. Respecting the chosen names and pronouns of transgender people, is usually the greatest kindness, and most important support, that you can provide them.
Some people experience that second kind of dissonance when confronted with my request to call me “Naomi” and “she”. Their reasons seem misguided to me, but are completely real in their eyes. They erroneously believe that calling me “Naomi” and “she”:
- Would make my “confusion” or “delusion” worse.
- Would make it more likely for me to pursue a “destructive” course of hormone treatment.
- Would make it more likely that I would pursue the “unforgiveable sin” of gender confirmation surgery (GCS).
These misguided beliefs deserve a separate post, but suffice to say that this dissonance they feel, on calling me “Naomi”, is real. This dissonance, is like a miniscule taste of what gender dysphoria feels like. It’s uncomfortable.
If someone feels uncomfortable calling me “Naomi”, they are likely to use my old name instead, and call me “he”. When they use my old name and male pronouns intentionally, they are repeatedly communicating things to me, that they may not intend:
- They do not trust me, after 4 years of figuring myself out, that I really do know what I need.
- That I must be “confused”, because I am not like them.
- That I must be “wrong”, because they are sure they are “right”.
- They do not value my honesty, or my stated need.
- That I should keep them at an emotional distance, because I cannot trust them to honour my needs in our relationship.
Calling me nothing at all feels awkward, but is certainly preferable to using my old name.
So, if one feels uncomfortable calling me “Naomi”, another solution is at hand, which helps avoid these problems. Not a perfect solution, but still very useful.
Terms of endearment provide a wide range of gender colouring, so we are not constrained to simply male or female. Many terms of endearment, even at the extreme feminine end, are sometimes applied to men, and vice-versa. Here’s some that I enjoy:
Other terms of endearment are quite gender neutral, so while not affirming of my gender identity, they are affirming of the relationship.
- buddy (or “bud”)
- sib (short for sibling, alternative to “bro”)
In prayer, it works very well to call me “child”, rather than “he” or “son”.
A note in all of this. Some terms of endearment are just as bad as using my old name, because they operate on the assumption that I must be male. While a cisgender woman may be able to receive the endearment “mate” with merely a quizzical look, for me it’s not so easy. Worse terms of endearment include “bro” or “dude”. Sometimes these are used with the intention to “man me up”. It doesn’t work! Rather it makes me feel unwelcome and uncomfortable.
Of course, anyone who includes me in the appellations “girls” or “ladies”, are guaranteed to receive a delighted smile!
Love is patient, love is kind. … it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, … it is not easily angered, …
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
— Excerpts from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV)
A note to those who work in retail and service industries
When someone looks gender incongruous, or gender ambiguous, there is often a good reason why. Rather than working harder to identify the customer’s biological sex, to correctly call them “sir” or “ma’am”, there is a better way.
Terms of endearment, while seeming perhaps “too familiar” or “improper”, will win you friends, happy customers, and repeat business, among those who live uncomfortably with our culture’s gender stereotypes.