That Time I Was Called Both Sir and Ma’am at the Store
The author writes that gender identity can get complicated, even in the most mundane of surroundings.
“Good afternoon, ma’am!”
I’d just stepped inside the store when I felt the words hurled at me. I tried to shape my lips into a smile but I’m sure I just looked constipated and confused—which, to be fair, isn’t far from what I was actually feeling. Instead of unleashing all of the gender-related thoughts and emotions seething inside me on my lovely greeter, I turned inward to process.
When Will Gender Fluid Pronouns Catch On?
For much of my life, I’ve skated between the masculine and feminine, male and female, boy and girl, sir and ma’am. I’ve never felt entirely at home within my body, but I also never felt that transitioning would help with that ache within me. It comes and goes, usually in concert with periods of hopefulness, like the hope that I have that people will stop using gender-specific greetings when engaging with others. Or the hope that I have that they’ll embrace more of the in-between-ness that exists in the world, and has for centuries. The ache exposes my desire for fluidity, openness, curiosity and welcoming that the world does not often provide.
“Need help looking for anything, sir?”
“No, thank you,” I quickly replied, and turned the corner to escape this box the whole store seemed to be trying to close around me. As I passed by the clothing section, I felt rage well up in me. Boy clothes, girl clothes—but where are the anyone-and-everybody clothes? I’ve spent years trying without luck to find pants that don’t hug my waist too tightly but don’t drag on the ground beneath my sneakers. I’d often end up berating my body instead of the clothes that can’t even begin to contain or express the real me. I think, if I could only get smaller here, bigger here, longer here, then those clothes will fit me in the right way.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” another voice offered from out of nowhere. I lunged for some ramen and ran out of the aisle quickly.
My god, they come at you fast.
Why Gender Pronouns Matter
I think that when people say “ma’am” or “sir” that they genuinely mean it to be kind and respectful, and in wanting to be both kind and courteous, they use the only terms they were taught to describe others. This is why I try to be kind, even through my seething inner fury, because the unrest I feel is less about them and more about the world that surrounds us—and the ways we’ve been conditioned to behave and speak.
I wonder what it would look like to embody a language of freedom, filled with curiosity, wondering and kindness. A sort of language that beckons us out of the binaries we live in and asks us to imagine other words, other people, other worlds. This sort of language has already been created, utilized and passed on among many indigenous peoples. For those of us who have been raised in an incubator where there is only man and woman, and nothing else, we have much work to do. There are people among you who feel this same angst, this same “in-between-ness,” this same feeling of not fitting in but not knowing where else to go.
Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, this is a little heavy for a story about a shopping trip.” Maybe. Maybe not. For many transgender and non-binary folk, it’s in the day-to-day, the mundane running of errands where we often experience micro-aggressions. To you, “ma’am” and “sir” may just be words. To another person, they could be proof of their invisibility in this world—evidence that they’re not being seen for who they truly are. This is not an offering of judgment, but one of welcoming you to envision how you could create a more inclusive language within yourself—and how that might make life better for people you don’t even know.