A Quick Guide to Gender Etiquette

Guest post by Chick-a-Bee. See bio below.

The world we live in is changing and evolving at a rapid, sometimes dizzying pace. So much is happening daily on the frontlines of politics, police reform, racial equality, climate justice, LGBTQ+ issues and so much more. It can be hard to feel well informed and up to speed with the times. That’s why I’d like to present to you a bite-sized article of the most important information concerning one of today’s pressing issues: gender.

It might seem hard for some people to believe, but gender goes far beyond the well-known binary of male and female. New gender identities are being recognized all the time, so it can be difficult to say exactly how many genders there are. I’m going to walk you through the five you’ll run into most often, as well as some other need-to-know terms and basic gender etiquette.  

Art by Phoebe Helander
Artwork by Phoebe Helander. Check out more of Phoebe’s work at phoebehelander.com.

Definitions

Before we dive into an introduction of some gender identities, it’s important for us note the difference between the following terms:

  • Gender Identity – A person’s internal sense of self in relation to their gender.
  • Gender Expression – The external representation of one’s gender.
  • Sex – Assigned at birth by a doctor based on genitalia.
  • Sexuality/Sexual Orientation – Refer to a person’s sexual and/or romantic attraction.

Regarding “sex,” the word is assigned both definitions – the physical act and the physical aspects of a person’s genitalia. I think when it comes down to it, the word “sex” implies physicality, a physical act, while gender is what’s internal. To me, gender is a sense of self, how we process and interact with our body mentally. 

Coming soon! Pick up the 2nd issue of the Beyond Binary zine at Discontent, Zandbroz, Atomic Coffee & Tea Berry in downtown Fargo, N.D.

Excluding male and female, most non-binary people use the following gender identities prevalently:

  • Non-Binary – This is an umbrella term for those whose gender falls outside male and female. It encompasses a wide range of gender identities, including the others listed here. Some non-binary people might also refers to themselves as trans, which is another umbrella term, but not all do. 
  • Gender Non-Conforming – Refers to people whose gender expression does not conform to societal expectations of their gender identity. 
  • Genderfluid – A person whose sense of gender is not fixed. Their gender identity might change or they might feel a mixture of two or more genders. 
  • Genderqueer – People who might see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female or as falling completely outside these categories. This is similar to genderfluid but might also, but not always, include a fluid sexuality.
  • Agender – A person without a sense of gender. 

Other Terms

Here are some other important terms and initialisms you might hear during discussions about gender:

  • Cisgender – A person whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth.
  • Trans – A person whose gender identity does NOT align with their sex assigned at birth. 
  • Gender Binary – The two-gender system of male and female.
  • Non-Binary – Genders that exist outside the gender binary.
  • Intersex – People born with a variety of differences in their sex traits and reproductive anatomy, genitalia, chromosomes, gonads, internal sex organs, hormone production, hormone response and/or secondary sex traits. 
  • AFAB – Assigned female at birth.
  • AMAB – Assigned male at birth.
  • Gender Dysphoria – A state of being uncomfortable with one’s body and/or assigned gender.
  • Misgender – To refer to someone with pronouns or words that do not reflect their gender identity.          

Gender Etiquette

Now that you’ve read over gender identities and terms, we can cover some gender etiquette. You might be wondering why a lesson in etiquette is necessary.  Here’s my answer: what’s polite and proper is changing, for the better. What was once polite no longer is and is instead alienating to a huge demographic. 

If we want to aim for a kinder, more accepting society, we need to turn our language away from a system based around only two genders.  

Our first step toward better etiquette is to…

Stop assuming someone’s gender. Trans and non-binary people are all incredibly different and unique, all expressing themselves differently. Many of us might appear to you to be cisgender. It is impossible to judge someone’s gender by their clothes, makeup, body, voice, etc. Because of this…

It’s time to let go of Sir/Ma’am. It’s extremely likely that you were raised to use “Sir” and “Ma’am” as terms of respect, but I’m here to tell you that they no longer are. Unless you already know the gender of the person you’re referring to when you use these terms, you could be making a major assumption about them. Being misgendered in this way by strangers is a common cause of dysphoria for non-binary and trans people. They’re not alone in this. Many cis people also find it uncomfortable to be misgendered. No one likes being referred to as something they’re not. I can guarantee you that as long as you’ve got a smile on your face and a pleasant tone, any phrase that would include “Sir” and Ma’am” will sound just as polite without them. It’s time to let them go. Gendering strangers is something we as a society need to move away from. Gender has become much more personal, and intimate. 

Cover of the 1st issue of the Beyond Binary zine by Chick-a-Bee
Cover of the 1st issue of the Beyond Binary zine

So, then, when you find yourself in the situation of meeting someone new, how do you proceed? Start by…

Offering and asking pronouns. Telling someone their pronouns can be an intimidating situation for a lot of trans people. They never know the response they may receive from someone. Offering your pronouns to someone first often takes this fear of the unknown away, and puts them at ease. Introduce yourself by sharing your pronouns after your name. 

Example – “Hi! My name is Chick-a-Bee. My pronouns are they/them.” 

If the person you’re speaking to doesn’t immediately respond with their name and pronouns, it’s appropriate to ask. In reverse, if someone is introducing themselves and offers their pronouns, it’s polite to respond with your own. 

Example – “Hi, Chick-a-Bee, nice to meet you. My name is Dave, and my pronouns are he/him.” 

Some individuals might tell you they prefer no pronouns, in which case you would only refer to them by name. Once you’ve learned someone’s pronouns, it’s important to use them whenever referring to that person, whether or not you’re in their presence. This may take some time for you to get the hang of, but that’s alright as long as you’re putting forth the effort. 

Something to consider if you should slip up and use the wrong pronouns is…

Don’t apologize. If someone corrects you about using proper pronouns, it’s more polite to thank them for the correction rather than apologize for the mistake.

In most cases, it’s a natural response for someone to respond with some form of “That’s okay” when receiving an apology. If you can, try to save people from having to respond this way. Being misgendered is an uncomfortable experience, and having to tell someone it was okay can feel contradictory to that feeling. 

Ask Questions. Once again, it’s important to remember that all trans and non-binary people are different and have unique preferences. It is okay to ask questions, just make sure you are always asking from a place of respect for the person, not judgment. Always try to steer clear of questions that involve a person’s sex organs or sex assigned at birth. These subjects are very personal, and should only be brought up by the individual themselves if they so wish.  

Gateway to Understanding

I feel strongly that by following these simple guidelines, we can vastly improve how our society continues to evolve towards the acceptance of diverse peoples. I feel so strongly about it that I’ve started a self-published zine about non-binary/trans issues and experiences. It’s a platform that combines my passions of art and writing in an easy-to-distribute and read pamphlet. Important issues can be easily digested alongside a taste of beauty. My hope is to spread trans-created art, poetry and writings to the broader community. 

I feel that prejudice is the by-product of ignorance. Many people who hold prejudices against trans people simply might not have been exposed to their lives and experiences. Art can be the gateway to understanding. So I will spread art until the world becomes the better place I believe it can be.

© 2022 Chick-a-Bee

Chick-a-Bee is a 26-year-old writer and artist living in Fargo, N.D., with their wife and girlfriend. They came out to their friends and family as non-binary one year ago and have been on a mission to spread awareness of trans/non-binary issues ever since. They love to create in many forms, including painting, photography, collage, and knit and crochet. They are in the creative stages for the second issue of their Beyond Binary zine, which will be available soon at Discontent, Zandbroz Variety, Atomic Coffee and Tea Berry in downtown Fargo, N.D. View digital scans of Beyond Binary on their Instagram, @BeyondBinaryZine.

A special thank you to Phoebe Helander for granting IV Words and Chick-a-Bee permission to use her artwork!

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