(how) Do you see me?

This is the second of two or three (I haven’t decided) parts about the BAPCA conference.

In the lead up to the conference, it occurred to me that it might be an interesting idea to get BACPA to challenge some assumptions and at the same time, help me personally, and so I sent an email and asked if, on people’s name badges, it could look like:

NAME
Pronoun……

After some explaining about what this meant, and that it wouldn’t be ok to write ‘pronoun: he/she/other’, with two people who both said ‘yes this seems ok’, I was excited and hopeful that for one weekend, I would immediately be known for who I was and wouldn’t have to explain myself to everyone (although I foresaw some conversations about my choice of pronoun). When I got to the conference, I cannot describe the disappointment I felt when I realised that the badges just said NAME on them. I was crushed. This was a conference on diversity, supposedly at least in part for and about people like me, and something I had requested had been theoretically agreed to but not carried out. I wondered if perhaps it had been an administration error, so I asked the first person I’d spoken to what had happened. She told me that it had been discussed, and they couldn’t see why THEY would need a pronoun on their badges, and if I wanted one, I could just write one on. I responded and said ‘that immediately ‘others’ me’ and in her face I recognised that I had made sense in that moment.

I walked away, to be met by someone else who said ‘Oh – you’re the one who’s going to write ‘they’ on your badge aren’t you? you need to tell me about that, because I don’t get it’. And I kind of mumbled something and went away. I was uncomfortable with the idea of having to explain myself and just wanted to get away. I decided from that point that I wasn’t wearing my badge. If i couldn’t be fully known for who I was, on equal terms, I would be known on my terms. I felt pestered by the same person on two more occasions to educate them. I eventually flat-out said ‘no, I won’t. Please feel free to look online’.

My four days was spent never really being seen. Most people got my pronoun wrong most of the time. Some people really tried hard, and I can see that and don’t have a problem with it. Some got it right (few), and a lot more got it wrong, corrected themselves and moved on. A lot more clearly weren’t able to risk admitting potentially being wrong or uncomfortable, and so carried on (either that, or they never noticed that despite me talking about it, and showing up to the evening event in my facial hair, that ‘she’ was potentially inappropriate) and it was ‘she’ all the way. Others performed great linguistic feats to never gender me. I suspect it would have been much easier work to say ‘they’, rather than not use ANY pronoun.

I have to say, going out in the evening in my facial hair was something I’d never done before. That has previously been confined to my house. Aside from a couple of positive comments, no-one said anything or reacted externally, which was just what I wanted. It was great (both the positive and the lack of negative). I was able to relax and have fun in a way I didn’t think I’d manage, the first time I walked out of the bathroom and into public.

But it was back to ‘she’ for most of it.

Readers, those who say you’ll work with LGBT clients, have a think. It’s not enough to think you’re accepting. When you get it wrong with me it’s ok; I’m resilient. When a client who has never outed herself to anyone before comes to you looking ‘like a man’, you’re going to have to potentially put away your ‘he’ and develop your ‘she’. You might get a genderqueer person who like me who uses ‘they’, or per, or xie, or one of the many other gender-neutral pronoun (or who, unlike me, doesn’t want a pronoun at all). If you’re going to be culturally competent working with especially the T of LGBT people, you need to know some people who are trans, have spoken to people who are trans, or have done some reading and training on the topic.

I’m sure that most people at the conference would have said that they were competent to work with LGBT people. Had I been a client, it could have done me a lot of harm. As it was, I’m used to it. It happens every day. It means that BAPCA was not a safe space for me, much like most other spaces are not safe. But for a client, it’s imperative that your space is safe. Ask yourself honestly – ‘could I consistently call someone ‘they’ without tripping?’ ‘could I call someone who would ordinarily be read as ‘a woman’ and who comes to my counselling room in a skirt ‘he’ without having an issue?’ Those are difficult things to do, because society genders us in to two groups. You’re stepping outside of it all to accept the client as they are, not as you want to see them.