Old white glass medicine containers on the shelf

I Got Misgendered

I Got Misgendered

In the quaint depths of a Zurich pharmacy, and on a mission to acquire treasure, misgendering struck. Unprepared and vulnerable, each thoughtless act tried to diminish my confidence. And infuriated me. The joy of exploration vanished, replaced by the painful awareness that societal imprints did not recognize my true identity. In that moment, I was wounded, struggling to reconcile my truth with the hurtful reality.

I was unprepared, unprotected with shields down, and it came in just such an unexpected manner that it knocked me out.

This has happened to me so many times before, so: “What is the big deal” you might ask. I was unprepared, unprotected with shields down, and it came in just such an unexpected manner that it knocked me out.

“He is still looking around.“ the Pharmacist lady in charge said to her more junior staff. I might have misheard; I was in the other room of the basement of the pharmacy after all. It was a storage room, the whole basement seemed new, not historical, like the building on the surface.

“This man is going to buy these, wrap them up, will you?” Now it was clear. It was not me being mistaken, she consistently referred to me as a man. I became really disconnected with the original purpose of me having descended to the basement of a charming old pharmacy building in downtown Zurich. It said in the store window that there are vintage pharmacy items for sale: there was a tin box and a dark pharmacy glass also on display as samples. It was a small room with industrial racks full of old to new pharmacy storage items, cans, bottles, boxes and most importantly the porcelain jars I was after. I selected four larger ones, so 25 cm tall. There were many in a pile and I also found just one smaller jar that still had a cover, also made of porcelain. These jars were common, white cylinders with bold hand painted signs in Latin indicating the content and two golden stripes around the bottom and the neck.

I just stood there, numb.

But I could not focus any more on finding other items. I was stunned, was in reactive mode, as my altogether 5 jars (4 big ones and 1 small one, all so flawless with their porcelain covers) were taken from me. I remember having the notion they were being taken by the staff for paper wrapping, but I just stood there, numb. The lead pharmacist woman was standing here, overseeing me, and was probably waiting for the close of our deal, which was a good one. I got the 6 items for CHF 55 altogether, which is in Swiss monetary terms a great bargain.

I am male assigned at birth, which is the nice way to say I was born biologically male or better with a male anatomy. I was raised a boy and although I always knew, I came late to transition and to live fully as my true self, as a woman. I did my homework, I created a decent feminine presentation, have invested into changing my body cosmetically to eliminate things like facial or body hair which would be considered categorically male as a trait. There is one thing I could not change: my height.

I thought my message was clear, because your presentation, your expression is a sentence with words in it.

So, I stand there in the basement of the pharmacy, I am wearing a colorful dress with black pantyhose and ankle boots. I have very feminine magenta gel manicure nails, long curly hair and wear makeup around the eyes and a brownish lipstick. I mean, I thought my message was clear, because your presentation, your expression is a sentence with words in it. Some people express in a way that their sentence has words saying male as well as female in it. Mine was damn clear, all words practically shouted feminine. How dare you not want to understand? To really see me?

I have no problem people noticing I am trans, nicer put: I have a transgender background, or I am a woman with transgender experience. Not that it would not feel great to just be accepted as a cis woman, but I am also not ashamed and am not trying to hide. I on the other hand would like to be respected to being approached and treated as to how I present. Same as if I hand over my business card, which says Dr., you address me as doctor. It is very rude to disregard people’s clear gender expressions and allowing your brain to overwrite it with the social imprint. That is misgendering and if done consciously or demonstrative on purpose, it is offensive and highly transphobic. And I am not sure if done unconsciously makes it that much better. It is still rude and offensive.

“You called me a man.” That was all that could leave my mouth. Again I stood in silence. She did start to process what I said, and she understood immediately, shockingly fast, to what I was referring to. “Yes, because you are obviously a lady” she said, and with that she was meaning to dismiss the whole thing and thought process behind her misgendering me in front of her colleagues, four other cis women.

Pharmacies are mostly female-dominated spaces, and in this store there were in fact only female employees. Most probably none of them were trans or binary non-conforming, otherwise the shop would have had an inclusive culture. Obviously it did not. Yes, being 1,95 meters tall, I am noticeable,  as usually cis women are not so tall. The statistical probability of you meeting a tall girl like me on the street is insignificantly low. Hence those to whom biological gender determination matters, will clock me as trans.

I do have cash; she is happy about it. The transaction was probably a private deal. She needs to give the change upstairs. I am also invited to leave the basement and reemerge through the very narrow ancient staircase which connects the historical part of the pharmacy with the later added underground corridor and basement section where I found my treasures. It started out as a kind of romantic idea and adventure to be allowed behind the counter and down this tiny winding wooden staircase to see the basement of a Zürich historical pharmacy.

Until this incident messed up everything. Upstairs I already have sensed that she was worried. I think she realized in the meantime what happened, that she seriously, maybe unconsciously, but very bluntly misgendered me multiple times. I am not sure, but I think it bothered her, she surely felt it was a mistake. What I do not know is she also felt bad, or if she has grasped that she has probably hurt me bad down there. For me it was surely no formality.

My confidence in presenting and confidently being out in the world as a tall transgender woman had been disrupted by this incident.

I took the 5 francs return, and she left for my packaged goods. I was sweating. Winter outside cold, inside warm, long puffy cream color winter jacket, scarf, hat, and gloves (already off). I was also pissed. I felt my funny adventure and my joy over the catch was ruined. I also felt my confidence in presenting and confidently being out in the world as a tall transgender woman had been disrupted by this incident.

She was so keen to give me some freebees. Maybe it was a way for her to try to say sorry.

She was so keen to give me some freebees. Maybe it was a way for her to try to say sorry. She first gave me two small packs of the pharmacy‘s branded tissue paper, then she looked what else there was to give, and she also gave two band-aid sample packs also with the shop‘s logo on it. After just a bit of hesitation I took all she wanted to give, I took it as positive a gesture. Finally, she handed over the jars individually paper-wrapped and she insisted on putting the whole lot into a second paper bag to ensure it does not tear. Instead of trying to soothe her obvious bad conscience, it would have been more helpful to just apologize to me. Not that I have no use for paper tissue or band-aids, but that’s not really making the experience better.

Why Thinking Twice Matters

We all do gender people we see; this is like a native application running in our brains, engraved by our socialization, reinforced by this world in which the gender binary (e.g. being a man or a woman, exclusively) is terribly well reinforced. I also gender, I also remind myself, that what makes me think what I see is not necessarily what the person identifies as. I also try to read the gender expression, what the person tries to project over and above the biological traits. So, I do not assume man or woman, and I am happy when I see binary non-conformity, especially when there is a conscious statement in the person’s presentation.

Please do not assume other’s gender. Not that you should not rely at all on your brain’s gendering app, but please use it as only a suggestion, pay attention to what the person’s expression is also saying to you and allow your app to be overwritten, and in case unsure, ask. No trans person got offended when asked for their pronouns and how to be addressed. And this thing does not cost a dime…

What to Take Away from This Personal Account

Be thoughtful. People who present as binary non-conforming already went through a lot of hurtful and difficult experiences and addressing a person with the wrong gender is hurtful.

Remember that gender binary is unnecessarily reinforced – also in your brain.

Do not believe your first thoughts on other’s gender.

Watch for conscious statements in a person’s representation.

If unsure, ask. It does not show ignorance, it shows respect and a real interest in wanting to address persons in-line with their identity.

Apologize if you make a mistake. Even the honest effort is going to be appreciated.

The Importance of Pronouns

Small words, big difference: pracitcal ways to replace gendered language.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Learn more about how your brain works, fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking.

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