I used to not even notice when I heard it, that word. I even said it from time to time when I worked retail, a bright smile on my face as I looked at a new group of shoppers. “Hello, ladies!” I’d say, “How are you today?”
It’s not that there’s anything overtly, terribly wrong with it. I mean, it doesn’t come from a place of hatred or anything obvious like that, but it does still have a bit of condescension to it I think. What’s wrong with a polite, “Hey folks, welcome,” or even a completely ambiguous, “Hello! How are you doing?”
Why do we feel the need to single out and group each other by our gender anyway? Does it add anything to the shopping or dining experience to be reminded that you’re a lady and not just another person? I find it horribly annoying at worst, and disconnected at best, but my main issue with it to be honest is how it affects my friends, family, and others in my community.
A few years ago, I remember a friend telling me her trans boyfriend had spent an entire day in his room fighting off tears, completely crushed because a woman at Walmart had called him a lady. At the time I was a little ignorant, thinking, “Is it that big of a deal to be called lady? What’s so wrong with that?” But then I started dating Emmett.
When I mentioned to Emmett a few nights ago that I was thinking of writing this, and asked if it was okay with him, his reaction was, “Yes, please do. I think It’s really important.”
You see, Emmett is a pretty feminine guy, and he likes it that way. The only color he really likes in his wardrobe is pink, he’s not very tall and doesn’t grow much facial hair, and his hair is long and often tied up in a bun or a ponytail. That’s how he feels comfortable, and I think he looks like a dreamy handsome man just the way he is.
Most of the time, other people agree. He’s almost always read as male, and a ton of people don’t even have the slightest idea he’s trans until one of us tells them. But lately, when we’re out together, for some reason that I can’t quite understand, people have been calling us "ladies."
Every time I hear the word now, I cringe. I no longer associate it with the friendly, detached way service industry workers communicate with customers, but instead with the pained, embarrassed look my partner gets on his face.
Sometimes Emmett speaks and the person who made the mistake hears his low voice, which either results in a flurry of apologies and awkward smiles or a confused look followed by a prompt excuse to walk away. If the voice doesn't clue them in, I’ll take a swig of my beer and chime in with, “Um, we’re not ladies,” eager to make Em feel more comfortable.
After that, people usually feel really bad, and we’ve been given discounts, free drinks, and deep, heartfelt apologies numerous times, but none of that can take away the hurt that Emmett feels, and the way it affects his confidence. Worse yet, some ignore my complaint, or don’t listen. Some people don’t even apologize. One man at a restaurant in Vancouver even continued to say "ladies" right up until we left, choosing to make the mistake on purpose.
Though this humiliation isn’t happening directly to me, I feel it and see it more and more, and it tears me apart. I’ve watched as Em becomes more and more nervous to go to bars and restaurants, as he works out to get stronger and look bigger, and tells me he needs to cut off his hair until he looks more male. He is tired of being misgendered and having his identity taken from him by total strangers, and I’m tired for him, and for all my friends this has happened to.
So here’s my point: Don’t gender people you don’t know. Maybe they look female, maybe they look male, but what’s the point of singling them out and risking making a mistake that could ruin their day? There are trans people, genderqueer people, people who are happy to be called lady, and ladies who hate being called that, but at the end of the day, they’re all just people, and I think they should be treated as such.
Making the switch from “ladies” and “guys” to folks, or just nothing at all, might be a bit hard to get used to at first, but it would be pretty easy if you could see the way it affects our day every time someone calls Emmett a girl. The way his head and shoulders sag when a clueless employee repeats “ladies” over and over.
A small effort from you could make a big difference for a lot of folks.