How Do I (Gently!) Correct A Family Member Who Is (Probably Accidentally!) Misgendering Me?

My father is an immigrant from Africa. I recently reconnected with a cousin on Facebook who is still in the old country and who I have never met in person as he is quite a bit younger than me. I’m really enjoying the connection and I’m I am helping him pay for school. However, I am a masculine Butch woman and though he has seen and commented on my Facebook pictures (including my wedding pictures) he doesn’t seem to realize that I am not a man. How do I tell him without making the situation more awkward than it is? I would like to have an authentic relationship with him, and I am out to everyone in my life but don’t see these particular relatives much.

Not a Man

Dear Not a Man,

Because you mentioned being ‘out’ to everyone in your life, I’m going to assume that you are married to a woman. But for the record, readers: Butch masculine woman  homosexual woman! But I’m assuming from your language that in this case, it does.

How frustrating and upsetting to be entirely yourself everywhere and then to find yourself having to come out of the closet AGAIN. It’s bad enough that we have to be coming out of the closet in small ways every day — we are mistaken for a different gender than we are, or someone assumes we are not what we are and we have to set them . . . straight, as it were. No no I don’t have a husband. No, she’s not my sister. Yes, that’s OUR daughter.

But this one also comes with it more emotional risk than those everyday uncloakings. You’re enjoying the new connection, and you fear that it may be based on an untruth. And since you don’t know that family very well, you may have no idea what his general attitudes are about queers are. And if you’re like me, you assume everyone is homophobic unless proven otherwise. (I also assume they are sexist, racist, and classist. Then people can pleasantly surprise me if they want to!)

You don’t say what makes you think your cousin believes you to be male; I, unlike my readers, have access to your name and I googled it — I can see how your name doesn’t necessarily make this clear, and photos on people’s phones are tiny.

Also, if your cousin is assuming that everyone is homophobic unless proven otherwise like I do, he might not really know but figured mistaking a butch woman married to a woman as a male heterosexual was less risky than the reverse.

I don’t know how vague your acquaintance level is with this cousin, but if he’s a first cousin I’m guessing that he has a pretty good idea of what gender you are, but is unsure enough to just fudge it a bit in case he’s not correct.Or, for all you know he thinks you may be a transsexual.

I’m grasping at straws here — if he were really confused about your gender, and if you have your gender specified on FB, he can just check it. I’m putting my money on him seeing you had a wife and a gender-neutral name and just going with the statistically most likely gender you might be.

I am doing all of this musing to point out that there are many reasons beyond him being stubborn or homophobic or oblivious that he might be using the wrong pronoun with you.

And I’m also wanting to acknowledge that, with family, it’s not just always about how it might be awkward. There is the real possibility of rejection. Of having to deal with hate or confusion or just plain stunned silence when you’d been really enjoying the conversation.

Regardless, my answer for you will be the same: you respond to his comments on your wedding pictures in ways that make it very clear this is a same-sex wedding. You didn’t say which country your father emigrated TO — if it’s the U.S., you can say something about laws changing and allowing you to marry your same-sex partner. If it’s somewhere else, you can use some other excuse to mention that you are a same-sex couple: “with my name, the florist was so surprised to have two women show up at her door!”

And then there’s the good old grab-the-bull-by-the-horns PM: “Hey, cuz! I’m getting the feeling you think I’m a guy. I’m a woman. Glad to clear that up for you! How are things?”

I’m thinking it’s not necessarily ‘awkward’ that you fear, but ‘painful.’ Oh, I hope you’re wrong. And fear of rejection or ridicule by family is a powerful thing.

But as you know probably better than most, there’s nothing more painful than feeling like you can’t be yourself, so get it over with. Speak up. Good luck. I hope it goes well.

This letter originally appeared in on February 25, 2016.

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