Saturday, September 3, 2011

I got pranked

The topics of gender identity and sexual preference have come up on my blog a number of times.  I have pretty progressive views on these topics as far as the whole spectrum of humanity goes but there are still plenty of things for me to learn.  Corporate Plunderer (CP) has been a regular commenter on these sorts of posts, regularly pointing out my lapses in sensitivity and knowledge.  I found this tendency ... a little odd.  When I knew CP back in my university days CP was a relatively typical white heterosexual male born into relative privilege... completely nutty, as many of my friends were, but that was par for the course.  I assume they thought of me in the same way, lovingly I hope.

My last real post had a long discussion in the comments about the necessity of entering one's gender into Google+ and the fact that this was a public rather than optional or private.  I filled out the profile with "M" without any reservation since by any way of reckoning that I am aware of I am male.  It was brought to my attention though that a lot of people have an issue with this and I can very easily see why.  As long as suitable other options exist (other/choose not to say/etc.) I have no problem with a gender field but opting out should be possible - there are plenty of people like me that have no issues with full public disclosure but that isn't true universally.  In one of the responses I talked about how both CP and myself have had it easy in terms of gender and sexual identity and got a "0_o" response and a link.

I looked at this link and the title of the website and my brain began to churn.  After some intense Facebook perusal I discovered that in fact CP is transgender and has been out in public for months while I remained happily oblivious.  So much for her having it easy being born a hetero male!  Clearly I needed to respond in some fashion so I composed an apologetic email detailing that I was entirely unaware of the situation and expressing all appropriate support and acceptance.  The response went along the lines of "It was obvious you were clueless for months and I have been laughing my ass off waiting for you to figure it out."  So first I was clueless and when I finished doing that I was busy getting trolled. 

"Ha ha, fooled you, I'm a girl!  Pranked!"

Hrmph.  If I had a dime for every time that has happened...

My relationship with CP hasn't exactly had a gender component up to this point so clearly there is no reason to imagine it would change.  If CP had actually been nursing some kind of private grudge about "Why is Sky acting this way, doesn't he *know*?  What a jackass!" I would have been pretty disappointed but I was very amused by the pranking.  So do I succumb to temptation and ask my friends to find out if they were all as uninformed as me?  


  1. Corporate PlundererSeptember 4, 2011 at 9:05 PM

    It wasn't really much of a prank... your suggestion that I was toying with you is based on a presumption that it's ~my~ responsibility to pro-actively inform you that I'm not cis. It's not like I've been skulking about or particularly subtle about it. I did step up once you finally directly expressed an incorrect assumption.

  2. Corporate PlundererSeptember 4, 2011 at 9:06 PM

    It was, however, very amusing. :)

  3. I don't see it as any kind of sneaky or underhanded trick. I just thought that the idea of you letting my lack of knowledge slide for entertainment's sake and that your reaction was one of amusement rather than some kind of recrimination was funny.

    I think there is a really interesting argument to be had about the nature of informing people of a change like coming out as trans. To my mind if you are going to be offended by them acting under the assumption that you are the same gender you lived as before then you have an obligation to inform them. If you are just going to let them blunder along and eventually nudge them in the right direction then I don't see any necessity to inform. Essentially as long as the lack of knowledge isn't causing harm then 'giving notice' as it were isn't any sort of necessity.

    There is, of course, the issue that telling people about your gender is, in most cases, something that shouldn't need to happen. Unless I happen to have some particular need to know your identified gender then it shouldn't matter to me how you identify on that spectrum. When I am choosing someone for a romantic liaison I have a real interest in their gender but in business or friendship there is no particular reason why that should come up. People mostly assume everybody else is cisgender which is a good bet statistically but does lead to real problems for trans folks and the necessity to tell people that their unspoken assumptions are wrong is troubling.

    I don't have particularly good answers for many of these thoughts. For example, if I used gender neutral terms for people to avoid ever giving offense to trans folks I would end up offending a ton of cisgendered people in the process. There isn't a way of speaking I can use (as far as I know) that simultaneously will account for someone I know of as a particular gender potentially not being that gender by their own definition without making many people angry or confused. This is a result of our gendered pronouns and assumption that everyone falls cleanly into a gender that can be derived at a glance of course, so it isn't an insurmountable challenge but rather just a challenge given current culture.

    So here is my question to you: How do you handle this? Do you refer to your friends by the gender you assume they have based on previous experience or do you find ways to not do so? Given that you are way more plugged into this than I am, what is the way to best handle speaking of someone else you know reasonably well such that no offense comes out of it if they have changed gender identity without your knowledge?

  4. Corporate PlundererSeptember 5, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    I think using gender neutral terms whenever feasible is a good thing, but for reasons having nothing to do with gender variance. If you're in the habit of assuming pronouns when referring to non-specific people or professions (like "he is a doctor, she is a nurse"), you should cut it out.

    To answer and address the specific question though, I'm clearly not offended, so I sort of favour this process. If someone is trans, they'll tell you when they feel it necessary. The only thing which makes this particular case entertaining is the preponderance of clues in my comments _and_ easily available information on my FB page. (For anyone not in the know, this: is my profile picture. And why aren't you my facebook friend?)

    Many people get their panties in a wad about how best to not offend trans folk, which is totally ridiculous. If you're not spitting on me in the subway, following me with a camera in a drugstore or asking me to leave your restaurant (that was just one bad week), you're really not going to even ping the radar. Just don't be an ass, and don't get too worked up over being accommodating (which is almost as bad).

  5. Given previous knowledge of CP, I mentioned this to a mutual friend and he was momentarily sure he was being pranked - perhaps based on Bayesian analysis.

    The gendered pronoun thing gets me though. Frankly, when I talk about you I am talking about someone who I last saw several years ago and who I've only been in sparse contact with since Waterloo. To me you are still more that person rather than the person you are now. This is true of an awful lot of people I knew in university/highschool/previous jobs, it's just that it doesn't come up in pronoun choice. I never use he and she for unspecified or unknown people, but for a known person they seem to be hard to avoid (out of habit). So I keep saying "he", but only because I am talking about you-as-I-knew-you-ten-years-ago rather than you. If, at some point in the future, I happen to see you skateboard past the door to my room and immediately wipe out with a tremendous crashing sound, I'm sure it will cement the new pronoun in my head.

    Anyway, I feel like one of the last things I'd ever do is worry about offending CP. If I ever do offend you, let me know and I'll either apologize, or, more likely, resort to some kind of "Come on..." based argument.

  6. Facebook clues are a tricky thing. I use Facebook to organize parties and gatherings and otherwise completely ignore it. Posting something on Facebook is generally a good way to get the word out fast but there are a lot of people like me who are on FB for convenience but don't put time into it. The trick is that once you have posted news into that sort of forum it feels pretty strange to then follow it up with targetted messages too. I'm not sure I have any sort of answer for this one - aside from FB having some sort of 'shout' setting where everybody you send to gets an email about the notice in question. I wonder if everybody would start 'shouting' on FB about everything if that was available...

  7. @Sthenno:

    It's a curious thing how sticky little things like gender are. There are all sorts of interesting ways to demonstrate that gender is wired in to recognition and memory at an extraordinarily deep level (my favourite is the subliminal stimuli test which shows that people recognize gender in a flashed image more quickly than even the presence of a face), but it should be obviously plausible from an evolutionary biology perspective anyhow.

    I haven't actually kept any "real life" friends for exactly this reason, and not for lack of trying. For one person to see something entirely different than everyone else introduces an awkwardness which just sort of phases out connections over time. The same will likely happen to my "virtual" circle eventually.

    If it makes you feel any better, the only people I've known to worry about pronoun failures are allies, and not transitioners themselves. Pronouns, when not used as a passive weapon (a whole different kettle of fish), are just a part of speech. Personally, I would find your "Oh come on..." riposte entirely convincing; my partner, however, may be less forgiving.

    Also, the temporal correctness of pronouns is an interesting consideration (and interesting topic). In languages in which pronouns do change over time (and here I'm thinking of classical Japanese, where grammar is informed by the relative seniority or social position of the speaker), the convention is to conjugate in the temporal context of the event and not the current reality. IMHO, this is the least confusing option.

    I'm sort of fascinated by the idea that some large swath of the UW crowd hasn't actually noticed yet that I've transitioned. Though coming out is a process which rarely fails to disappoint, doing so again to this particular group is potentially amusing...

  8. @Sky:

    The biggest problem is really getting information out without making a big deal about it. Some go the route of a blast e-mail to hundreds of colleagues and friends past and present, but that seems unduly dramatic. I sort of like organic disclosure.

    That said, it's a bit of a shame in a way to keep such a damper on it, because it's also an incredibly interesting experience once the initial crescending crisis begins to subside. I'm just one flight of fancy away from going back to school to enrol in gender studies, just for the excuse to explore the topic in greater depth.

  9. @CP: To be honest I've been enjoying outing you to people (it's only been two people, but still). As I mentioned, one thought he was being pranked (quite reasonable given that if it was a prank it would be a damn good one). The other asked, "Did you ever see anything that would make you think..." and I immediately thought, "Like what?" I don't recall you wearing a sandwich board that said you were planning on transitioning to female, and I can't really think of anything else that would qualify.

    That being said, the whole thing is entirely congruous with your personality (as I knew you). For some people I know, if they came out as trans it would signal to me that there was something about them I missed, that I hadn't really known them that well, and I might even expect that they would be noticeably different in the future. With you, learning this about you doesn't really change my impression of you at all.

    Which is why I mention the pronoun thing only as an interesting case, not as something I'm really worried about. As I said, offending you is not the top of my worry list. For one thing, you are more than capable of speaking for yourself, and for another, you are well aware of the linguistic and perceptual challenges that we are all afflicted with (to be honest, the temporal issue is one I've never even thought of before, so this was a learning experience).

    But I think I agree that it makes most sense, when speaking of different times, to use the pronoun that would have been correct at that time, rather than the pronoun that is correct now. Obviously it would be nice to be able to put people ahead of sex in speech. Unfortunately, we all know what happens when people try to introduce new systems (pronouns in this case) to replace old ones:

  10. @Sthenno:

    Re outing: that is awesome! I officially deputize you to continue this process as often as you like, under the condition that you share a narrative or two after the fact and name names. I don't think I've ever had an outing experience accompanied by laughter or amusement, it would be a nice change.

    @Everyone else:
    Sthenno gets this one, if you don't mind... I trust him.

  11. You may not have had an outing experience that involved amusement personally CP but one certainly occurred at my place. I was in the process of getting a clue and called Wendy over to my computer to look with the phrase "You need to look at this... I think CP may be transgender but I am not quite sure yet." She was definitely amused, at least in part by me looking a bit silly, but also by a revelation she was not expecting.

    I also outed you to 4 people in total in my quest to find out if I was the only one who was out of the loop. None of them were expecting it but all the reactions went along the lines of "Okay, sure, whatever." No good stories unfortunately.

  12. I should emphasize though that my reaction to your "I have been waiting for you to figure this out" was definitely amusement. Maybe it doesn't count because you weren't there?

  13. @Sky:

    That's a good point. This particular outing has been quite amusing, you have indeed broken the streak. :)

  14. Well, people who know outing you to other people is kind of inevitable. Given, of course, that it's on your facebook page under your real name, so anyone who I know you would accept as a facebook friend is pretty much fair game (really, anyone who would know who you are from reading the moniker and comments on this blog).

    I use the word "outing" to describe it, but it's a pretty frivolous use of the word. Really I'm just telling people who might be interested in what is going on with your life something interesting about you, like I would if you were getting married, having a baby, or if you'd become a tugboat driver.

    I can of course name names, but I generally don't do so on Sky's blog.

  15. Yeah, I don't mind at all if people use real names on my blog (in fact, I quite encourage it) but I lead off with pseudonyms until someone tells me otherwise. I figure that is less likely to land me in hot water with somebody.

  16. I'm mildly surprised though that, outside this comment page, no mention has come up of this discussion anywhere else...

    I should go make more friends on Facebook.

  17. @CP:
    The reaction around here was pretty funny. First I assumed that someone (not you) was playing a joke on Sky. Then we noticed your Facebook page had the same photo - my instant assumption was that you'd been hacked...then there was a discussion about whether or not one of the girls in the photo could possibly be you (since one of them definitely was not...but we couldn't rule out the possibility...) Then I finally starting going through stuff you'd posted and it became quite clear. Definitely a more prolonged "aha!" than if you'd actually spelled it out for us.

    So obviously I was pretty surprised and yet it doesn't shock me. As Sthenno put it, this does seem entirely congruous with your personality as I knew you in Waterloo. The thing that I find baffling (and totally intriguing) is that someone can care deeply enough about their own gender to want to change it - which I suspect says more about me than about you. I'm going to read that book you sent just as soon as Sky is done with it...

  18. @Today Wendy:

    Thanks for the narrative, that's awesome! :) (I'm actually pleasantly surprised I wasn't immediately recognizable!)

    You'll love the book, I'm sure. The section on oppositional sexism alone is worth the price of admission.

    I'd like to try to answer your question, if you'd like to try to understand. I'm not sure if it's communicable, heaven only knows how many others have tried and failed, but it may be worth the effort.
    Is this ( the right place to write it up?

  19. It sounds like we need a guest post!