Saturday 17 January 2009

male, female, e-mail

I was picking up some camera stuff from a local shop the other day and after I'd paid the assistant called me 'sir', twice. A small act of disrespect, I guess, but I didn't respond. These days my guard is down because I don't want to be constantly on the lookout for this sort of thing, because that's no way to live.

(At one time, I was constantly at the receiving end of nasty stuff, and it took a while to get over it; on the platform at Cardiff station a couple of years ago, a nice old lady stopped and said how much she liked my hat. I thanked her. She looked again;

"Are you a woman?" she asked

"Yes", I said; "Are you?"

She looked hurt. "Well, it's a nice hat, anyway", she said and walked on, and I wished the ground would swallow me up)

Still, the shop incident bugged me, and I figured if it bugged me then I should do something about it. So I sent an e-mail to the manager.


I am a photographer and illustrator. So I buy things from camera shops sometimes. I am also a transsexual woman. This is not usually a fact that I broadcast, because it is not usually necessary. I get on with life, and life usually gets on with me these days. It wasn’t always that way; in the past, I’ve had some fairly serious grief from people, and dealt with it.

Nowadays I am more relaxed, and am not constantly on the lookout for insults. So when they happen, as every now and then they do, they take me by surprise.

On Wednesday afternoon I came into your shop and bought £40 worth of things for my D70. A fairly normal transaction, but when it was completed the assistant addressed me as ‘sir’, twice.

As you no doubt realise, good practice in retail is to address customers in a manner appropriate to the gender they present as. Gender neutral language is always a simple option too. Calling me ‘sir’ is a sure fire way of guaranteeing that I shall take my custom elsewhere.

I wish I had confronted the assistant directly, but, as I say, I was rather taken aback. So now I write to you instead.

Yours sincerely,

Ms Dru Marland

...and he replied:

Dear Drusilla,

I have spoken to the member of staff who served you on this day, and he has assured me that at no time does he recall referring to you as 'sir'. He has always been a polite and cordial member of staff, and I have no reason to doubt his integrity on this matter. I apologise wholeheartedly for any misunderstanding that has arisen, and I hope you can accept that there has been no malice of forethought. ... I sincerely hope you continue to shop here as I assure you that we always try to treat our customers with the utmost politeness and respect.
Hmm. Well, I guess the lesson learned is to respond immediately when this stuff happens. Or not let it bother me, of course.


  1. His use of sir may have been outside his consciousness... but remember as Freud said:

    No gentleman would have such a subconscious!

    (Well I thought he did but I can't find anything like it on google... )

  2. Hi Dru
    It is not easy to avoid letting these things worry us. Stupid ignorant words still hurt. Your lesson comes from wisdom. You have that self belief in you to respond immediately should you chose. I so admire that. I have never before been able to stand for myself but one of the magical rewards of finally being true to our heARTS is that we find a spirit inside us we perhaps thought never existed before.
    Happy painting

  3. It leaves me baffled too. Though some way 'behind' you in my journey I am now at the place where I can't be bothered any more to look for how people are taking me. I am just me. And I think that makes a difference - I get called by the term that I want (and am) much more now than ever.

    But some really weird situations still arise, usually when I'm not expecting it. Paddington Station seems to be a nest of untrained staff. Twice in the last few weeks I've had a 'Sir'. Both times from, shall we say, people who seemed to have 'recently arrived in the UK from elsewhere', and probably grew up in national cultures where transexuality is completely buried. With some surreality, on the second occasion (in the M&S Food Store...and like you I just shrugged and felt grumpy), I then walked to the ticket barrier and was told by a FGW person that my ticket wasn't valid...and he called me 'Madam'. Two entirely contrasting incidents separated by 40 seconds.

    The other time - in a bar there - I did complain to the woman who served me. "It's Madam actually" I said, very tartly. She apologised, unconvincingly, in a kind of 'this kind of shit didn't used to happen back in Krakow' way.

    It has also occurred to me that actually some of this may not be disrespect but an odd by product of more 'liberated' times? Paradoxically, it could be that some 'process' the person they are seeing by thinking 'this is a guy and they are dressed in women's clothes, but I'm fine with that. If he wants to do that, I'm cool.' It's very ironic...that sometimes (perhaps) they may be actively choosing to use a pronoun which they think we want to hear, to demonstrate how accepting they are! Just a theory.

    Thereagain there are of course the assholes out there too...

  4. It's a good quote, though, Caroline. Perhaps his imaginations are as foul as Vulcan's stithy.

    Hi, Debbie! Yes,I agree about that sense of strength we get. I'm glad you feel that too. What I want now is the ability to say the right thing at the right time; any 'esprit d'escalier' experience is one too many in my book.

    Yes, Jo. I can't trust my judgement enough to say confidently whether he was being snarky or just responding subconsciously. It seemed like snark at the time, but then perhaps I'm being over-sensitive? -anyway, I dealt with this wrongly, and have at least learned that much. Now I can try and put it behind me.

  5. It is a great quote isn't it - I'm sure I didn't make it up!

  6. Long time lurker, first time commenter.

    As a tall woman I am often referred to as sir at a till in shops. Even though I have long hair and a reasonably sized chest! Sometimes I think they just look at the height.

    Of course, I don't know how tall you are, but a sweeping generalisation would be you are likely taller than the average female.

    Just a thought.

  7. Hi, anonymous!

    Thank you; I'll take heart from your experience. I must try not to be so sensitive. I'm not particularly tall, in fact I think I'm shrinking, so height isn't really an issue, either real or imagined; I went into Long Tall Sally ages ago, because I wanted a pair of jeans and I assumed that I'd find the right pair there. They were too long for me and I was towered-over by the staff and customers. Now that was an interesting experience.

  8. You know, a similar thing happened to me in a restaurant last night. I heard it and my son heard it too, and thought it was funny. I look pretty average for a middle-aged mum and the waiter was perfectly pleasant thereafter, so I think it may have been some new vocal tic the Yoot have picked up from an Australian soap. As in "You ready to order, suh" where the "suh" is very short for "or summat".

    I'm not suggesting for one minute this is what happened to you, but I thought it was kind of interesting.

  9. Hello Miss?
    What do you mean Miss?
    Oh I'm sorry, I have a cold.
    (The Parrot Sketch) ;)

    Hi Dru, first time lurker here.
    This surprised me. You didn't seem masculine to me when I met you at La Pocha Nostra. Shop assistants sometimes don't look at us very hard. I'd assume it was unintentional, but what do I know?


  10. Good point, Liz. If the other option is 'madam', then 'sir' is likely to be the default, as it slides off the tongue and is monosyllabic, and can be used as you suggested, in a non-committal, non-deferential, non-polite way.

    Thank you, Nat. That's it, we don't know.

    Funnily enough, I got a 'sir' yesterday at the health centre. A receptionist whom I've not seen before. I was picking up a repeat prescription of stuff that men definitely do not take.... she was very nice and smiley, but she said sir very clearly. I treid not to let it ruin my day and returned to my voice practice with renewed vigour. At the moment, it's readings from Aubrey's "Brief Lives".

  11. Hi Dru - A few weeks ago I was waving a cheery goodbye to a group of friends, including a trans friend I've known for years and years and I addressed them as 'guys' as in 'bye guys :-)', I then paniced incase my trans friend didn't like being included in the word 'guys' and added 'and ****' (her name) which of course drew attention to my panic and I worried about it for days afterwards. I don't think **** batted an eyelid. Eeeeeeeek It's a minefiled out there .... stay in!!!!