Educating Ally: Brixton Finishing School founder discusses the dangers of misgendering
In her latest column, Ally Owen catches up with individuals from backgrounds underserved by our industry to understand how she can become a better ally. Her latest guest is Agnes Meakin.
Being gender inclusive is easy, if leaders just take time to learn / Image via Adobe
Ally: Hi Agnes, it’s really great to speak to you! Would you like to introduce yourself to The Drum’s readers?
Agnes: Firstly, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I’m excited to tell my story. I am currently a Brixton Finishing School (BFS) student and I’m also a freelancer on the side. I’m attending BFS to try and get my foot in the industry, with the hope that I’ll get into strategy.
I’m here to talk about an issue that’s quite personal to me, which is misgendering and non-binary/transgender representation in general. It is significantly lacking at the moment, especially in our industry and the ads we see.
If you misgender someone, the only way I can describe it is that you just feel as if nobody understands you. It makes you close up as a person. For me, I’m lucky enough to call myself my biggest fan – it gives me the strength to speak up. But I understand that a lot of people would really struggle with that.
Thank you so much, Agnes. There’s so much that I’d like to unpack. What I love about this chance to chat with you is that I get to have a better understanding of the importance of pronouns. For those of us, maybe of my generation, what would you like to say to us to ensure we take time to learn about the importance of pronouns so that we don’t misgender, and what impact can misgendering have?
Well, misgendering can actually cause something called gender imposter syndrome, where somebody who is being misgendered feels like they are not good enough to be the gender they identify as. An example of that would be that quite often when I meet a new person, I’m quite anxious about being misgendered as a guy. I’m not a guy, I’m a female, and that’s something that I get quite anxious about and I’ve learned to deal with that over the years. You want people to validate you and say, you are a girl, you are a boy, you are non-binary, you are gender non-conforming.
I understand that it doesn’t come from a bad place. However, if you don’t know, just ask for their pronouns and then they’ll tell you, and then be respectful of that – it’s quite simple. If someone is telling you, “I identify as this,” there shouldn’t even be a conversation about why that person identifies as that, or any sort of comment like, “tell me more about what’s it like to be transgender.” Just don’t do that. I know it comes from a good place, but that’s what Google is for.
So it’s like a form of gender gaslighting, isn’t it? I think what you said about Google is really, really important. I also like the fact that you’ve given somebody like me the confidence to ask someone’s pronouns when I meet somebody, the same way I will check if I’m pronouncing someone’s name correctly.
So I think on misgendering in terms of the workplace, have you had any examples where that’s been the case, or have you heard of other people in your situation?
I had a friend at university who identifies as a transgender man, and he is, like me, very upfront and just says it how it is. He is quite feminine presenting; for people who are not completely clued up, you can identify as a man while also wearing makeup and having long hair. I myself identify as a woman and I can also have short hair and dress however I like. He told the teacher he identified as a guy and after that, when my friend wasn’t there, the teacher referred to him by his ‘dead name’ (a dead name is somebody’s birth name, but because they have transitioned to the other gender, they prefer to change it most of the time). He said to her: “My name is this, please don’t call me by my dead name.” I found this quite shocking to be honest, because this is a university student who should have felt safe.
Once the situation had been explained to the teacher they immediately apologized and said: “Oh my god, I’m really, really sorry, I didn’t think and that’s an honest mistake.” But at the same time, if someone has told you, “no, that’s not my name any more,” and explained why, there shouldn’t be a conversation. It should just be, “OK, cool, not an issue. I’ll change that.” A similar thing can happen in the workplace.
That’s a really good example because that’s kind of accidental from the teacher because they haven’t changed the register, but why haven’t they? What’s the procedure when you enter a space to ensure your gender is safeguarded? How can you make things really easy for people? Sometimes people’s names on bank accounts are not the same names, and that can go through HR and lead to issues. Are you allowed to use the name you have chosen for yourself on your bank account?
There is the Deed Poll System, which allows you to change your name. You have to be over 18, I believe, but you can easily change your name. You just get two signatures and you can change your passport, your bank details, that sort of thing. Generally, though, we should be able to explain to a manager or admin team, “I know that my passport or my birth certificate says this name and this gender, but actually I am transitioning at the moment. So my new name is this, and my new gender is this; do you mind just changing it on the system?” I feel like you shouldn’t need a Deed Poll to do that.
I’m in complete agreement with you on that one. Do you think people in my generation get confused between gender and sexuality?
To be completely honest, yeah.
I think so too. And why do you think that is? I’m quite an expert on being over 50. Now you see it’s my experience, whereas I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to be an expert at being over 50.
We all have room to improve. For example, I’m not clued up about everything to do with LGBTQ+ as well. This is why these conversations are so important. To just learn and have open conversations. This is going to really help a lot of people.
Do you think the older generation misconstrues gender and sexuality? And then, to change your gender, that must mean your sexuality is potentially not the old sexuality you had before?
Does your sexuality change if you transition? And the answer is that it’s up to you. So I often just say to people I’m queer because that’s an umbrella term for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
Should we talk about the lack of representation of masculine-presenting people in advertising?
Yes, brands have improved by doing a lot of work with LGBTQ+ communities and it is often subtle, which I think is really good – they don’t try to spotlight it. I want to help people and say that I’m a masculine female in the advertising industry to inspire other people. If you don’t have that representation in your corporate structure, then someone like me will be put off because I will think it’s just a homogenous industry that does not support me and I want to be understood. And why would I want to work in an industry where nobody understands me?
If there was one thing you’d like your first job to do to make you feel comfortable and accepted, what would it be?
So from my first job in advertising, I’d like them to have me involved with anything to do with diversity and inclusion. I don’t necessarily have to work in the diversity and inclusion sector. I can just be asked: “What do you think about this? How could we make someone similar to you feel welcome when we’re looking for people to apply for jobs with us? How do we show this within our CSR instead of just showing a rainbow flag?”
Any last words of advice? There is anything you think we can read or listen to? What would help us better understand?
There is a podcast that I listen to quite a lot that really helped me when I was trying to be comfortable with my identity and me having short hair and not having long hair. It’s a queer sex-positive podcast called We’re Having Gay Sex by Ashley Gavin. She has different guests on from all different lights and from influencer celebrities to comedians, just to chat about what it’s like to be gay and what it’s like to be in a gay relationship. And through the different types of women I’ve seen go on there, non-binary people and trans people, it really helps me deal with my own journey with being a masculine woman. She had quite a lot of butch women on her program who talk about their struggles.
I guess I’ll close this now. But I feel as if I’ve learned quite a lot and you’ve given me the confidence to just ask people their pronouns. My pronouns are she and her.
Yeah, it’s so simple, isn’t it?
Ally Owen is an industry changemaker and founder of Brixton Finishing School.