Several years ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York City made a major change that affected every subway and bus ride overnight, but not many people noticed.
What happened? Announcers were trained to avoid using gendered language, such as “Ladies and gentlemen,” and instead use greetings like “Attention passengers” or “Good morning everyone” prior to making an announcement.
Okay, so it wasn’t earth-shattering. But I thought it was a great example of a small, easy, tangible way to be more inclusive, without being overly fussy or political about it. I didn’t even really notice it until I read an article about it in 2017.
It’s a wonderfully elegant solution. It is not even a direct translation. Saying “ladies and gentlemen” to get people’s attention is kind of clunky anyway.
Sidebar: I’ve never had a crisis of gender identity. I have been misgendered exactly twice in my life, and coincidentally, both times were at a Potbelly sandwich shop. Go figure. The first was when I was 19 and in a butch phase of sorts, with short spiky hair and an outfit that almost invariably consisted of a long-sleeved collared shirt over a short-sleeved t-shirt (you read that correctly: the t-shirt was worn OVER the collared shirt), and I thought I was REALLY cool. Forgive me, I was 19. Anywho, I was at a downtown Chicago location of the shop and was next in line and the sandwich artist yelled, “Sir? Sir!” I was mortified. The second was a decade and a half later, when I was 35, in the middle of my workday near Union Square in Manhattan, and I was wearing a hoodie with the hood up and probably looked grumpy. The sandwich artist (a different one… I’m PRETTY sure…) yelled “SIR!” I was more confused than mortified this time but it unlocked the previous memory which I had since forgotten, and prompted me to record this which I am currently
writing into a Google doc pasting into a Markdown file. Anyway, getting sir’d by sandwich artists at a Potbelly is not exactly a hate crime, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. Especially in 2003 when I (and much of the world) had a flat, less nuanced understanding of gender. It bothered me not because of anything inherently wrong with being a man, of course, but because it wasn’t accurate. But this has happened to me TWICE in my WHOLE LIFE. I can only imagine how it must feel for trans and gender nonconforming people to be misgendered on a daily basis, at best out of ignorance, at worst out of hate and an active intent to harm.
This is a flawed comparison, but… the closest thing I can imagine it might feel like is all the times during my residency I was mistaken for a nurse. This is very common for doctors who are women, and happened to me at least a couple times a week. It’s almost like reverse misgendering—correctly identifying someone’s gender, but incorrectly assigning it to the gendered role (doctor = man, nurse = woman, and those are the rules, and there are no exceptions, of course).
The first time it happened, it wasn’t a big deal. “I’m your doctor, actually; [name] is your nurse, but no worries.” Then it started to get annoying. Again, not because there’s anything wrong with being a nurse or that they’re somehow lower in the hierarchy of medicine. It is just inaccurate, and those assumptions over time build up and really make you realize it’s truly baked into our collective psychology.
Others have written about this more eloquently than I, so I won’t go too far on this tangent (though I’m already quite far, aren’t I… wasn’t I talking about the subway?), but my point is that the general feeling was similar to being sir’d at Potbelly.
It’s also not dissimilar to feelings I had when growing up in suburban Illinois, and white American people (who were strangers) would come up to me and say things like “welcome to this country!” or “your English is so good!” Again—absolutely nothing inherently wrong with being an immigrant, but assuming that anyone other than a white American person is a foreigner is problematic and these days can be life-threatening.
(When I originally drafted this—on December 17, 2019, according to the version history of the Google doc—I had a sentence in here about how I like New York because I’ve never felt like a foreigner here. Unfortunately I can no longer make that claim.)
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right—the subway announcers. I wonder how that planning meeting went. Did someone suggest a 1:1 translation of “ladies and gentlemen”? Like, “boys and girls and everything in between”? That’s still kind of marginalizing. And anyway, the point of the announcement is not to put people in gendered buckets; it’s to get people’s attention for a transportation-related announcement. Just like the sandwich artist’s goal wasn’t to say, “hey there, you are a male person,” it was just to ask me what fixins I wanted on my Italian sub (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, hot peppers, and Italian seasoning, of course). Saying “hi” or “next” or “hey, you’re up!” instead of “SIR?” would have worked, I think.
I especially like that the new and improved announcement intros also have a nice syllabic congruence with the cadence of the outdated version:
LA-dies and GEN-tle-men!
good MORN-ing every-ONE!