By stef shuster
Walking into a restaurant in downtown Metromidwest, Charlie orders a half sandwich/half soup to go. Upon placing their order, the person working the cash register looks up, smiles, and says, “Thank you Ma’am. Have a good day. Your order will be ready shortly.” Charlie levels their gaze, mumbles that they are not a lady, and continues to the waiting area for their lunch order to be called. Returning to work, Charlie sees several co-workers congregated around the conference room. One calls out, “Hey man. We were just talking about going out after work. Do you want to join in?” Charlie quietly sighs, and agrees to go out with their co-workers after work. They continue reflecting on the everyday challenges experienced in social life as a 25-year-old White genderqueer person, “I just don’t know what to say. They are my co-workers. Good people. And this is the first job that I have really liked, I don’t want to offend anyone or risk getting fired. I’ve tried before to correct them when they mis-gender me, but they just don’t get it.” Charlie shares that while these moments in interaction are common, they are difficult to negotiate, “I just expect it at this point. You know? Like – strangers don’t know that there people like me who do not identify as women or men. And my co-workers are trying to do the best they can.”
These moments described by Charlie show us how many trans-identified people confront the limitations of language in everyday life. In my recently published piece in the August issue of Gender & Society, I examine the narratives of 40 trans people and focus on how language and talk uphold social order and regulate gender in interaction. I introduce “discursive aggression” as a term to describe how communicative acts are used in interaction to hold people accountable to social and cultural-based expectations (i.e., other-enforcement), and how individuals hold themselves accountable in anticipating the unfolding of interactions (i.e., self-enforcement). Through talk, discursive aggression regulates trans people in everyday social settings (like when Charlie is referred to as “ma’am”) and produces for them the feeling that they are not received in the ways they wish to be known, that they are made invisible, and that their self-authorship in naming and claiming a gender identity is questioned (such as when Charlie’s co-workers refer to them as “man”). Because language and talk are pervasive features of everyday life, indeed the building blocks for how individuals make sense of our selves and each other, there are limited options to respond to discursive aggression in the day-to-day interactions we have with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family.
My work shows how trans people anticipate negative consequences for responding to discursive aggression. In being aware of others’ expectations for how interactions should unfold, trans people may engage in self-silencing to uphold the social order. That moment described by Charlie in seeing their co-workers and not wanting to risk correcting them out of fears of being fired, demonstrates how potent discursive aggression can be and translates to Charlie engaging in self-silencing out of fears of negative consequences they may experience by even the most well-meaning people. This particular dimension of accountability processes further shows us how power inequities play out in interaction, and how subordinated groups put in significant work to help others “save face” by not correcting mistakes, prioritize the needs of family members and friends over their own needs, and are boxed in by restrictive cultural expectations. Moving forward, scholars might consider other intersecting identities, and interactional dynamics to sort through the contexts that set the stage for people using discursive aggression–intentionally or unintentionally–to maintain their privilege in ways previously overlooked in existing scholarship and to document how power is inflected through talk and used to uphold cultural expectations and norms in interaction.
stef shuster is an assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University. Their research examines the social construction of “evidence” in three domains including medicine, social movements, and in the construction of knowledge. Their work has recently appeared in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and Social Psychology Quarterly.