What Allies Need to Understand About Misgendering and Being Clocked

Clara Barnhurst

Transgender folks have a serious case of stranger danger. Strange places or people require explicit proof that they are safe before we can really stop worrying. More likely, the worry simmers down to a background static: nowhere is really safe. Some people are safe, but not everyone they talk to will be. It’s common for allies to reassure us by saying a lot of folks get misgendered or falsely clocked, but that doesn’t really help the situation. In many ways, that verifies the danger we’re in.

In my part of the world, most strangers are either accepting, indifferent, or gracious enough to not bother me. I’m never really sure how safe I am, and unless I’m explicitly mistreated I just have to assume that I’m OK out and about in the world. I need to for my own sanity: failure to let that bit of anxiety go means I spend my life in a monitoring loop.

One might think that I am always monitoring anyway, and one would be correct. Thought static, along with the other little whispers on the periphery: do they know I’m trans? Avoid that queer topic. Feign ignorance. Don’t forget to laugh. They looked at me twice just then — what for? Usually, they stay on the periphery but with new people and in new places they come out into the front of my thoughts. It can get quite tiring, and sometimes stops me from going somewhere I don’t know. I’ll cancel plans or rearrange for somewhere proven safe. I’m relieved when that friend-of-a-friend can’t make it.


That cisgender people get misgendered is not a comfort. The fact is, a cisgender person has simply to deny the mistake. The threatening person might disapprove of their look or fashion sense, but it’s unlikely that they will be molested further. If the person isn’t threatening, they laugh and move on: being mistaken in this way is not a threat when nobody in the world questions your gender in the first place. Gender expression and gender identity are two different things, and cisgender people might have a non conforming expression but no mistake will threaten their identity.

A transgender person in the same situation is automatically threatened. They have nothing to deny, apart from being what they are. I have had occasion to deny being transgender when I didn’t feel safe in whatever company or place at that moment. Sometimes, I’ve skirted around the subject or flatly denied it in the company of people I’m open with. It’s awkward, but I’m fortunate that my friends let me take the lead.

The other issue is the implied threat in being clocked. A misgendering to a transgender person means they are potentially about to be attacked. Transgender people in my part of the world have been verbally, physically or sexually assaulted by some stranger that clocked them. These incidents are regular occurrences; I usually hear one or two stories every month. Serious bodily harm is uncommon, but not rare. Within the last two years, one acquaintance was soaked in petrol. Another was beaten and left for dead. Transgender people are murdered on a regular basis.

Cisgender people who get misgendered don’t face this. They might get some grief for their appearance. They might have some thug try to pick a fight with them, but I’ve never heard of a cisgender person threatened with death because someone thought they were transgender. Of course, this is all anecdotal, but the general attitude allies have about this stuff leads me to believe that cisgender people are just safer in a misgendering situation.


Going back to the issue of identity, transgender people often spend a great deal of time and effort on their gender expression. Far more explicitly than cisgender people usually do. Cisgender people have the privilege of letting their gender expression ‘just happen’; transgender people, particularly those in a heavily transitional space, often are carefully selecting on the basis of their desired response. Many transgender women I know stop drinking beer, for example, because they want to appear less manly. An irony as I switched from wine to beer with zeal.

When a person is abandoning things they enjoy for the sake of appearing a specific gender, any misgendering or clocking is a threat. It means that those choices have somehow failed, or they need to work harder to be perceived as they wish. The reassurance that some folks have more exposure to the transgender world and therefore aren’t indicative of ‘everyday’ people are like isn’t helpful either. Not everyone with that exposure are friendly.

Allison Washington once cautiously wrote about passing, and offered perhaps the most succinct description by saying there was no real definition: people break all the rules and pass, people follow all the rules and get misgendered. Trying to talk about how to pass is a fruitless exercise because there doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast way to do it. I won’t try here.

Photo by Raka RachgoUnsplash

“Is Clara a transformer?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not the word you want, mum.”

An exchange between a colleague and her mum, relayed to me a day or so later, confirmed to me that occasionally a stranger will still clock me. I hadn’t had any explicit proof of a clocking in some time. The other instances were explained by circumstance or association. My colleague and her mum — all of my colleagues and their families — are safe. That I was clocked by her was not threatening and I didn’t feel threatened by them.

But it was a reminder that despite my considerable passing privilege, I am not entirely safe. I’m unsafe because not everyone who sees me will make that determination and leave it be. Not everyone connected with the queer world is a friend, and all it takes is the wrong person to clock me at the wrong time. Just once. If that happens, my life is either destroyed or over. No amount of reassurance is going to change that.


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