Gender identities are complex, and the words we use to talk about gender are constantly evolving. I think eventually we’re going to get to a collective place of understanding and clarity, but I’m pretty sure no one will dispute that it’ll take a while. While gender descriptors are sometimes complicated in day-to-day life, they’re often times brought front and center at weddings.
At this point (my fifth year as a wedding photographer) I’ve shot quite a few weddings at which one or both of the people getting married were gender ambiguous. This isn’t relevant to most of the way I work the wedding — I’m not going to break out my “queer lens” — but it does matter in two critical ways:
- the way I talk to my couple
- the way I subsequently talk ABOUT the couple
When I blog the wedding on my own site, I want to make sure the language I use accurately reflects the identities of the couple… and if the wedding is published on a wedding blog or in a magazine, I want to make sure the publishers also reflect the couple accurately.
Whether or not you spend a lot of time in a gender-ambiguous world, you need to know that it’s important to be aware of the different ways people can gender identify, and that it’s even more important to respect those identities. It’s not always easy to discern someone’s gender identity by sight, so here are three different ways I’ve gone about determining how my clients identify in a subtle, respectful way:
Pay attention to conversations around you
As a wedding photographer, I spend a huge amount of time around not only the couple, but their friends and family. Of course I love to participate in conversations with them — but it’s also really easy to just sit back, do my job, and listen. If you’re wondering how the friends and family of one of your couples speaks about them, you’ll find out pretty quickly. Do you hear a lot of “he” being used to describe what you might have identified as a bride? Are people using the words “ze” or “cis” instead?
This isn’t always fool-proof: family members are especially prone to use the gender descriptor the person in question was assigned at birth. This doesn’t always mean it’s because the family members are being awful — it takes time to rewire years of referring to a daughter as “she” or a son as “he,” and they’re doing their best.
Avoid pronouns completely, and stick with first names
Whether you’re working with the couple the day of, or blogging the wedding on your own site later, it’s remarkably easy to just use first names (or first initials) when talking about your couple. You might feel like it’s a little repetitive, but I think it’s better to use the same name over and over again than to make a gender identity decision FOR your couple. If someone presents as gender ambiguous, it’s not your place to decide for that person how they should be described.
If all else fails, just ask
I considered putting this suggestion first, because I think it’s the best course of action. I chose not to, however, because I understand that “just asking” can be nerve-wracking for some people. Let me just say this: one of the biggest lessons I’m teaching my son (who wears AFOs/leg braces, so it’s relevant to his life) is that if you have a question about someone, you ask that person. Want to know why that guy doesn’t have hair? Ask! Are you curious about that woman’s wheelchair? Be polite and respectful, and maybe she’ll talk to you about it.
The same goes for gender identity. You can politely and quietly pull the person in question aside and simply say, “Hey, I know that how you self-identify is important to you, and I want to make sure I’m respecting that. What pronoun(s) do you prefer I use when I’m speaking to you and/or writing about this wedding on my site?” I’ve done this before, and both times the client was super happy that I took the extra ten seconds and asked, and I felt great because it turns out that it feels awesome to respect people.
We know we’ve got tons of trans readers and we’d love to hear from you — what advice do you have for wedding vendors about working with trans clients?