I was teaching a customer service workshop for a t-shirt company. There were about 15 of us gathered in the factory, surrounded by piles of t-shirts from floor to ceiling. There were shirts in various stages of completion on work tables, and boxes stacked by the door, ready to be delivered.
Because of the nature of the work, everyone was dressed casually, in jeans, t-shirts, and baseball caps.
One employee, “Lee,” seemed to have a good grasp on human nature. Someone asked a question about a certain customer’s behavior and I gestured toward Lee and said, “He just talked about that.”
A few minutes later, a note was discreetly passed to me. It read, “Lee is a she.”
Oops. Well, gee, now that I had referred to her as “he,” I didn’t know how to switch to the correct pronoun without everyone wondering what prompted the change.
From then on, I was careful to refer to her only as “Lee,” and not him or her or he or she. (The pronoun “they” is gaining favor, even when used as a singular.)
This dilemma was addressed on “Saturday Night Live” in a series of skits named, “It’s Pat!” Pat, played by Julia Sweeney, was a gender-ambiguous character who confounded everyone by never identifying his/her gender. Each skit centered on people’s attempts to solve the mystery. We never did find out if Pat was a he or a she.
I was so sure that Lee was male that it hadn’t occured to me to ask my host, Angela, ahead of time. Otherwise, I think I might have taken Angela aside and said, “I don’t want to cause awkwardness, so I hope you’ll forgive my asking: Do I address Lee as he or she?
Add this to your list of good reasons to get to your venue early.