Everywhere we go we hear, “Hello, ladies”. “Ladies, how can I help you?” “What will you ladies be having?” and “Thank you, ladies, please come again.”
There’s nothing grammatically wrong with these phrases, despite the superfluous “ladies” dumped into the beginning, middle, and end of them.
What’s wrong is that one of us – a lesbian couple – doesn’t identify as a “lady”.
My sweetheart isn’t trans or gender-queer; she’s definitely female-identified. But she’s decidedly butch, and has never been the feminine flower that “lady” implies. She hates to be called that, and I suspect she’s not alone.
One of my butch friends told me that when she was in second grade, after quite a struggle, her mother sent her to school in a dress. My friend went into the restroom and refused to come out. She stayed in there, embarrassed and crying, until the school called home and asked her mother to bring her some jeans.
My friend didn’t have words for what she would grow up to be, but I’m sure she already knew, deep in her second grade self, that she wouldn’t be a “lady”.
My sweetheart is like that. Calling her “lady” is like trying to stuff that budding tomboy into a dress. It’s a refusal to recognize who, and what, she is, even when she’s in a sports coat or a black leather jacket.
Of course, I understand that “lady” has become synonymous with “woman”. But what service professional in their right mind would greet us with “Hello, women.” or “What will you women be having?”
In fact, to transpose those words creates phrases that sound oddly sexist.
We realize that every retail clerk and waitperson isn’t setting out to ruin her day. But there’s no reason to approach our table with “Hello, ladies,” when “Hello” will do just as well. Strangely, this is just as likely to happen in a queer-friendly environment as anywhere else.
We’ve tried a couple of different approaches. She has tried educating people kindly, often to blank looks. Many meals start out with her muttering, “I’m not a lady,” as the waitperson walks away. Sometimes I’ll say kindly that she’s not a lady. I’ve suggested that waitpeople do it intentionally, as a way of recognizing that she’s not a male person. However, I’m sure it’s more like a mindless linguistic tic than an intentional statement.
So, spread the word: If you’re in the retail or service industry, or any business where you have contact with the public, from airlines to booths at the Folsom Street Fair, stop calling women “ladies”. (Print this out and hang it on a bulletin board where your co-workers can read it too.)
Words like “ladies” are supposed to be polite, but anything that calls attention to a difference – like color, size, or gender – is bound to exclude someone, and that’s never polite.
I know that service people also approach men and say “What will you gentlemen be having today?” But they don’t usually differentiate for tables of mixed gender or other obvious visual combinations. In my informal poll, most waitpeople will use a neutral phrase in these situations. To try and concoct a phrase that works would be awkward and cumbersome.
Well, guess what? It’s also awkward and cumbersome for us when you lump us together with a one-word description that doesn’t need to be there.
After all, there’s no phrase I’ve used in this essay that wouldn’t be just as warm or welcoming without the ubiquitous “ladies” interjected into it.
See, you had us at “hello”.