Misgendering: What is it, Why Does it Happen and What You Can Do to Prevent it From Happening

A person’s gender identity is their self-concept as male, female, a blend of neither or both. It is how they perceive themselves and what they call themselves. When a person’s gender identity is different than the sex assigned they were assigned at birth, using the pronouns they identify with is an important way of affirming and supporting their identity and alignment.

Gender pronouns are words used to describe a person in place of their name. These can include:

  • She/her/hers
  • He/him/his
  • Gender neutral pronouns such as they/them/theirs or ze/hir/hirs

In order to explain misgendering as a whole it is important to understand some key terms which we will cover in the following paragraphs.

Cisgender V.S Transgender; What’s the Difference?

  • When a person is cisgender, that means that they identify with the sex they were assigned at birth
  • When a person is transgender, that means that they do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth

Gender Identity, Assigned Sex and Intersex

  • What is Gender Identity? An internal experience and a process of naming the gender one identifies with. This could be male, female, non-binary, or even genderless
  • What does Assigned Sex mean? When an infant is born the doctor will look at the genitals to determine if they are male or female. If the inspection of the genitals reveals a typical sex characteristic they are determined ‘intersex’ but that does not always mean that they will be assigned intersex
  • What is Intersex? A person who was born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of ‘male’ or ‘female’. In the U.S, 1 in 2000 babies are born intersex.

What is Misgendering?

Misgendering is the act of referring to someone or describing someone with language that does not align with their gender identity.

  • Referring to a cisgender man as “she” or calling him a “woman” is an example of misgendering. In this example, the correct pronouns would be he/him/his
  • Referring to a transgender woman as “he” or calling her a “man” is another example of misgendering. In this example, the correct pronouns would be she/her/hers
  • Referring to a non-binary person as “he”, “she”, “man”, or “woman” is also an example of misgendering. A non-binary person’s pronouns can vary, but commonly they will use they/them/theirs

Why Do People Get Misgendered?

This is a black and white question that cannot be answered. Gender identity and people’s perception, understanding and education around it varies too much to provide concrete answers. Outlined below are some commonly reported scenarios where transgender and non-binary folks feel contributed to being misgendered.

  1. Physical Characteristics: People may incorrectly gender someone by assuming a person’s gender based on primary or secondary sex characteristics, including:
    • Absence or presence of facial hair
    • Absence or presence of breast tissue
    • High or low voice tone of voice
  2. Gender Markers: Official paperwork such as insurance cards, passports, and licenses will have a “M” (male) or “F” (female). These gender markers don’t always align with someone’s gender identity. Many trans and non-binary folks are unable to change their gender marker from the sex they were assigned at birth to one that aligns with their gender identity due to:
    • Financial limitations
    • Legal limitations
    • Personal choice
    • Safety reasons
  3. Malicious Intent: In rarer cases misgendering can be deliberate and used as a tool to hurt someone

How Does Misgendering Impact Transgender Identities?

Whether intentional or by accident, misgendering is particularly harmful and frequent for trans and non-binary folks. Misgendering can invalidate a person’s gender identity which can lead to feeling disrespected, alienated, dismissed, and/or dysphoric. It has negative consequences for a person’s self-esteem, mental health, and identity continuity so it is important.

If you unintentionally misgender someone there are appropriate and effective ways of resolving what was an oversight on your part. The way you handle the moments after misgendering someone are very important and can even be an enlightening experience.

What to Do If You Misgender Someone

Mistakes happen. Maybe you didn’t know; maybe you forgot. Simply correct yourself, move on, and try not to do it again. If you hear someone misgender a friend, correct them. Avoid apologizing profusely or drawing unnecessary attention to the situation; this may make the misgendered person more uncomfortable.

Steps to Take After Misgendering Someone

For practice let’s pretend you are spending time with friends, 1 of your friends (named Skye) identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Your friend remarks that Skye is really good at guitar and you reply “That’s so cool, I didn’t know she could play guitar”. You misgendred Skye using she/her pronouns when they use they/them pronouns. This is obviously unintended, you care about your friend and you feel immediately guilty you misgendered them. What do you do? You P.A.S.S:

PAUSE: Take half a second to regroup

APOLOGIZE: Take accountability that you misgendered them with a short apologetic sentence; “I’m sorry, I misspoke, I didn’t know that they could play guitar”. In that sentence, you apologized for misgendering them and corrected yourself by using their pronouns.

STOP: Don’t say anything else. Anything beyond the above sentence is usually saying too much. Keep it simple.

SINCERITY: Depending on the closeness of who you misgendered (or the moment in which they were misgendered) it may feel important to have another conversation about it to clear the air. If you do want to speak further then be sure to pull the person aside privately. Remember to keep it simple – there is no need to over explain or defend yourself.  Simply deliver your words with care.

Why do We Apologize?

Though it might seem obvious that an apology is necessary, some of my cis friends who are starting to learn about pronouns have asked me “What’s the big deal, and why can’t I just move on in conversation and try not to do it again?”

I think the best comparison would be if a person were to do anything else that was an obvious considerable mistake that intruded on another person, you’d apologize for it or you would seem very cold.  For example, if you mistakenly bumped hard into someone else at the grocery store because you weren’t watching where you were going, you would quickly apologize and check in with the other person to make sure they were ok.  Doing nothing would seem awkward and almost demeaning to the other person.  Same thing here.

How to Gender Someone Correctly

  1. Never assume someone’s pronouns or identity based on their appearance
  2. Ask! If you’re meeting someone for the first time and aren’t aware of their pronouns, ask. “What are your pronouns?” in a kind tone goes a long way. It may feel embarrassing or offensive, but respectfully asking shows that you care about affirming someone’s identity.
  3. Incorporate your pronouns into introductions; “I’m Michael, I use he/him pronouns. What are your pronouns?”
  4. Always use the correct name and pronoun for trans and gender expansive folks in your life, even when they aren’t present. This will get you used to saying the right thing and it will also show other people how to refer to them
  5. Don’t default to their name. If you’re uncomfortable with pronouns or this is new territory for you, inserting someone’s name in place of a pronoun can be tempting. This is obviously better than misgendering someone, but overtime the overuse of someone’s name can become loud and depending on the person could hurt them

Ways to Minimize Gendered Language in Everyday Life

If you’re unsure of someone’s gender or pronouns and you’re speaking about them in the third person (and they’re not present), it’s best practice to use gender neutral language. It’s always best to ask someones pronouns if they are present.

  • Introductory gendered language: Sir, ma’am, ladies, gentlemen, guys, ladies
  • Introductory gender-neutral alternatives: My friend, friends, folks, y’all, everyone, guests
  • Gendered conversation example: “Look at that cute little boy playing ball with that older teenage girl”
  • Gender-neutral conversation example: “Look at that little kid playing ball with that older teenager”

Misgendering in Conclusion

If you’ve read through this article you are well on your way to becoming a pronoun champion! Here are some key points listed below:

  • Gender identity and assigned sex are 2 completely different things
  • ID’s with gender marker’s “M” and “F” don’t always mean the person identifies with that marker
  • Pronouns aren’t a preference, they are pronouns. Don’t ask someone what their “preferred pronouns” are, instead ask “What are your pronouns?”
  • Minimize gendered language in everyday life, this will get you thinking about gender more
  • If you misgender someone, briefly apologize and move on