“Misgendering” is intentionally or unintentionally referring to a person, relating to a person, or using language to describe a person that doesn’t align with their affirmed gender. Referring to someone using their incorrect pronouns is an example of misgendering.
Folks in the LGBTQIA+ community already experience mental health issues at higher rates and not having their correct pronouns used, and by extension not having their gender identity affirmed and encouraged, can have negative impacts on their well-being that contribute to those mental health outcomes.
Even the most well-intentioned friends, family members, colleagues, (and even therapists!) can misgender someone without meaning to and that doesn’t make them a bad person. To be clear, purposefully using incorrect pronouns is highly disrespectful and an active denial of someone’s gender identity.
Oftentimes, however, misgendering is entirely unintentional and the person misgendering does in fact respect and affirm the identity of the person they have accidentally misgendered.
Assumptions about Gender
We have been conditioned to assume the existence of the gender binary and that leads us to make lightning fast assumptions about people at first glance even though someone’s gender should never be assumed.
Even if you understand the harm of that binary and actively work to unlearn it, chances are you are going to use the wrong pronouns when talking to or about someone at some point, whether it’s someone you just met, a friend who recently started using different pronouns, or even a close friend or relative whose pronouns you have known for a long time.
In case you misgender someone either directly or to other people, here are some things to keep in mind:
DO take responsibility but DON’T make it all about you.
The more dysregulation and distress that you display at having misgendered someone, the less space there is for them to feel the impact of what happened and ask for the care that they need in that moment. You may be having strong feelings about what happened such as guilt, embarrassment, or fear, but you can process those later without making them the responsibility of the person you misgendered to deal with in the moment.
DON’T make excuses.
Comments like “I just don’t understand this” or “I’m trying my best but it’s really hard to remember” are dismissive of the impact you’ve made and unhelpful for the person being misgendered to feel safe or comfortable. Resist the urge to become defensive about how you promise you are a good person even though you have just misgendered someone.
DO quickly correct and move on.
Repeatedly apologizing often leads to the person who was hurt by being misgendered to take on the role of caretaker by assuring the person who misgendered them that it’s okay. To avoid that, best reaction to misgendering is often a quick correction. That can sound as simple as “he–I mean she–went to…”
When misgendering someone while in a group or when they are not present, a quick correction is much more respectful than bringing your own feelings into the situation or trying to speak for the person who you have misgendered. If the person is present, this leaves the option for them to clarify more about their pronouns to the group or not to say anything at all depending one what they are comfortable with.
DO repair when needed but DON’T force conversation.
Depending on the situation, you may need to take a longer moment to apologize. If you sense that the person is feeling hurt and needs support, find a moment alone to validate their reaction and feelings about the situation, let them know that you care about them and their gender identity, and ask if there is anything they need or if there is anything you can do to help them feel more comfortable either in that moment or in the future.
That being said, don’t force this conversation as the person may not want to talk about it further and they don’t owe you a bigger conversation about their gender identity or pronouns.
DO be mindful of the person’s comfort level with conversation around pronouns.
Continuing to talk about and apologize for what happened, either to the person you misgendered or to the person/people you misgendered them to, may bring more attention to the situation than the person who was misgendered feels comfortable with. Be aware that someone’s pronouns may be a topic that they don’t want to be discussed openly unless they are bringing it up themselves.
DO ask people’s pronouns when you’re unsure.
You should never assume someone’s gender identity or pronouns and asking them directly when you meet them is a great way to avoid misgendering them in the future.
There may be a tendency to defer to gender-neutral pronouns (they/them) when talking to or about someone who’s pronouns you are unsure of. Sometimes this is perfectly fine and the person can correct you if needed. Other times it may cause hurt if the person does not identify with they/them pronouns.
Some folks would rather be misgendered with gender-neutral pronouns (they/them) than gendered pronouns (he/him, she/her) but others don’t appreciate others using gender neutral pronouns for them if it’s not how they identify.
Regardless of whether they don’t mind the mistake or have a strong negative reaction, the important thing is to repair if needed and listen deeply to the person when they tell you their pronouns to avoid making a mistake in the future.
In conclusion, there is no one way to respond to misgendering. Reading the situation will allow you to decide the best course of action for responding and repairing.
It is important not to let the fear of making mistakes like misgendering stop you from interacting with, working with, or engaging with people. You will probably misgender someone at some point that is okay. Your responsibility isn’t to be perfect, but to help the person feel respected, even when mistakes happen.
Respecting people’s gender identity is more than just saying their correct pronouns out loud. It’s about internalizing what they mean and taking the time to see and appreciate the person for who they are.
What gets in the way of you responding in one of the “right” ways when you misgender someone?
Blog written by Ellie Struewing, Client Care Coordinator at Sentier Psychotherapy.