What is misgendering?

For people who are transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming, coming into their authentic gender can be an important and affirming step in life.

Sometimes, people continue to refer to a person who is transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming using terms related to how they identified before transition.

This is known as misgendering.

Misgendering occurs when you intentionally or unintentionally refer to a person, relate to a person, or use language to describe a person that doesn’t align with their affirmed gender. For example, referring to a woman as “he” or calling her a “guy” is an act of misgendering.

There are a number of reasons why misgendering happens.

For example, people may notice that a person has primary or secondary sex characteristics and make assumptions about that person’s gender.

This includes a person’s:

  • facial hair or lack thereof
  • high or low vocal range
  • chest or breast tissue or lack thereof
  • genitals

Misgendering can also occur in situations where government identifications are used. The Transgender Law Center’s report on changing gender markers reveals that in some states it isn’t possible to change your gender on documents such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates. And in some states, you must have undergone specific surgeries in order to do so.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, only 11 percent of people surveyed had their gender listed on all of their government IDs. 67 percent didn’t have any ID with their affirmed gender listed.

In scenarios where government IDs need to be presented — such as at government offices, in schools, and in hospitals — people who haven’t changed their gender markers can be subject to misgendering. In many cases, people make assumptions about their gender based on what’s listed on their IDs.

Of course, misgendering can also be a deliberate act. People who have discriminatory beliefs and ideas about the trans community can use misgendering as a tactic for harassment and bullying. This is evidenced by the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, which found that 46 percent of respondents experienced verbal harassment because of their identity, and 9 percent had been physically assaulted.

Misgendering can have negative consequences for a transgender person’s self-confidence and overall mental health.

A 2014 study in the journal Self and Identity, asked transgender people about their experiences with being misgendered.

Researchers found that:

  • 32.8 percent of participants reported feeling very stigmatized when misgendered.
  • Genderqueer folks, and people who had taken fewer steps in the transition process, were most likely to be misgendered.
  • Those who were misgendered more frequently felt that their identity was very important, but experienced lower self-esteem around their appearance.
  • They also had a reduced sense of strength and continuity in their identity.

“Where I’m at school now there are way less trans and nonbinary folks, no visible trans community, and while our equity training included a video on pronouns, none of my professors or colleagues have ever asked what my pronouns are,” N., 27, said. “When someone misgenders me at school I just get this shock of painful tension throughout my body.”

When you misgender someone, you also run the risk of outing them to other people. It’s never anyone’s right or responsibility to out a person who is transgender without their express consent. It’s a trans person’s right and their right alone to tell others that they’re transgender, depending on whether they wish to be out or not.

Outing a trans person is not only disrespectful of their boundaries, but can also result in that person experiencing harassment and discrimination.

And, discrimination is a major issue for the trans community. The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found these startling statistics:

  • 33 percent of trans people surveyed had at least one experience of discrimination when seeking medical treatment.
  • 27 percent of respondents reported some form of employment discrimination, whether it was being fired, mistreated at work, or not hired because of their identity.
  • 77 percent of people who were out in K-12, and 24 percent of those who were out in college or vocational school, experienced mistreatment in those settings.

For many — though not all — people who are trans, a shift in pronouns is an affirming part of the transition process. It can help a trans person and the people in their lives start to see them as their affirmed gender. Getting a person’s pronouns wrong is a fairly common example of misgendering.

Pronouns are terms we use to describe ourselves in the third person in place of our name.

These can include:

  • he/him/his
  • she/her/hers
  • they/them/theirs
  • gender-neutral pronouns, such as ze/hir/hirs

While there’s been some controversy around the use of gender-neutral pronouns — particularly the use of they/them/theirs as a singular pronoun as opposed to a plural one — public acceptance of the singular “they” has grown in the past several years.

Merriam-Webster came out in support of the singular “they” in 2016, and the American Dialectic Society, a group of professional linguists, voted it their 2015 “Word of the Year.”

Thankfully, all you need to do to get it right is ask! Be sure to offer up your own pronouns when you do.

Author’s note

It often feels difficult to ask people to use the correct pronouns for me, especially since I use they/them/theirs. People tend to push back or struggle to make the adjustment. But, when people get it right, I feel really affirmed in my nonbinary identity. I feel seen.

Stopping your own misgendering behaviors and encouraging others to do so is an easy and effective way to support the trans people in your life.

Here are a few things you can do to prevent misgendering and affirm a person’s identity:

1. Don’t make assumptions.

You might think you know how someone identifies, but you can never know for certain unless you ask.

2. Always ask what words you should use!

You can ask people specifically or ask people who know a given person. Or, you can simply get in the habit of asking everyone their pronouns and terms they use for themselves.

3. Use the right name and pronouns for the trans people in your life.

You should do this all the time, not just when they’re around. This signals the proper way to refer to your trans friends to other people. It also helps you get accustomed to saying the right thing.

4. Avoid using gendered language to speak to or describe people unless you know it’s the language that a particular person prefers.

Examples of gendered language include:

  • honorifics such as “sir” or “ma’am”
  • terms like “ladies,” “guys,” or “ladies and gentlemen” to refer to a group of people
  • typically gendered adjectives such as “handsome” and “beautiful”

Practice using these gender-neutral terms and forms of address instead. You can say things like “my friend” instead of “sir” or “ma’am,” and refer to groups of people as “folks,” “y’all,” or “guests.”

5. Don’t default to gender-neutral language if you know how a person wishes to be addressed.

It can seem like using the singular “they” to describe everyone is a safe bet, and sometimes that’s actually a good way to navigate a situation where you’re uncertain how a person identifies. But, it’s important to respect the wishes of people who have specific gendered language that they want you to use.

6. Avoid using passive language.

Instead ofsaying: “X identifies as a woman” or “Y prefers he/him/his pronouns,” say things like “X is a woman” or “Y’s pronouns are he/him/his.”

At the end of the day, know that it’s fine to make a mistake here or there so long as you don’t make a habit of it. If you do make a mistake, just apologize and move on.

“If you need to correct yourself, do it and move on,” said Louis, a 29-year-old nonbinary person. “Don’t apologize profusely unless that’s what the other person wants. It’s not the trans person’s job to accept your apology or make you feel better for your misgendering them.”

Misgendering is a difficult issue for trans folks. You can show support and compassion for the transgender people in your life and in your community by being conscious of your participation in it and taking these simple steps to avoid doing so.

KC Clements is a queer, non-binary writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Their work deals with queer and trans identity, sex and sexuality, health and wellness from a body positive standpoint, and much more. You can keep up with them by visiting their website, or finding them on Instagram and Twitter.