“Misgendering” someone means referring to that person as a gender with which they don’t identify. This can include addressing someone by a pronoun or honorific they don’t use. Examples include calling someone “she” when they use “he” or “they,” or calling someone “sir” and “Mr.” if they go by “ma’am” and “Ms.”
Is misgendering someone like deadnaming them?
They are similar in that they deal with referring to people in ways which they do not want to be referred. Deadnaming is when a transgender or non-binary person is referred to by their previous name, which often was their birth name. To deadname someone, you’d have to know what their previous name was. Misgendering can happen without knowing the person’s personal pronouns, and can happen within a second of knowing a person exists.
How do people feel about being misgendered?
In a 2017 essay for The Body Is Not An Apology, Joli St. Patrick wrote about her experiences having been misgendered:
When you misgender me, you tell me many things. You tell me that you know who I am better than I know myself. You tell me you are not safe or trustworthy. You tell me you have scrutinized my physical appearance, made invasive extrapolations, and sorted me without my consent into a category based on your conclusions.
It’s not necessarily your fault. You are the inheritor of a wealth of transphobic assumptions that have been drilled into your head from birth. So am I. I recently met a trans woman who I initially read as a cis woman. I noticed that after she disclosed she was trans, I began struggling to avoid referring to her as “he,” despite having seen her as a woman from the moment we met.
So why do people misgender people? Is it based on assumptions, or is it intentional?
West Anderson uses “they”/”them” pronouns. In a piece for The Body Is Not An Apology, Anderson wrote about their own experience of misgendering people before being misgendered:
I understand that adding a new set of pronouns to one’s vocabulary involves a learning curve. When I first met someone who used they/them/theirs as pronouns, I was still identifying as cis and it was hard for me to figure out which one to use in a sentence. It felt unnatural to refer to one person as they. I messed up just about every sentence, and I had to correct myself every time a pronoun appeared in my words.
So I get it. I’ve been there. I know exactly how it feels to learn a new pronoun. I didn’t begin using they/them/their pronouns and immediately have them become integrated into my vocabulary. But I practiced, I remembered that a person’s pronouns were they/them/theirs, and every time I messed up, I corrected myself.
I want to be clear: The thing that hurts me most is not when someone messes up my pronouns. It’s when they know my real ones, but they don’t even try to correct themselves. They just let it sit there, and it’s on me to bring it up, again, that “It’s they, not she.”
So there are people who do it intentionally?
Yes, such that Twitter updated its “hateful conduct” policy in 2018. From an article by The Verge:
The hateful conduct policy previously banned “repeated and/or non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes, or other content that degrades someone.” The new policy specifies that “this includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals” — i.e., deliberately referring to a transgender person with the wrong pronouns or using their pre-transition name…
…A Twitter spokesperson told The Verge that “targeting someone because of their gender identity has always been a violation of our Hateful Conduct policy. We updated our Terms of Service earlier this year with more specifics on this type of speech to ensure our rules and how we enforce them are clear to everyone.”
The update received public attention a few days after Twitter suspended radical feminist writer Meghan Murphy, who had apparently violated its hateful conduct rules by repeatedly referring to a trans woman as a man and asking “what is the difference between a man and a trans woman?” Twitter also recently suspended high-profile far-right personality Laura Loomer, and its hate speech policies are under particularly heavy scrutiny at the moment.
So what’s the right way to handle misgendering if I accidentally misgender someone?
In the aforementioned essay, Joli St. Patrick suggested that the cisgender person not make a big deal about, but rather, “Correct, move on, and resolve to do better.” From the essay:
When I call cis people out on an accidental misgendering, they often make a profuse, self-abasing apology, but honestly this makes the experience worse, not better. I’m now in the position of placating a cis person’s feelings, assuring them that they’re okay, and feeling apologetic myself for being such a nuisance. The real work is not to place blame or to castigate ourselves for your missteps, but to deprogram our transphobic, transmisogynistic brains until they don’t occur. Correct, move on, and resolve to do better.
This echoes advice that Rose Dommu gave in a 2018 article for Out:
If you misgender a trans person accidentally — obviously this guide is not for people who are doing it on purpose — the best way to handle the situation is to apologize, correct yourself, and never do it again. This applies whether you realize your own mistake or if that person corrects you. Please do not turn your apology into a monologue or use it as an opportunity to proclaim your support for trans people. Misgendering happens most often in public/social situations, and they’re already embarrassing enough without you creating a spectacle.
Under no circumstances should you explain why you thought the person you’re talking to is a gender other than the one they identify as…
The best thing cisgender people can do to support trans people in this situation is to take on the labor of correcting other cis people…
…It’s also a good practice to correct someone more emphatically when the trans person they’ve just misgendered is out of earshot. In my own experience, I sometimes won’t correct people who misgender me because it ends up being a lot of work for me emotionally, and in those instances it would (and has been) so nice when a cis person steps up to take on that labor for me.
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