Being misgendered can create an uncomfortable, embarrassing and even unsafe situation for many trans* individuals. There’s no doubt that when working toward creating or contributing to safer, more accessible spaces and services for all people, a person must be committed to affirming others’ gender identities and pronouns.
However, despite the best of intentions, missteps may occur. When they do occur, when you’ve misgendered someone (either in front of the person or when they aren’t present), your reaction in that moment is paramount. Your reaction to the situation can either minimize the damage that has no doubt been caused, or can exacerbate it exponentially. Here are some tips on reacting responsibly and with care in a moment where you’ve unintentionally misgendered someone:
Center the needs and feelings of the person who has been misgendered, not your own.
You may feel TERRIBLE about what you’ve done. You may work hard to show up for the trans* people in your life and feel disappointed in yourself for making this hurtful mistake. You may want to be made to feel better and told that it is clear you have good intentions and are still a good “ally” despite this error. Remember that your feeling badly about misgendering someone cannot take priority over the way that the person who was misgendered feels; so don’t prioritize your feelings or ego in the moment. Your first thought needs to be, “how can I take care of this person” not “who’s going to take care of me right now?”.
There’s nothing worse than getting misgendered and then having to soothe and care-take the person who just misgendered you. When a person misgenders you and immediately centralized their own feelings, it may lead you to feel the need to minimize your own feelings and let the person know, “oh, that’s OK! Don’t worry about it.” or worse yet, “I’m sorry that you feel so badly”. You can imagine this statement of comfort being rephrased like this: “Oh, I’m sorry that respecting my identity is so hard and that making me feel badly made you feel so badly”. Putting a trans* person in a position to take care of the person who just misgendered them and to even feel badly for that person in the moment is inappropriate and may make them feel that they or their pronouns are burdensome.
Don’t make excuses for yourself, get defensive, or ask to be cut some slack.
This may be an embarrassing moment for you and you may want to come to your own defense. Resist this urge. You have just done something that could put at risk the perception of you as a safe or affirming person or service provider for the trans* person in question, so don’t make this worse by then becoming defensive about the way they feel. Instead, begin work immediately to regain their trust by misstepping with as much grace as possible (more on this later) and then working on not making this a habit.
Sometimes the person who has been misgendered will not have patience for what has happened and/or may be angry. This situation is often when folks say things like, “cut me some slack, it was an accident”. While it very well may have been an accident, it is not their job to cut you any slack. (This goes back to the whole them-taking-care-of-you thing). Encourage yourself to remember that this is most likely not an isolated incident for them. They most likely have had numerous experiences of being misgendered throughout their life, possibly even earlier on that very day. This moment may be a Last Straw for them for any number of reasons; contextualize this moment as one of many microaggressions they have most likely experienced repeatedly throughout their life. It is not you but what you did that they are most likely angry at (unless you are a serial misgenderer; then it probably is you.)
Acknowledge the mistake and move on quickly.
Different folks may prefer different kinds of reactions from people who have misgendered them. However, from hearing many stories and opinions working in trans* communities and being a trans* person myself, the general consensus I’ve heard tends to sound something like: “Acknowledge the mistake and move the hell on with the conversation…quickly”.
Let’s start with acknowledging the mistake. While your heart may be beating out of your chest because you made a mistake that you may feel embarrassed or sorry about, and you may feel like pretending it didn’t happen, it did. It happened, and not acknowledging that at all may come off like, 1. you didn’t notice, 2. you don’t care or 3. you did it on purpose. Now, “acknowledging it” doesn’t mean making a big scene (e.g. “OMG I’m so so so sorry, that was terrible! I can’t believe I did that! Are you OK? I’m the worst, ohmygawd. Hey everyone you’ll never guess what I just did!) OK, so that’s an extreme example, but you get the point. This is where the, “move on quickly” part comes in. The acknowledgment should do the job of letting the person know you noticed, you care, and you want to correct the situation as much as possible. The moving on quickly should do the job of prioritizing the needs of the misgendered person and not derailing whatever conversation was going on in the first place by centralizing that person’s gender and having a big ol’ convo about it. Try not to draw unneeded attention to the mistake, which could make the issue worse than it was to begin with.
Acknowledging your mistake may sound like correcting your use of pronouns in the moment. That is, after accidentally misgendering someone who uses ‘he’ pronouns, you may say something like this: “Oh yeah, she….I mean he is going to go over there around noon”. The “I mean” part may or may not be in there; if it is, make it subtle. Try and downplay the mistake; you could even shake your head a bit like you might if you use the wrong word in a sentence when you’re tired (e.g. “will you hand me a spoon..um a fork”). You acknowledged the mistake by correcting yourself mid-sentence, you worked to not derail the conversation or make a scene, and now just move on quickly with whatever the topic of conversation was and do better next time.
Acknowledging your mistake might include the word “sorry” if the person is standing right there. The jury is a bit out on this one from my experience though, as it has the potential to draw too much attention to what happened. However, if it’s swift, a brief “sorry” to the person may be a means of acknowledging the mistake. However, this shouldn’t sound anything like, “I’m so so sorry” or any other long, extremely noticeable apology, as that contradicts the whole, “move on quickly” bit. Just a brief and discreet “sorry”, correct your pronoun use (or vice versa), and move on.
You may feel inclined to say something like, “it won’t happen again”, “I’m working on it”, “I’ll get it right next time”, or “it’s hard for me, but I’ll keep working to get it right”. These sentiments, while they may be true for you, might be better acted upon than stated. That is, instead of telling the person that you are working on it and that it won’t happen again, move on from the situation and on your own time (versus on theirs) work on it, practice, and try and not make the same mistake again in the future.
If you end up misgendering that person again, recognize this is an issue, and think through steps you might take to correct whatever block is happening for you (I repeat: on your own time. It is not their job to help you respect them). You may need to recognize that you are not seeing (i.e. respecting, validating) a person as the gender they identify as and really begin to check and retrain your perception of that person. You may need to slow your speech (in general; not just when talking about this person) to allow yourself time to really think before you speak/gender someone. You may need to practice with pronouns you are less familiar with so that you feel more confident about using them fluidly in a sentence.
These are just a few general tips about reacting to misgendering someone. If you are a trans* person and have other ways that you prefer someone react if they get your pronouns wrong, please share them in the comments! There’s no doubt that different folks prefer different things! If you are someone who has struggled with misgendering a person in your life and have something you did to work on the issue and overcome it, please feel free to share the skills that worked for you below, as well!