A person holds a whiteboard sign that reads, "Hello my pronouns are..."

Understanding Misgendering

Misgendering is the act of attributing the wrong gender to someone. Using the wrong pronoun when talking about someone in the third person is a form of misgendering. The verb misgender can also describe any reference to a person in which they are gendered incorrectly. For example, saying “yes sir” to someone who isn’t a man may be misgendering. 

How do you know what someone’s pronouns are?

Because the only way to know someone’s pronouns is for that information to be explicitly shared, one usually doesn’t know the pronouns of everyone they interact with. The practice of pronoun sharing is becoming more commonplace, like the inclusion of pronouns in email signatures, wearing a pronoun pin, or sharing pronouns when introducing oneself. If you don’t know what someone’s pronouns are, you can ask. The best way to do that is to first share your own pronouns, and then ask the other person theirs. Pronoun information can also be collected on forms or other paperwork where names are asked. 

Why does misgendering happen?

Misgendering can happen when you or someone else doesn’t know another person’s pronouns and then choose to guess or assume those pronouns rather than asking. Misgendering can also happen when people do know someone’s pronouns, but they make a mistake. Mistakes happen! Misgendering happens! It’s not the end of the world, but it is important to address this mistake sensitively.

What do I do when I misgender someone?

Common reactions after misgendering another person include feeling embarrassment, shame, upset, flustered, confused, defensive, or guilty. But as the person who made a mistake (and one that may have hurt another person), it’s important to avoid getting caught up in one’s own feelings. After all, if you accidentally stepped on someone’s foot, hopefully you would be able to put your own feelings aside to center the needs of the person with the hurt toes! If instead you responded to your mistake with something like, “Oh my gosh! I’m the worst! I keep stepping on people’s toes and I’m just so clumsy and stupid,” then the person who was actually hurt by the mistake is now in the awkward position of comforting you and possibly minimizing their own experience of being stepped on.

If you misgender someone:

  • First, notice that you made a mistake (or acknowledge your mistake if someone else points it out to you).
  • Second, say sorry.
  • Third, correct yourself and move on.

Don’t make it about your own frustration or guilt. Those are certainly feelings that you can explore and honor, but do that on your own time, away from the person who was misgendered. Speaking from personal experience, it is exhausting to repeatedly get pulled into someone’s longwinded apology and their own need for absolution. 

In the longer term

If you find yourself repeatedly misgendering someone, it’s time to address that pattern. Practically, it can help to practice talking about that person using the correct pronouns/name when not in their presence. Find a patient buddy who can correct you while you practice. Or talk to your cat about the person you tend to misgender and catch yourself when you make mistakes. Practice will help. 

It also may be worth thinking about how you see or conceive of that person, which may be the underlying reason you misgender them. For example, if you find yourself repeatedly misgendering someone who uses they/them pronouns, maybe it’s because you are conceptualizing them as someone who “should” use she/her or he/him pronouns. Ask yourself: why do I keep misgendering this person? What are my deeply held beliefs around gender? Where did those come from? What does it mean to be a man or woman? How can I start thinking of this person as [insert affirmed gender here]?

Finally, examine your media consumption and seek to diversify it. Educate yourself on the social construction of gender, transgender identities, and nonbinary experiences. Please don’t rely on trans people in your life to educate you on transness (unless they have explicitly agreed to play that role). 

A final word: Don’t let a fear of making mistakes prevent you from creating diverse and fulfilling relationships.

Mistakes are inevitable. Don’t let the fear of misgendering another person hold you back from having relationships with people of all different gender identities and expressions. Mistakes are proof that you’re trying, and also point toward personal growth opportunities. Commit yourself to examining your own biases, limitations, and values. In the end, this will benefit your own growth, as well as minimizing the harm that each of us inevitably inflicts in our human relationships. 

We’re here to help.

If you’ve ever felt the impact of misgendering know that you are not alone. LifeWorks is a sex-positive, trans-affirming therapy space. Please reach out to Angel Ziegler, our Intake Coordinator, to schedule a brief, complimentary call – we can work together to find a therapist who will be a good fit for you.

Call 847) 568-1100 or email us to schedule a confidential and supportive session. We are here to support you.