“Misgendering”: questions from the search terms, vol. 1

WordPress tells me I started writing Valprehension three years(WP lies; it has been two years) ago today! Go me! Posts have admittedly become more sparse over the past few months, though, so in an attempt to get back in the habit of writing more regularly, welcome to my new blogging series!

[I am always interested to see what search terms bring people to my little part of the internet. A lot of the time I am baffled that I could have been high enough in the search results to merit a visit. Other times, I can tell that people wound up in exactly the right place. Every now and then, though, some compelling search terms come up for which I know the searcher did not find what they were looking for, even though I wish they had. Posts in this series respond directly to those search strings, filling in gaps in what people want to know about :)]

Today, the topic will be misgendering. This is a thing people are concerned about (and well they should be), and I am here to help!

“is misgendering a word”?

Yes. It is a word. To misgender a person is to use words (pronouns such as “she” or “he”, or other inherently gendered words like “sister”, “man”, etc.) that don’t match their gender. In other words, it is applying the wrong gender to someone.

“misgendering is it a problem”?

Misgendering is definitely a problem, though how big of a problem it is depends on circumstances. It is common, for instance, for anti-trans bigots people to deliberately misgender people, and insist on referring to them only by their birth-assigned gender and name. This is an incredibly mean, rude, and disrespectful thing to do. It is a form of bullying, in fact.

Accidental misgendering is a different thing. Sometimes a person’s perception of another person’s gender is wrong, and they might use the wrong words or that person. Misgendering of this kind of complicated, in that it is often very painful for the person being misgendered, but at the same time it is hard to know how to avoid this all the time. Sincere apologies and honest efforts not to do it again, starting from the moment you are informed of your mistake, are the best way to make up for accidentally misgendering someone. Also, if you don’t know someone’s gender, instead of just guessing, get in the habit of asking them before using gendered words to refer to them!

“how to avoid misgendering”?

The easiest way to avoid misgendering a person is to ask them what their gender is, instead of trying to guess! Sometimes people still have trouble with using the correct pronouns for people even when they know the person’s gender though. This often happens when our perceptions of that person’s gender are different from how they identify (i.e. a lot of people look at me and think that I am a woman, even though I am not.) Because most of us have spent most of our lives only aware of two genders (male and female, “he” and “she”) and we are accustomed to people “looking like” the gender they are based on whatever our particular culture says those things are supposed to look like, it can sometimes be difficult to overcome the way these things are programmed in our brains, especially during casual conversation.

The best way to do better with this is just to get into the habit of thinking more carefully about the words you use for people all of the time. This is honestly a good habit generally, and you will find you make fewer errors this way. Additionally, when you *do* slip up, you should make a point of correcting yourself as soon as your realize you have done so, and if you realize quickly enough repeating the sentence you just said, but with the correct gender. This will help your brain get used to using the right gender for that person, while also making it clear that you care. An apology is usually also appreciated. So for instance, you might say “Leslie and I were at the movies today and he didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. Sorry, I mean she didn’t enjoy it.”

Really, all it takes is practice. If you put effort into it, you will get there, I promise!

“email apology for misgendering”?

I am hoping the searcher here was looking for advice on how to apologize for misgendering someone. First off, sending an email is a great idea. Sometimes we misgender people by accident, because our brains are so wired to see gender in a particular way, and even if we know better that can be hard to overcome. Or sometimes it happens for other reasons. But sending a note acknowledging your error will generally be very appreciated – it sends the message that you actually realize you made the mistake, and that you know it matters. You might also want to consider letting them know what you plan to do to avoid making the same mistake in the future, even if that simply amounts to trying harder.

Misgendering as “just a mistake”

I recently read this article about how intent is not the be-all and end-all of whether you hurt someone through pronoun use, or other gendered language. It’s pretty great, and it made me think a lot about what people are really saying when they insist that misgendering someone is “just a mistake”.

Here’s my thing: I know that in most case when I am misgendered it is just a mistake. I have yet to experience someone deliberately and maliciously misgendering me, in fact. I’m pretty lucky that way, so far.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And it really, really doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

But I really feel like whenever I see a person insisting that their misgendering of someone else was just an honest mistake, or whatever, and not really apologizing or even fixing their mistake (and yes, the best practice when you realize you’ve just misgendered someone is to say “Sorry” and immediately repeat what you just said but with the correctly gendered language – it will make you do better next time), they are really saying one of two things:

1. “It’s not that big a deal. Let it go.”

Newsflash: no one gets to decide how big a deal a particular misgendering mistake is except for the person being misgendered. This very much relates back to my post about why you should avoid accusing people of “over-reacting” to things. You don’t know their reality, you don’t know what they deal with every day, and you don’t know what it feels like for them to be misgendered. So you can’t decide whether your mistake was “just a mistake” or whether it was a gigantic fuck-up that really hurt someone.

And I get that the instinctive response to being made aware of a hurtful mistake is often a certain amount of defensiveness, and that wanting absolution, wanting someone to confirm that it’s not big deal, is natural.

But here’s the thing. If you suck it up, accept that you done wrong and genuinely apologize and make amends, that is how it will cease to be a big deal. Minimizing another person’s hurt doesn’t make them hurt any less; in fact, often it involves asking that person to shoulder even more burden by absolving you of that hurt, leaving them with nowhere to turn.

Just, stop trying to tell other people what is and is not a big deal to them.

2. “I don’t really care that much, and I want your permission not to try.”

Sometimes people minimize their misgendering errors because they don’t really care, and they don’t want to do the work, and they are trying to get permission to not do the work. If the person they just misgendered agrees that it was just a mistake,and no big deal, then they can use that fact down the road when the continued misgendering becomes a much bigger problem. “But you said you understood that it was hard for me wah wah wah” etc. Seriously, stop making excuses and do the work. Apologize and fix it. And do better. Because you can, and we all know it.


I mean, yes, I get that the most well-meaning person can slip up sometimes. The true test isn’t whether you are 100% perfect all the time with adjusting to new pronouns; the test is in how you deal with your mistakes. Own them; don’t minimize. Apologize for them. And fix them. It’s not that hard. And if you do those things you won’t find yourself seeking false absolution to feel better about yourself.

So, in conclusion, then?

Yes, I know it’s a mistake. Believe me, if I thought it was deliberate, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation; I would have left you far behind me a long time ago. That’s the issue at question.

The point is, it’s important. You are fucking up something important. It is a mistake; but it can and will never be “just” a mistake. So don’t try to get me or anyone else to absolve you of it. Fix it.

Further Notes on Calling Binary-Identified People “They”

There’s a minor addendum I’ve been meaning to make to my post on whether referring to a binary (i.e. male or female) person as “they” constitutes misgendering that person. The short version: No. It isn’t.

There is an important clarification that I need to make here, though. Because, while calling someone “they” is simply a case of avoiding gendering them, and thus can’t possibly be misgendering them, it can definitely still be a form of oppression and a microaggression against that person.

bus_stopPeople tend to be pretty attached to their gender identity, and refusing to acknowledge that aspect of who they are can definitely be a damaging and mean-spirited thing to do. In the extreme, the insistence on referring to all people as “they” all the time is tantamount to trying to use “color-blindness” as an approach to anti-racism. A person’s gender, like their race, (and their class, and their sexual orientation, and many other things) is a part of who they are, and it has shaped their life experiences, and the ways in which they can and do navigate the world, and to erase such essential parts of people’s personal narratives is not in any way ok.

What I had intended to address in the original post was more the concern people have about continuing to use the singular “they” in its more traditional sense, to refer to people when we don’t know their gender. An example of this would be if someone says something to you about their doctor, and you want to ask whether she/he (but you don’t know which) is accepting patients, or whatever else. Actually stepping out of the conversation in order to as k about the doctor’s gender simply to be able to form that sentence seems a little silly, and might make it seem like your curiosity about them was dependent on their gender. Easier then, to go with “they”. And also, not a case of misgendering, not a refusal to acknowledge gender, so long as once your friend says “Oh, I don’t know if he/she is or not,” you switch to using the pronouns your friend did.

I do sometimes also advocate the use of the singular “they” when talking about people whose gender we do know, though. This is the example I talked about in the original post, where when I am relating a story in which the gender of the person I’m talking about is simply not relevant, and if I’m concerned that revealing it will colour the response of whomever I’m talking to. People tend to respond differently to the same behaviours in men and women, and if I’m telling a story about some asshole customer, I don’t want other people’s responses to that story to be coloured by sexism, so I might prefer not to give them the opportunity to view the story through that lens.

This is, of course, a relatively low-stakes example. However, I would be interested to see what would happen if, for instance, HR departments started enacting policies to discuss job interviews with each other in gender neutral terms, thus getting less biased input on interviewees behaviours.

The other case when it can be important to use non-gendered pronouns for binary people can be simply for the purposes of protecting identity. Using “they” instead of “she” or “he” increases the pool of people about whom you might be speaking, and further obscures the identity of the person you are talking about. This can be especially important in contexts where there is a very unequal distribution of male and female people. In my department at work, for instance, there are 30+ women, and less than 5 men, so if I were to tell a story about an unidentified employee, and identify that person as “he”, it might be all too easy for someone to figure out who I had been talking about.

TL;DR: I stand by the use of “they” to refer to individual men or women in some cases. But I also want to add that refusing to acknowledge a person’s gender ever is a fucked up thing to do, y’all. And I am aware of that, even if my initial post did not make that entirely clear.

Is it misgendering to call a binary-identified person “they”?

It’s a concept that has emerged alongside the growing ranks of people embracing non-binary gender identities, be they genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, or bigender: referring to people with binary gender identities (i.e. women and men) as “they” constitutes misgendering them.

Or does it?

misgenderLet’s start by defining a couple of terms. Misgendering is a big problem for Trans* folks, and also for a lot of gender-bending cisgender people (think butch women, or femme men). When a trans woman (generally, a person who was assigned male at birth but who identifies as female) is called “he”, she is being misgendered. And when a femme man (someone who identifies as male, but who may dress or behave in ways normally associated with women) is called “she”, he is being misgendered. Sometimes misgendering is deliberate and malicious, and is intended as an insult (as when people refuse to refer to a trans person by their preferred pronouns, because they refuse to accept trans identities as “real”.) Other times it is a result of ignorance about that person’s identity, and can be an accident – someone might see a woman with a brush cut and believe that they are looking at a man, and call her “he”, but then feel bad about it when they realize they made a mistake, for instance. In any case, it can be an upsetting (or even just emotionally complicated) experience for the person being misgendered.

When non-binary identities and pronouns are added to the mix, things become more complicated. I’ve written before about how I get that it is unreasonable for me to expect random strangers on the street to see me, and think, “oh, this person isn’t a he or a she”. They are, ultimately, going to decide I belong in one box or the other. And the best I can hope for is that they have trouble making that call (as happens pretty frequently to me these days: I’ll get called “Buddy”, or “Sir”, or (squee!) “Boss”, followed immediately by an apology (which I generally just ignore) when I actually turn around and interact with the person in question, and they “realize” that I’m actually a woman, or something.)

pronounsFurther yet, even if I’m in a context where a person might clock me as potentially non-binary, they can’t from that supposition then automatically know what pronoun to use, since there are so many non-binary pronouns out there.

Right, so: referring to someone who identifies as male as “she” is bad. Referring to someone who identifies as female as “he” is bad. Referring to people with non-binary identities as either “he” or “she” as also bad, though in all cases it’s only really bad if you are actually aware of the gender identity of the person to whom you are referring.

So, then, it seems to follow that referring to someone who identifies as either male or female as “they” is misgendering. Because “they” is a pronoun used to refer to (some) non-binary people.

But really, it isn’t that straight-forward. Or, at least, I don’t think so.

The difference, you see, hinges on the very construction (because all genders are really just social constructions, donchaknow) and meaning(s) of genderqueerness in the social context.

I’ve linked before to my favourite definition of genderqueer: “the radical notion that a gender identity can be articulated imprecisely enough that it discourages people from trying to police my gender.”

queerfuckyouThe thing is, to a great extent, genderqueerness is about defying definition of one’s gender. It’s about being deliberately imprecise. It’s about refusing to accept the existing gender definitions, certainly, but also in many ways about refusing to articulate a new one. It is, in the most direct and true definition of the term, about queering gender.

And I am talking here about the actual queer of queer theory, not the Queer that you hear so much about in the mainstream media, that really just means “short-hand for lesbian or gay or bisexual”. It’s about the queerness that refuses to identify with those existing categories, that resists the idea that those are even concrete concepts. It’s about the radical refusal to accept that one is even definable.

In fact, I really believe that this deliberate ambiguity is one of the reasons why “they” seems to be growing into the most popular of the non-binary pronouns. Linguistically, the precedent that allows for “they” to be used in the singular is in cases when one is referring to a “gender indeterminate” subject or object.

That is to say, grammatically speaking, they has a history of being used in the singular in very specific cases of talking about hypothetical people (who are by definition gender indeterminate, because they could be any gender). For example, one might say: “If a student [singular] requests an extension on their assignment, it should only be granted if they have a valid excuse.” Some people will tell you that this is not grammatically correct, but it is a form of language that has been used by many writers for many centuries, and it succinctly gets its meaning across (it’s certainly better than the awkward construction of “he or she”, which comes packaged with the problem always having to give precedence to one gender or another), so I don’t really see what point those people have in the end.

In this sort of construction, it is generally assumed that the hypothetical person (in this example, the “student”) in question has a gender, but that we simply don’t know it. And thus we refer to the student as “they” in order to avoid misgendering them.

Simply put, the act of referring to an individual person as “they”, at least historically, is about avoiding identifying their gender at all, not about applying an incorrect one. And I think that we can see that this meaning continues to hold even today, when people are actively requisitioning “they” as the appropriate pronoun to refer to their individual selves. And there are a couple of reasons why I believe this to be so.

First off, people still use “they” in the historical form I have here identified. In a conversation I had with my father this summer, we were discussing a young man who had fallen off of a float at the Toronto pride parade this year, and died. My father apparently didn’t catch the gender of the person who had died when it was mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, and thus when he asked for more information about what had happened, he simply referred to the person as ‘they,’ as in “But, how did they fall?”

Now, I am not out to my parents about my gender identity, and I don’t believe my father knows that there are people who identify as they; it was simply natural for him to conversationally fall back on the pronoun when he didn’t know the gender of the person he was talking about.

You actually see this in a lot of places. It’s still pretty common for people in same-gender relationships who are closeted abut it to play some kind of pronoun game when talking about their partners. What is worth pointing out about the pronoun game is that it often involves using really torturous sentence constructions in order to avoid identifying the gender of one’s partners. Really, if a closeted person wants to simplify things, all they (he or she?) have to do is go ahead and use different-sex pronouns for the person they are referring to (i.e. a closeted lesbian could simply refer to her girlfriend as “he” in order to avoid suspicion.) But most often, people feel intensely uncomfortable about doing that, and much prefer the twisty constructions of gender neutrality, and the use of “they”.


I hope the answer is obvious: calling one’s (for example) lesbian lover “he” would be a gross misgendering of that person, and doing so feels extremely disrespectful, even when it is not done in her presence. But calling her “they” does not carry the same taboo. And I really do think that this is because on a visceral level we (correctly) understand that referring to someone as “they” is nothing more than the deliberate act of eschewing their gender entirely. And as such, it cannot represent a mis-identification of their gender. It is a lack of identification, and nothing more.

And I don’t think that the fact that “they” has become a pronoun with which people actually identify themselves changes the fundamentally indeterminate nature of the pronoun. Because even if and when individual non-binary people experience their gender as a determinate, concrete thing (and I do believe that this experience is fairly rare), they must still contend with the fact that they are sharing their pronouns with a multitude of people of vastly differing identities, experiences, and genders. “They” does not carry any concrete information about a person’s gender. And that’s what many people like about it. For many people, that’s the whole entire fucking point of identifying that way in the first place. It’s a refusal to allow other people to identify us, because no matter how they try to do it, it’s going to be wrong.

Another way of putting this would be to say that when people do refer to me (and many other non-binary people) as “they”, they aren’t ‘correctly’ gendering me, since that would be impossible; they are simply avoiding misgendering me. For other people, “they” may be shorthand for their correct gender, but ultimately, the multiple genders that fit under the “they” umbrella means that the most meaning you can derive from it is “not explicitly identified as male or female”.

im_a_person_what_are_you_stickers-r73d28b8d06494b23a0562b9da0e12f69_v9waf_8byvr_512So, then, the TL;DR: “they” is a pronoun that represents gender indeterminacy, and as such it can perfectly comfortably accommodate various uses, including (but probably not limited to):

  • Referring to people whose gender identity is actually indeterminate
  • Referring to hypothetical people, who are by definition gender indeterminate
  • Referring to people whose gender identity we don’t know
  • Referring to people in contexts where, for whatever reason, we do not want to identify their gender, and prefer to leave it ambiguous (as with the pronoun game; but also I find that it can be an interesting experiment to try to remove one’s gendered language from everyday conversation – does it really matter whether that angry customer who ruined your day was male or female? Does it change or colour the story? Should it? I do think that a person’s gender is relevant to some stories, but it just as often isn’t.)

It’s the pronoun equivalent of referring to someone as a person, instead of as a man or a woman, ok? And calling someone a person doesn’t constitute misgendering, it constitutes not gendering. And that’s ok. It’s probably even a good thing sometimes.

Well-meaning cis folk

I am tired. I am tired of well-meaning cis folks. I am really, really tired of well-meaning straight cis folks.

I’m tired of people who organize sexuality conferences, and make all kinds of noise about the special effort they’ve made to be more trans inclusive this year, and still comment loudly about how surprised they are to see so many women in the prostate play seminar. Seriously. Because even if you think you live in a world where women don’t have prostates, is it that hard to remember that sometimes women have sex with people who have prostates, and that sometimes they might be interested in the bodies of their sex partners?

I’m really, really, really tired of people who think it’s appropriate to describe the non cis male people attending the workshop on cis male sexuality as “allies”. Newsflash: cis men do not need allies.

I’m tired of people who think that throwing the word “identified” after gender (as in female-identified) makes them trans inclusive. It actually usually feels like you’re denying that person’s identity. A trans woman doesn’t “identify as a woman”; she *is* a woman. If you describe yourself as seeking “woman-identified” sex partners, you are awful.

I’m tired of people who learn just enough to pick up a phrase that sounds like they know what they’re talking about, like they’re totally trans inclusive, and then use it in completely inappropriate ways. Don’t talk about “female-bodied people” when you mean “people who are perceived as female”. Those are very, very different categories.

Think before you speak. It really isn’t difficult to avoid misgendering people who have informed you of their gender. It just isn’t. Stop pretending it is, and do the damn work.

I am tired of doing the work for everyone else around me. Like, I’m fine if people meet me and assume that I fit in one category or the other of the binary. But once you have been told, listen. I don’t want to have to tell you again. And again. And again.

I’m not even asking anyone to understand my gender. I’m asking them to respect me. And I’m tired feeling like I’m the one being difficult when I maintain my boundaries after a friend makes a crack about “binders full of women” on my livejournal post about buying a binder.

Just, no. That wasn’t ok. And you defending it is making it worse.

Confidential to the people who actually know me: if I am the only trans person in your life, I am probably too tired to deal with you right now.