Transgender and nonbinary people are under attack by hate-driven legislation and unfair restrictions policing their bodies. Voting people out who support anti-trans legislation, speaking up for the LGBTQ+ community and learning the acts and behaviors that can make the community feel supported are integral.
One way to support the community is by getting folks’ pronouns and names right — a task that shouldn’t be hard but is a battleground for many people. It’s known as misgendering and deadnaming.
“Misgendering is intentionally or unintentionally referring to someone using signifiers of a gender other than the one they identify with,” said Bre Kidman, the co-executive director of Maine Transgender Network and the first openly nonbinary person in history to run for U.S. Senate.
“This can be things like ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ or ‘Miss’ or ‘Mister,’ really just any sort of gender signifiers that don’t line up with how the person identifies,” they said.
Additionally, using someone’s deadname, which is the name someone used before they transitioned, can be another form of wrongly identifying a trans or nonbinary person and can be just as hurtful, Kidman said.
Kiara St. James, the founder and co-executive director of programs at New York Transgender Advocacy Group, said that in her experience, this behavior happens intentionally more often than not. It’s about someone not wanting to acknowledge a trans person’s gender or a nonbinary or gender nonconforming person’s request to be respected in the identity that best represents them.
“So, it’s really an act of violence when people misgender ... especially if it’s done consistently and intentionally. It does a lot of mental damage to those folks who are being misgendered,” St. James said.
For those who do it unintentionally, it can be awkward and uncomfortable — but not as awkward and uncomfortable as it is for the person being misgendered.
“I think people are just so terrified of messing up the pronouns that they make it even harder for themselves,” said Jack Boyum, the creative director at The Coven, a Minneapolis-based organization that is self-described as “a community and co-working space that centers the experiences of women, nonbinary and trans [individuals].”
“What I tell people all the time is you can literally just ask people their pronouns. It makes people feel very seen, and they’ll be happy to tell you what their pronoun is,” Boyum said.
Below, we asked trans activists what they’d like you to do if you unintentionally misgender someone.
First and foremost, don’t ignore it.
If you realize you accidentally misgendered someone, don’t ignore it, Kidman said. Whether it’s in the moment or after the fact, it’s important to acknowledge your misstep and to use the correct pronoun moving forward.
“I’ve had people message me later on and apologize, and that’s made me feel very seen; as long as they’ve pivoted to the right pronoun, that’s OK,” Boyum added.
“You can literally just ask people their pronouns. It makes people feel very seen, and they’ll be happy to tell you what their pronoun is.”
Apologize and move on without turning it into an issue.
“I personally prefer ... that they apologize and then pivot and get the pronoun right in the future,” Boyum said.
Lightly addressing the mistake is appropriate, they added, because it does not draw a lot of attention to the person you misgendered.
“I think if you’re around other people that you do not know, it draws attention to it when everyone else is using your pronoun correctly. It kind of like gives a little doubt to maybe a new person, too, that would then also start to make a mistake,” they said. “I would rather get over it as fast as possible.”
Family members should follow this advice, too.
Family members can sometimes feel like they can get away with more because they’re family. (And they often feel his way when it comes to gender identity and a whole bevy of other topics.) But this could not be further from reality. In fact, Boyum said it’s doubly important for family members of trans and nonbinary folks to use someone’s correct pronouns or name.
“Family, specifically, doing that work and pre-research and trying really hard goes so long because we kind of build our other families outside of our biological family,” they explained. “But when families can come through and see and respect you in that way, I think it goes so far for folks.”
Don’t insinuate that it’s the trans person’s fault that you messed up.
“It’s really important to resist the urge to make it the trans person’s fault that you’re making a mistake about their identity,” Kidman said.
In other words, the onus falls on you. No matter when they transitioned or how long you’ve known them, it’s not right to put the blame on them for your misstep.
Don’t say things like “Oh, well, you didn’t tell me” or “How would I have known” when they correct your mistake.
“I also want to acknowledge that it can be embarrassing or uncomfortable to be corrected, especially if it feels like the other person is irritated with you for making a mistake that seems simple or minor to you,” Kidman said. “I’d like to encourage people to try to remember, you’re probably not the first person to misgender them even that day, and they may be tired of not feeling seen or understood by the world.”
Don’t get defensive or rude.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but getting reactive when someone corrects your pronoun usage is problematic. St. James said this behavior is usually exclusive to those who are intentionally misgendering, but she said people will insist they call her by her dead name or use incorrect pronouns when addressing her.
Additionally, asking invasive questions after you misgender someone is not OK, she noted. “There are people who are very, very stubborn [and] resistant to change. They’re resistant to respecting identities, and they exist in the world,” St. James said.
“Everyone has a right to be able to identify in ways that affirm them ... these pronouns are a form of signifiers to one’s identity.”
Don’t make the person you misgendered comfort you.
“Don’t put the person who you misgendered in a position of having to comfort you or reassure you for your mistake,” Kidman explained.
They said this could look like saying things like “I’m so sorry, I’m a terrible person!” after you misgender someone, which then requires the person you misgendered to say something like, “No, you’re not. You’re great!”
In the end, this centers the situation on you and requires the person you misidentified to make you feel better, Kidman said. “Just be mindful, like, ‘Oops, I slipped up.’ Let me fix it real quick and keep it moving. Keep it light,” they added.
Use a person’s correct pronouns even when they aren’t in the room.
Once you know someone’s pronouns, make use you use them when they aren’t around, too, according to Boyum.
“First of all ... you’re still misgendering someone if they aren’t in the room,” they noted.
Secondly, it helps you train yourself to use the right pronouns when the person is nearby, Boyum added.
Educate yourself on trans issues and inclusive language.
It’s important to do your research to learn about the importance of correct pronoun usage and the struggles that trans people face to unlearn the problematic ideas that are rampant in society.
“[There are] tons and tons of books and blogs and information online, too, that people can access and do research prior to asking the one queer person you know,” Boyum said.
That being said, they added that many queer and trans folks are likely happy to talk about it, too, as long as it’s asked in an appropriate and respectful way.
“We live in the age of Google, so I don’t think there’s any excuses for people to be as ignorant as unfortunately, a lot of them insist on being,” St. James said.
Correct pronoun usage is essential in showing care and respect.
“Everyone has a right to be able to identify in ways that affirm them,” said St. James. “These pronouns are a form of signifiers to one’s identity.”
When you use someone’s correct pronouns, it’s a way of showing respect, she said. “You’re showing them that you see them, right? You’re showing like, ‘I know you’re trans, I know you’re gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary, and I want to respect your pronouns. I want you to know that I see you, I hear you.’”
“And that’s why pronouns are important because that’s what it [connotes]. It [connotes] a trans person being seen, a nonbinary person being seen and heard. And so that’s why when you respect people’s pronouns, trust me, you really start to see that you’ll have a better connection with those communities,” St. James said.