Why it Hurts so Badly to be Misgendered, and How to Avoid Accidentally Doing it
If you don’t identify as trans or gender-nonconforming it‘s likely you’re already at “head-scratch” just based on the headline of this piece—and that’s okay. This was written with you in mind. In order to have sympathy for a person's pain, we first need to have empathy for that person's experience. So if you haven't, hop on over to my piece that paints a picture of what it's like to be trans for a lot of people, and then pick back up here. It's worth the extra few minutes if you're really trying to build your understanding.
Back? How was it? Did you like it?? No but did you really like it??? Like did you think it was good? What? This is just me typing out an insecure monologue on the page? I'm being needy? Right. Sorry. Moving on then.
I'm sure this is true for countless other trans people, but I'll speak for myself: I'm hyper aware of myself and my surroundings. I'm confident, sure. On most days I even like how I look. But it's lost on exactly zero trans people that their birth sex-opposing, gender-affirming presentations are often not perceived by mainstream society as a fit for their bodies. I've mentioned previously that passing as a cis female is a goal of mine. It is for lots of, but importantly not all, trans women. So in my daily life The Scientist in my head (I should really give her a name) is constantly running tests when I encounter new people to see how they see me. Over time, fewer and fewer people see "male" and more and more see "female." Cool right? Definitely. Except therein lies the problem with being misgendered.
When a person has only just come to terms with their trans identity, or is just beginning their transition, being misgendered is an expected and in most cases insignificant experience. If I identified/presented as male to the world on Monday, in no reasonable case could I expect everyone in said world to see me as female on Tuesday. I'm not talking about intent by the way. Yes, ideally if you, a hypothetical person AFAB (assigned female at birth) clearly express to your loved ones that you identify as male and therefore would like to be referred to with male pronouns, that should be enough for them the make the change. But it's unreasonable to expect strangers to ignore their subconscious read of your secondary sex characteristics and immediately see you that way too.
So at first it's no surprise, and considering the way others see you can't change your diamond-tough self-perception unless you let it, it's hopefully not a big deal. But then time passes on your journey to transition your body and visible identity from female to male; your clothes change, you cut your hair, hormones change your body's shape and size; they change your face, your skin, your body hair, and your voice. You change your name on every identifying document and record in existence. Same with your gender marker.
Months go by. You look at yourself in the mirror, notice beautiful gender-affirming changes, and every couple of days break out into a fit of hysterical laughter you're glad nobody's around to see for momentary fear of being committed. Strangers start referring to you as "Sir" and "he/him" without you explicitly mentioning your gender identity to them.
More time passes. You as male is now second nature to everyone who knows you. You look in the mirror and see a man, and so do strangers when they look at and refer to you. Your confidence is at an all-time high as you feel for the first time like the trifecta of mind, body and spirit are all in sync. Life is good. The world is beautiful. "I can't believe I'm actually here," you say to yourself.
And then it happens.
You encounter someone, and for whatever reason they call you "miss" or refer to you as "she/her." They misgender you, and it's horrible.
The first thing cis people need to know is that while a trans person in a scenario like the example above may feel offended at being misgendered, offense or disrespect is usually not their primary reactive emotion. Pain is. This person who's lived their entire life trying to understand themselves and how they can augment their existence to feel comfortable and natural—who's endured time consuming, costly, mentally exhausting and physically painful treatments, procedures and surgeries to remedy their gender dysphoria and feel whole—just got a wrecking ball of a reality check to the head.
Here are a few of the mental processes that fire automatically when a trans person gets unexpectedly misgendered:
- "Wait what? They see me as female/male?"
- "Are they transphobic? Are they intentionally trying to hurt me?"
- "What about me are they reading as female/male?"
- "Is my presentation not masculine/feminine enough?"
- "Is it my voice? My face?"
- "Do I still read as female/male to other people?"
- "How many people who haven't midgendered me were just being nice and really still see me as female/male?"
- "Do I just look like a woman/man presenting as a man/woman?"
- "I thought I was past this..."
- "Am I ever really going to be seen as male/female to others?"
- "Maybe not."
In that instant it's not uncommon for a person having been misgendered to be ripped right out of the present. All of a sudden they probably feel unsafe, like they've been exposed and left vulnerable. They may start to doubt their journey or question their goal's attainability. They definitely feel uncomfortable and it's safe to assume they're extremely unhappy.
Being misgendered isn't like experiencing a momentary lapse in manners. Doing it isn't a faux pas like accidentally saying the wrong name when you've only recently been introduced to someone or stumble while half-drunkenly telling a story. Misgendering someone is way deeper than that. It's a window into your perception of a person. It's unconscious honesty that you see a person as nothing different than their birth sex. Think about it. How many cis women have you accidentally called "Sir" by a slip of the tongue, or referred to as "he/him" because you forgot their gender? It's just not something that happens if a person's gender is thoroughly and effectively communicated via their observable characteristics. So being misgendered is like getting an F on a test, and the longer it's been since the last occurrence—the further along into transition—the harder you studied and the better you thought you knew the material when you get it.
Very few people misgender trans people intentionally. You would have to have either an extremely black heart, a terribly small mind or both in order to feel that such a thing is justified. You probably don't intend to hurt anyone if you do it, and you're probably not a bad person if it happens accidentally—especially if you slip because you've known someone who's transitioning for a long time and their pronouns have recently changed. Bur regardless of your intentions, if you misgender someone you very well may have caused them a great deal of pain, which hopefully you don't want to do. So let's make sure it never happens by your hand. Thankfully it's easier than you may think.
How to Avoid Misgendering Someone
'They's your best friend
I'm a realistic person. I know the 'They' pronoun scheme (They/Them/Their) isn't always immediately natural when applied to singular individuals. That said, it's about as hard to adjust to as switching to whole wheat pasta, except the stakes are a bit higher than gaining a smidgen of extra fiber per carb at dinner. Try using it exclusively in reference to someone for two weeks and all of a sudden it will become second nature. In fact now that I've gotten over the (very small) hump, I actually find it a useful language tool in general, since it's pretty much the Switzerland of pronouns and has about the same odds of offending someone as, well, Swiss people. I use it whenever I'm mentioning someone who's even possibly in the trans community by association just so I don't assume anything. It doesn't confuse people and it has zero connotations (aside from traditionally being plural) so practice defaulting to this and you'll be in the clear. This is your ace.
Use names instead
Did you know pronouns (He, She, They, etc.) technically aren't linguistically necessary? It may not sound as buttery smooth in every sentence, but once you know someone's name you can almost always just use that—especially in short exchanges.
"Hey, have you spoken to Cory lately? I haven't heard from Cory in close to a week."
Placing a bit more emphasis on the name than you normally would on a pronoun in the same place helps it sound more fluid. If you're having a longer conversation and using only names starts to feel repetitive just pepper in a few 'they/them/their's for diversity and you'll be talking like an unassuming gender wizard in no time.
"Hey, have you spoken to Cory lately? I haven't heard from Cory in close to a week. It's really not like Cory to fall off the grid like that—I hope they're okay. Maybe I'll stop by Cory's place later."
Admittedly this can be tricky sometimes, because it does depend on some degree of assumption. While most trans people aren't in denial about being trans and will hopefully take a well-intentioned pronoun check as a gesture of goodwill and respect, cis people tend to not like being asked questions that imply an uncertainty around their gender. So in order to avoid potentially insulting a cis person you'd need to first know that a person's trans before comfortably asking for their pronouns, which often implies making a risky assumption. But all-in-all asking is a whole lot better than gambling on misgendering someone, and if you find someone takes up issue with being asked, you can just say that you're a trans ally and never assume someone's preferred pronouns based on appearance. That should deflate any incited egos and demonstrate some admirable consciousness.
If you insist on assuming, go by expression
If you're a good soul but just for the life of you cannot seem to break the habit of impulsively blurting out gender-specific identifiers, at the very least go by how a person is presenting themselves versus your unconscious read of their biological sex. Let me be clear: this is not a good option. Assuming something about a person is not a trustworthy strategy, and expression will contradict identity for some people for a variety of reasons. I don't recommend this and it's really not okay. Here's why it's on the list as a last resort:
A person's gender expression is something they consciously decide on (whether they have the freedom to express authentically is a separate issue), whereas anatomy is far harder to adjust. If a person is expressing as male then at least they probably won't be surprised to be referred to as male. Additionally a person expressing in contrast to (what you perceive to be) their biological sex is hopefully somewhat likely to be accepting of a misgender toward their expression. On the contrary, if you see someone expressing as female and use male pronouns because to you their physical features seem male, the odds of hurting them are far higher. Don't forget that anatomy is a spectrum too—as your perception is your own—and there are plenty of cis females who have features that may look masculine to you, or vice versa.
So if you had no choice but to go with either "she" or "he" (not the case), expression would be the thing to base that ill-advised and potentially hurtful snap judgment on.
Really, the solution is just to get comfy with "They/Them/Their" pronouns and wait until you establish a close and kind enough rapport with a person before inquiring further about their gender. Hopefully you see the point (and relative ease) in doing so. It may very well be the determining factor of a person's mental health one day.