Misgendering: I Messed Up

This is the second in a series on misgendering, ways we can avoid it, and ways to help when others are doing it.

It happens to all of us from time to time, we mess up and misgender someone. It may be a friend we’ve known for years and is transitioning, it might be someone we just met. We inadvertently misgender the person either directly to them or to someone else. Sometimes we misgender someone we don’t know based on their appearance or voice. Hopefully, when you do this you feel badly and sorry you did this. This is not always a given, there are people who use misgendering as a weapon. Please do not do this. When we do misgender someone the question is, how to make up for it.

In a best case scenario the person has already stated how they would like someone to handle it if they misgender the person. This is ideal because there is open communication and an understanding that mistakes sometimes happen. This is particularly true when someone is early in their transition and our brains are not quite out of the old habits of using the person’s old name and gender. It took my friends and family a while to get into the new habit, but it really didn’t take long. When the person has stated how to handle a misgendering situation, follow what they said. It’s about them, not us. It’s about what they need for their own well-being.

When someone has not made their desires known it can be a bit more tricky. One of the worst things we can do is gush all over the mistake and go on for five minutes apologizing about it. This only draws more attention to it and puts the person on the spot. Again, it’s not about us. Yes we screwed up, but it is not us that is the injured party. It is the person who was misgendered. So what are our options in this case?

If one is in a private setting a quick, sincere, apology is usually okay. This shows that we are owning our mistake and care about the person’s feelings and are not trying to undermine their identity. It is, again, important not to make the apology about us. We are not the injured party, the person we misgendered is. Once the apology is made, move on, strive to do better in the future.

Misgendering someone when we are in a public place is more tricky. If we realise instantly that we misgendered them it is usually best to keep going and use the correct terms subsequently. Stopping to correct oneself only brings attention to the mistake. By keeping the conversation moving and using a person’s name and pronouns moving forward odds are good that nobody else will notice the misgendering. This is important because we do not want to out people without their consent. When we misgender a person in a public place we are, in fact, outing them to some degree.

When we misgender someone who is non-binary, genderqueer, or otherwise does not conform to the gender expectations of society we are invalidating who they are. We may not be intending it, but that is the message we are sending. Again, apologize as necessary and reflect on our own biases as to why we think this way. What presuppositions are we making that lead us to this? We all make them, it’s what we do with them that is important. Moving forward use the correct terms.

Those of us who work with the public on a regular basis meet people we don’t know all the time. Odds are fairly good that we have misgendered someone in the course of our work. It happens. It sucks when it does, but we do all make mistakes from time to time. We may not even realise that we have done it. Sometimes the person will correct us, other times they won’t. The best course of action when working with people is to not assume their gender and use neutral language as much as possible.

We all make mistakes and it’s how we deal with them that is important. When we misgender someone how we handle it can make all the difference in the world to the person we have misgendered. Be kind, be considerate, and always strive to do better. When we do this we can each make the world a tiny bit better.

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