Misgendering: What is it?

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

When talking about transgender people the question of pronouns often arises as does misgendering. For those of us who are involved in LGBT/queer/trans spaces we talk about this somewhat regularly. For many, however, there is a lack of understanding about it and the harm it causes to people. At its most basic level misgendering involves referring to someone using pronouns or a title that does not match their gender identity. Calling a man a lady, referring to a woman as ‘he’. There are people who do not see a problem with misgendering and ask why transgender people make a big deal about it. There are a number of reasons why it is important. It is dehumanising, it is a way to deny who a person is, and it serves to reinforce gender stereotypes and roles.

How is misgendering dehumanising? At a fundamental level the pronouns and gender descriptions we use are part of our human experience. For most people there is no second thought to refer to themselves as a man or woman. There is no surprise when they are referred to as a woman or man, or referred to using him or her pronouns. When people get them right interactions go well and all is right with that part of the interaction. There are, however, people who will intentionally misgender a person as a way to present the person as less than human.

While this is most commonly done to dehunamise transgender people and people whose gender identity is non-binary it is also used against those whose gender expression does not match what the person doing the misgendering thinks it should be. When used against transgender people the common way to do this is to refer to the person as “it”. Referring to someone as “it” is used do dehumanise and make the person into something that is completely other. Not worthy of respect. When we see someone as something other than human we are gving license to discriminate and engage in violence against that person.

When used as a way to invalidate a persons identity and who they are it can be much more insidious and is not limited to use against transgender people. How often do we hear men referred to as being sissies, or put down for behaviours that are seen as feminine? When women are engaging in activities that are seen as “men’s activities” or wearing clothing that is seen as typically for men they are referred to as men as a way to deny that it is part of who they are. People who are confident in their own gender identity and expression are thus denied the right to their own identity and way of being in the world.

All of these types of misgendering are based on expected gender roles and stereotypes that the person engaging the misgendering has. Further, the misgendering is how people try to enforce gender roles and stereotypes. If a transgender woman does not present ‘female enough’ they are often misgendered and referred to as men. If someone transmasculine engages in activities that are typically seen as female roles they are often referred to as women. The same is true for cisgender people who engage in these activities. A friend recounted to me how people at a church she used to attend would try to take away her identity as a woman and her femininity by calling her a guy or a man. She is a confident woman who is straight and cisgender.

Misgendering hurts and is often used as a weapon. It is used against cisgender people and transgender people to force us all into set roles and to match stereotypes. The scars can be lasting. For transgender people misgendering is part of the ongoing struggle and often contributes to mental health problems and can exacerbate feelings of bodily dysphoria. In the wrong setting misgendering can, and does, result in physical harm and assault against transgender people and people whom are seen to be transgender. These harms and ongoing aggressions are a contributing factor in depression, self harm, and suicide.

How do we address this?

In our own lives we can address misgendering by doing our utmost to be conscious and not do it ourselves. We are all products of our society and have internalised messages about what it means to be human, to be male, to be female. We make assumptions many times per day about what gender we think someone else is. Rather than assume a gender and actively misgender someone, ask the person which pronouns and titles they use.

Ask ourselves why we are using the pronouns we are using for a person. Is it because they have stated their pronouns? Is it because we have our own perceptions? Did someone else tell us their pronouns? If there is no opportunity for clarification opt for the gender neutral singular they. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s safe.

Cultivate the habit of being gender neutral in one’s own writing. Refer to people as people instead of using terms like “men and women”. Use the singular they in writing or, as I did earlier this paragraph use “one”. It is not difficult, it just takes some practise. It may feel awkward at first if you are not used to it. Like anything, the more one does it, the easier it can get.

Next week I will talk more about pronouns and titles and how they relate to misgendering, how to correct ourselves, and how to respond when we witness misgendering.

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