Tips for handling uncomfortable misgendering situations
By Dawn Ennis / Photography by Julie H.
There are many terrible, terrible things that transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary individuals endure every day. But the two most terrible – the most gut-wrenching, humiliating and heinous things anyone can do in conversation with such a person – is to use the name or pronoun associated with their birth.
Using the name someone was assigned at birth and abandoned upon transition is often called “deadnaming.” it’s not universally embraced, however. While some feel the term is appropriate, others complain it feeds a false narrative adopted by family and friends who reject gender transitioners, those who say that these people are now “dead to them.” Using “deadnaming” instead of “birth name” also paints a very dark picture, suggesting that the person who lived in a binary gender before coming out had to die in order for that individual to live authentically.
So, if that’s among the worst things someone cisgender can do to a trans or non-binary person, how does mixing up their pronouns rank? Is it really that big a deal?
Trans man Elisio Acosta of West Hartford, 22, uses he/him pronouns, and recalls there was a time when being misgendered was a good thing.
“I do remember a couple of instances before I had come out as trans where people thought that I was a male, and that would feel so good,” he says. “There was this one time where I was in the bathroom, and somebody came in, and they’re like, ‘Is this the women’s room?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes.’ And then she just kind of looked at me weird. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, cool. She thinks I’m a guy. That’s great.’ And it was like the best day.”
But ironically, Elisio says it was right after he came out that he was misgendered, many times.
“It was really frustrating, because I was doing as much as I could to pass,” he recalls. “And I feel like a lot of what hindered me from passing was just my voice. Now, I’m six months on testosterone, so my voice has deepened a lot since the beginning of my transition, and I kind of have a peach fuzz around my cheek.”
J.E. is a retired elementary school teacher in Southern California who came out publicly as a transgender woman in March. Her pronouns are she/her, but J.E. says, “Sometimes I say, ‘Her/she, like the candy bar.’”
When someone refers to her as “he” or “him,” she says, “I do cringe when I am misgendered. For me, I am fortunate that here in my SoCal bubble, it’s always felt to be accidental, based on a misreading of who I am.”
How does J.E. respond? Sometimes, you only have a split-second, she notes. “Sometimes I choose to gently, but clearly and firmly, correct the person (‘Actually, I’m ma’am, not sir’), and other times, it seems best to just let it go, without a response,” she says. “I will add that I am always gratified when staff at my fave store, Target, (pronounced Targét), get it right! Maybe they can’t tell, but beneath my face mask, I’m grinning a mile-wide smile!”
Willow Woycke lives with her wife in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and in addition to concerns over COVID-19, was apprehensive about how their child’s school will communicate with her.
“I’ve been misgendered by my kid’s teacher a couple of times over the years,” Willow wrote on our post in the Transgender Parenting Facebook group. “Still waiting on this year’s teacher information forms, whether this year we will get another ‘Mother’s Name, Father’s Name’ form.”
Another parent, who asked us to not report their name, shared this story about contending with how strangers deal with their newly-out transgender teenager.
“My girlfriend and I live together, and her teen recently came out to us,” they wrote. “We haven’t told family members about her yet. In my opinion, most assumptions by outsiders are pretty innocent. As long as they’re not being outright disrespectful, it’s nice to see someone taking the time to interact with my little family.”
With the winter comes other complications, like meeting the mall Santa. What do parents of trans or non-binary youth do when the jolly ol’ elf gets their kid’s gender wrong?
“I hadn’t considered this, thank you,” wrote a mom in the same group on Facebook, who asked not to be identified. “My son is autistic, so last year we booked an appointment with the sensory Santa; I had planned to do the same this year, and the opportunity for misgendering him never even crossed my mind. I’ll be sure to include his pronouns when we book our appointment!”
“We lived on a small island off the British Columbia coast, where a local man would play Santa every year at the community hall,” wrote Monica, a librarian from California now living in Canada, who identifies as queer and cisgender. She shared this “fave family anecdote” about a visit to Santa that shows this dilemma isn’t limited to families with trans and non-binary members.
“We took our four-year-old, B, and a best friend, L, while her mother worked,” Monica wrote. “I don’t know if this Santa was new or what, but he asked B if they’d been ‘good for Mommy and Daddy.’ Our child replied, ‘I don’t have a daddy. I have two moms!’ Santa was caught off guard but plowed on.”
She continues, “Then it was L’s turn to visit with Santa. I thought that surely Santa would have caught the mistake of assuming every child has a mother and father, but listened in horror as he said the exact same thing to L, whose father had been lost at sea when she was an infant. She replied, ‘My daddy is dead!’ Poor Santa. We didn’t stick around to make sure, but I hope he learned to be a little more inclusive after that.”
Often, the most hurtful episodes involve not a stranger, but a relative. Julie is a photographer in Idaho, and is the married, enby and queer mom of a 7-year-old trans girl who socially transitioned in 2016. Two years ago, Julie and her spouse moved in with her parents, a decision many couples across the country have made to save money.
“I knew there would be issues with my father respecting her pronouns,” says Julie. “Even my mother was of the opinion that we somehow made our child be trans, but she still respected us enough to use the proper pronouns and not air her opinion to our children. One day, a few months after the move, my daughter cried to me that it made her feel awful that Grandpa kept calling her a boy.”
She adds, “I went Mama Bear mode and had a serious private conversation with my parents. I told them exactly how he was making her feel and shared with them statistics about trans suicide when not accepted by family, studies on trans brain activity being more similar to their chosen gender, and about just how angry I was that he thought her life and happiness was worth less than her gender assignment at birth.”
Julie says after their talk her father “still goofed every now and then” but has made a good-faith effort to get the girl’s pronouns right. “The only opinion that should matter to her in regard to herself is her own,” Julie told her daughter.
Of course, misgendering is hardly a problem limited to trans youth. But a common thread seems to be that when it happens, more often than not, it’s someone of an elder generation who has the most trouble. Be forgiving, advises rocket scientist, metagenetic algorithm researchers and trans scholar Zoe Ellen Brain of Canberra, Australia. Zoe is intersex but did transition.
“When my frail elderly in-laws did it, I shrugged it off,” Zoe says. “It wasn’t done to be hurtful, and towards the end, they often mistook their daughters for their sisters, or asked how the cows were doing – when they hadn’t had cattle since 1944.”
Zoe adds that she and her wife miss their relatives and suggest that the best reaction to being inadvertently misgendered is to “be kind.” And when someone does it deliberately: “Life’s too short to do more than just completely ignore them.”
Elisio, however, has a different view.
“My advice would be to correct them,” he says. “That’s like the biggest hurdle to overcome, especially early on in your transition.” Elisio says he’s talked with a lot of female-to-male transgender individuals about this.
“When you initially come out and you’re trans, and either you’ve just started hormones or you haven’t even, you’re in a crisis where you’re like, ‘Am I trans enough to warrant a correction? Because maybe it makes sense that they are misgendering me.’”
Elisio says self-doubt is common. “You get into this mind battle with yourself,” he says, but he offers this advice: “No: you are a man and you deserve to have the right pronouns used for yourself. And so as hard as it is to form the words and to think about how you’re going to correct them… you just have to do it. And it’s so empowering to have that conversation, to say, ‘No, that’s not what I go by. I go by he,’ or whatever.”
The one thing I will add to the advice from our readers: don’t ever ask what someone’s “preferred” pronouns are; their pronouns are their pronouns. “Preferred” makes it sound like you have an option to not respect them. And everyone should.
GLAAD offers Tips for Transgender Allies, including proper pronoun usage, at its website