What it means to misgender someone (and how to avoid it)

Misgendering is the act of labelling someone with the wrong gender. It can happen in many different ways.

However it happens, being misgendered feels terrible.

Most people have probably experienced being misgendered at least once in their lives—even if they aren’t transgender (the word for people who aren’t trans is cisgender). If you line up with gender norms, maybe it hasn’t happened to you since you were a little kid.

For example, if you’re a cisgender man, you might remember a time back when you were a little boy, and you answered the phone, and somebody thought you were your mom or sister. It probably made you feel awful—not because you didn’t want to be like your mom or sister, but because they got your gender wrong. It’s a weird, sinking feeling.

That’s misgendering.

Most transgender people have experienced a whole lot of misgendering, whether it’s because well-intentioned people misinterpret their appearance, or because transphobic people stubbornly treat birth sex as the only factor they will accept as an indicator of gender (sex and gender are not the same thing). Many transgender people are either pre-transition or can’t transition for health reasons, and so it’s very likely that if you only interpret gender based on someone’s body, you’ll get the wrong idea of their gender.

Not only that, but for nonbinary people, right now in most parts of our society, being misgendered is sadly the norm, because our culture has a very strong bias toward the false idea that there are only two genders. In most states in the US, you can’t even get the government to stop misgendering you, let alone private companies, strangers, and for a lot of us, even our friends and family.

Misgendering is a big source of pain and isolation among transgender people, because for a lot of us, it happens constantly. Many of us don’t even know what it would be like to go a day without getting misgendered. But the good news is, if you care about supporting trans people, there’s a lot you can do to help with this problem.

Here are some ways misgendering commonly happens, and some tips on avoiding it.

Misgendering in honorifics

The words “sir” and “ma’am” are known as honorifics. There are a good deal of variations on these words. Their function is usually to interact with individual strangers, and they are a very likely source of misgendering.

I recommend against using gendered honorifics to get strangers’ attention altogether, because you’re likely to misgender someone. (I know this first hand; it happens to me every day by well-intentioned strangers.)

Instead, try something that doesn’t impose a gender. You might need to try a few things out before figuring out what feels natural to you. A few options I’ve heard other people using:

  • Friend
  • Comrade
  • Pal
  • Partner (for the country western people out there)
  • Or you can avoid it altogether and just be like “hey!” (which is what I usually do)

I’ll keep adding to this list as I hear more alternatives. Feel free to drop other gender-neutral replacements for honorifics that you use or have heard of in the comments.

Misgendering in group labels

When you label a group with gender-specific term, you’re likely to misgender someone. I also know this one first hand all too well. Some examples of this:

  • Gentlemen/gents
  • Ladies
  • Dudes
  • Guys
  • Brothers
  • Sisters
  • Men
  • Women
  • Boys
  • Girls

Instead of relying on these terms, try something gender neutral instead. You can get creative with this one, depending on your context. I say “homies” when I’m ironically pretending to be cool. I say “humans” when it entertains me to talk that way. Some other options:

  • Everyone/everybody
  • Y’all
  • Folks
  • All of you
  • People
  • Family/fam
  • Friends

Like the previous list, I’ll keep adding alternatives. Drop me any favorites of yours that I’m missing in the comments.

Misgendering in prefixes

I’m especially talking to organizations when I talk about this one. Unless you’re dealing with being misgendered a lot, you wouldn’t believe how often you’re forced to choose between Mrs, Miss, Ms, or Mr in various forms & paperwork. (Sometimes Dr is thrown in there too, and I usually choose it even though I’m not a doctor because it’s the least-wrong option.)

We should either get rid of requiring prefixes altogether or at least include a gender-neutral option.

The most commonly accepted gender-neutral prefix is Mx., which is pronounced “mix.”

In general, it’s best to avoid using gendered prefixes for someone unless they’ve told you it’s OK.

Making two groups: male and female

This one’s pretty self explanatory. Don’t do this.

It’s fine to have women’s spaces and men’s spaces, but don’t neglect people who don’t fall into either category.

If it’s on paperwork or an intake form, instead of forcing people to pick between male and female, either add “nonbinary” as an option, let people self-describe, or don’t ask at all.

Misgendering in pronouns

This one is such a huge deal that I’ve already wrote an entire post about how to ask someone about their pronouns.

Every time you refer to someone as “he” or “she,” you’re applying a gender label to them. This is a very likely source of misgendering. Tactfully asking someone what pronouns are accurate for them can go a long way in helping you to support them instead of misgender them.

Misgendering in names

You may have heard the term “deadname,” which some transgender people use to refer to the name they were given when they were born but that they no longer use, because it misrepresents their gender.

One of the main reasons it’s so hard for a trans person to be called by their deadname is that it’s a particularly hurtful type of misgendering. Trans people often feel trapped and weighed down by an old identity that always misrepresented them. If you hold onto their old name, you’re holding onto a version of them that they’re trying to get free from, which makes you part of the force weighing them down.

If someone tells you that they go by a different name than the one they used to go by, you can help by gladly accepting it and calling them by their new name. If you mess it up and call them by their old name, it’s OK; don’t make a big deal of it—just correct yourself and move on.

Misgendering in familial terms

If you’re a parent and your kid comes out to you as nonbinary, you might be used to calling them your son or your daughter. Here are some alternatives:

  • kid
  • child
  • offspring
  • spawn 😉

If they’re your sibling, well, you can just call them your sibling.

There are several gender-neutral equivalents for aunts/uncles. These are the most popular I’ve heard:

  • Entle
  • Auncle

For and nieces/nephews, the word “nibling” is a relatively common gender-neutral alternative.

Pay attention to when you use gender labels

Misgendering only happens when you use gender labels that are wrong. So a great rule of thumb is to start paying closer attention to when you’re using gendered terms in your everyday life, because those are where the problem is coming from.

When you notice yourself applying gender to a situation in which gender doesn’t need to be applied, just think about it and try working out an alternative. There are a lot of little ways you can practice. For example, let’s say a random driver cuts you off. Notice your internal dialogue. Try “that person was in a hurry” instead of “that guy was in a hurry.”

The more conscious of gender labelling you become, the more you can use gender labels in ways that affirm people instead of accidentally harming them.

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The image featured in this post is called I Made a Ghost of You that you can check out on my artist site. It more or less came from my long-standing experiences being misgendered.

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