Misgendering: Why It’s Harmful and How To Apologize if You Do It

"If you think about all the ways we create our genders, there are lots of different ways it can happen."

As the LGBTQ+ population in the United States increases, educating yourself on respecting the LGBTQ+ people in your life becomes increasingly important.

And educating yourself includes awareness of issues affecting transgender and non-binary people, such as misgendering. 

But what exactly does misgendering mean? Here's what you need to know about why misgendering someone is harmful and how to apologize when it happens.

Why Misgendering People Is Harmful, and How to Apologize When You've Done It
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What Is Misgendering?

Definition

Misgender: To identify the gender of a person, such as transgender or non-binary people, incorrectly by using an incorrect label or pronoun.

Misgendering is "[the use of] the wrong gender signifiers to refer to someone," Zil Goldstein, FNP-BC, associate medical director for Transgender and Gender Nonbinary (TGNB) Health at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York, told Health. "If you think about all the ways we create our genders, there are lots of different ways it can happen."

According to Goldstein, misgendering is not limited to pronouns. Misgender also involves much gendered language, including: 

  • Honorifics, like Mr. or Ms. 
  • Familial roles, like son, daughter, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew
  • Other relations, like husband, wife, lady, guy, sir, ma'am

According to a National Center for Transgender Equality report, in 2015, nearly 46% of transgender people surveyed had faced verbal harassment for being transgender. Additionally, 33% of transgender people surveyed indicated they had had at least one negative experience related to being transgender.

Why Is It Harmful To Misgender Someone?

When misgendering happens, intentionally or unintentionally, according to Goldstein, it can be an awful experience for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.

"When I'm explaining it to people, I like to say it's like being slapped on the cheek. If it happens once or twice, it stings for a moment. But then, you feel better," explained Goldstein. "But if you're getting slapped multiple times a day from multiple people—sometimes with random people coming up to you on the street and slapping you in the face—it's going to get more painful and more upsetting as time goes on."

According to Goldstein, often, those who are being misgendered blame themselves. In turn, that blame further limits their freedom to express themselves. And because misgendering happens in a moment, a person may not even have the time to process it fully. 

"[Misgendering] makes it really hard to go about your day if you're constantly on guard," noted Goldstein. "You still have to go about your day, do your job, see your friends, and provide for yourself."

Negative Health Effects of Misgendering

Some evidence suggests that marginalized communities face increased stress. The conflict between existing outside typical societal norms and values and the social implications that status holds drives that stress. Stigma and perceived frequency of misgendering also link to that psychological distress.

In 2015, one study found that over 30% of transgender people reported feeling stigmatized when misgendered. Those people also had a reduced sense of strength and continuity in their identity. Additionally, people who were misgendered more frequently experienced lower self-esteem around their appearance than others.

Katie Liederman, LMSW, a queer-identified clinician at the Institute of Human Identity in New York, echoed what the minority stress model research put forth. 

"Feeling unseen or fundamentally misunderstood is a painful experience for most people, both [cisgender and transgender]. It can make people feel alone and devalued, and misgendering often inspires those feelings," explained Liederman. "That said, it affects people to varying degrees. For some, it is deeply hurtful and discombobulating. For others, it is merely irritating or mildly unpleasant."

How Do You Ask Someone Their Pronouns Respectfully?

No matter who you are, you can play a part in reducing the stress of being misgendered. Making pronouns part of everyday social introduction rituals normalizes the practice instead of reserving it—pointedly, for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.

Before you ask, you can do some easy research, like checking out the following resources: 

  • Company directories
  • Email signatures
  • Social media (many platforms, like Instagram and Slack, allow you to add pronouns to your profile) 

If those practices don't exist in your spaces, find ways to establish them. And if you cannot find a reference to someone's pronouns, it is okay to ask in a low-impact way. 

Goldstein's template says, "I want to ensure I'm using the right pronouns. My pronouns are 'she' and 'her.' What pronouns do you use?" 

An ask from the get-go is the key to getting it right in the future. As the person doing the asking, you will have a very intentional experience to reflect on as you consider and refer to the person moving forward.

Be careful about your language as you navigate the right way to approach someone. 

"Don't say or ask about someone's 'preferred' pronouns. It's just a person's pronouns," said Liederman. Further, passive language like "identifies as" isn't necessary, as it semantically insinuates a disconnect from a person's state of being rather than the hard truth of who they are.

What Do You Do if You Misgender Someone

If you misgender someone, you may experience a rush of your emotions. 

Goldstein's advice was simple: "Apologize. Be nice. Don't make excuses. But make sure you address the needs of the person. Don't make it about you. Don't tell them you feel bad. Make sure they're okay and carry on with what you were doing."

However, it's also important to note that dwelling too much on an instance of misgendering can also add insult to injury.

Goldstein urged anyone who has misgendered someone to ask themselves whether they're in a position to make the situation better in other ways that might be meaningful. 

"Give them a discount if you're doing work for them. Give them hazard pay if they work for you," advised Goldstein. "Ask if there is something to make their life easier after making it hard."

The threat signaled by an instance of misgendering can be a red flag for the possibility of physical violence or further pain. So, Goldstein urged that you ensure the misgendered person feels safe and supported.

Additionally, Liederman offered similar advice to prevent centering yourself. 

"Correct yourself and keep it moving. Big, dramatic apologies about how badly you have messed up [are not advisable, and ultimately], draw the moment out," said Liederman.

According to Liederman, a good apology is concise and straightforward. 

"A few years ago, a transmasculine client of mine described an instance in which a coworker misgendered him. And then, [she] attempted to correct herself by giving a long speech about how much she respects [transgender] people and how handsome he was," recounted Liederman. "Obviously, that was embarrassing and awkward. Don't do that. Don't be defensive or performative about your allyship to try to ameliorate the situation. It's not about you."

How To Avoid Misgendering

Many cis- and gender-conforming people feel entitled to their opinions and attachments around nonconformity despite those experiences not being their own. 

"People need to let go of their attachment to how 'hard' it can be to use the right pronoun for someone," explained Liederman.

Additionally, Liederman recommended using someone's name directly—at least, at first—if referential language is challenging. Also, committing to non-gendered language as a default—like child, sibling, spouse, partner, Mx.—can be an effective strategy. So, practice using "they" and "them" pronouns and other neutral terms when you can. 

Taking simple, thoughtful steps like those to reduce the harm to transgender and non-binary people goes a long way.

A Quick Review

Misgendering occurs when you intentionally or unintentionally refer to a person, relate to someone, or use language to describe someone who doesn't align with their affirmed gender.

While not always intentional, misgendering can negatively affect a transgender person's self-confidence and overall mental health. Anyone can play a part in reducing this stress by researching someone's pronouns ahead of time or asking in a low-impact way.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gallup. LGBT identification rises to 5.6% in latest US estimate.

  2. National Center for Transgender Equality. The Report of the 2015 US Transgender Survey.

  3. McLemore KA. A minority stress perspective on transgender individuals’ experiences with misgenderingStigma and Health. 2018;3(1):53-64. doi:10.1037/sah0000070

  4. McLemore KA. Experiences with misgendering: identity misclassification of transgender spectrum individualsSelf and Identity. 2015;14(1):51-74. doi:10.1080/15298868.2014.950691

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