The Importance of Not Misgendering Someone

Guest Author: Imani Shannon (they/them), Equity and Justice Lead, Washington State Bar Association

Imani lives at the intersections of being Black, mentally ill, queer, and trans nonbinary/agender. They are deeply invested in creating spaces where people are accountable to and take the leadership of those most harmed by systemic oppression. They view writing and poetry as a form of storytelling, cultural archiving, and healing and pursue that passion in both their personal and professional life.

Misgendering Just Lead

Working in the civil legal aid and/or equity and justice spheres, people are told at the center of that work is anti-oppression, inclusivity, and centering who is most impacted by marginalization. However, using the wrong pronouns and misgendering someone happens in these workplaces and contributes to the stigma and othering surrounding having a gender identity beyond the gender binary (either man or woman). To be outly queer, including in these workplaces, is to choose happiness over safety: safe from harm, safe from judgment, safe from potential rejection. Cisgender people, especially those that are doing DEI work, can reduce this harm by actively and continuously creating a space where pronouns and gender are not assumed.

Social and Personal Identities

We all have a social identity and a personal identity. Our social identity is how others see and group you into categories based on social identities such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. With this categorization often comes assumptions about race, gender, and more. Personal identity is your internal sense of self. For example, Person A’s social identity, created by other people based on Person A’s outside appearance is a Black woman. Person A’s personal identity is actually as a Black agender person[1].

There are times when social and personal identity mesh, and times they do not match. Often, people will choose social identity instead of personal identity, to not be scrutinized or judged for existing as they are naturally. This judgment can also lead to trepidation and panic about triggering body dysmorphia, exacerbating or causing mental anguish, loss of employment, and physical harm. Part of our work is to create a space where people can lead with their personal identity without fear of being excluded or physically injured.

Gender Identity and Gender Expression

This work includes personal identities surrounding gender. According to the Human Rights Commission, gender identity is “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither- how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.”[2] Gender is a complex social status, often with societal and cultural expectations around characteristics and behaviors.

Someone’s sex is based on their hormones, genitalia, and chromosomes. A label that a doctor places on you. Most people are assigned male or female, and that is then put on their birth certificate. Assuming someone’s gender to be the same as their sex can begin before their birth. Whether while still in the womb or immediately after birth, babies are assigned a gender-based off of external genitalia. For some, their actual gender does align with what they were assigned at birth (cisgender). For others, their gender does not match what they were assigned at birth (transgender).

Having only two gender options, male or female, based on sex labels, is how the gender binary continues. With this post-colonial way of thought held as a societal norm, those who openly exist outside of the gender binary are labeled “other,” and can be marginalized because of the conscious and unconscious biases, and ignorance about the myriad of gender identities.

There are varying gender identities and experiences for people that fall under the trans umbrella. Some terms we should know include but are not limited to:

IdentityDefinition
Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB)Sex assignment at birth, equated to their gender being a woman because of hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia
Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB)Sex assignment at birth, equated to their gender being a man because of hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia
Trans WomanSomeone who was assigned male at birth and realized their gender is a woman. Can also hear male-to-female (MTF) trans woman
Trans ManSomeone who was assigned female at birth and realized their gender is a man. Can also hear female-to-male (FTM) trans man
Non-BinaryAn umbrella term for gender identities that are neither male nor female, and are outside the gender binary. This falls under the trans umbrella in that we are not assigned non-binary at birth
Genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, bigender, pangender,Examples of non-binary identities

Gender expression is related to, but not the exact same as gender identity. Also defined by the Human Rights Commission, gender expression is the “external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.”[3] As some people begin and continue their own journeys of gender, their outward presentation may change to reflect their internal identity. Importantly, we cannot automatically assume someone’s gender identity based on their expression. This is a time we can reflect on our own biases: why assume that someone dressed in a typically feminine manner is a woman? Why assume that a non-binary person must present in an androgynous manner? Why has that been made a necessity for their non-binary identity to be valid? We’ve selected data and drawn our own conclusions based on our own assumptions about that data, but are othering people in the process.

Pronouns

Pronouns are the words we use in place of someone’s name when referring to that person in conversation. For example, he said this during the meeting or she brought up good points that I think we should contact her about. While it’s common to assume someone’s pronouns, based on social identity and presumed gender identity, everyone has the right to determine for themselves what pronouns they use. It is also important to remember that pronouns are not a preference; they are a marker of a person’s identity. We do not want to trivialize a person’s identity or minimize the harm caused by the erasure of gender identities outside of the gender binary.

While some people may be comfortable sharing their pronouns, not everyone is familiar with how to do this, and others may choose not to (whether for safety concerns if their personal identity does not align with their social identity or other reasons). Other times, some people may want to be referred to by just their name and not use pronouns.

Pronouns may change for people over time. Someone assigned female at birth and socialized as a girl and then a woman may use she/her pronouns throughout childhood and most of their adulthood and professional career. As this individual begins to explore what gender does and does not mean to them, they may start using both she/her and they/them pronouns, and eventually solely they/them pronouns. As a reminder, people that fall under the trans umbrella of a myriad of gender identities only have to share as much as they want and feel safe and comfortable doing. If they don’t want to provide further explanation beyond how they should be referred to, that boundary should be respected. If you cross that boundary and are called out for doing so, it may be helpful to reflect on who you are centering: yourself or the person setting the boundary.

They/them is an example of a pronoun set used when she/her and he/him do not accurately reflect a person’s identity. However, the use of pronouns outside of the gender binary does not stop there. Neopronouns are a category of new (neo) terms that go beyond her, him, and them. Examples of neopronouns can include but are not limited to:

  • Ze/zir/zirs
  • Xe/xem/xyr
  • Ve/vir/vis

Some people use multiple pronouns, examples can include:

  • She/her and they/them
  • Ze/zir and he/him
  • They/them and she/her and he/him
  • Mx., Ms., and Mr. as honorifics

If you learn that someone uses multiple sets of pronouns, make the best effort to use both when referring to someone. This could include using different pronouns in the same conversation (I was talking to him yesterday; they mentioned…) or changing pronouns sets across different conversations. We must actively resist the urge to only address them by a singular pronoun set, especially solely using the one that feels most comfortable. Part of seeing and respecting someone’s identity is honoring if they use multiple pronouns.

Misgendering

We should not assume we know someone’s gender, as it’s an internal understanding of a person’s identity and not something we can place on others. Assuming someone’s gender and misgendering them through using incorrect pronouns creates an othering environment. Misgendering is also harmful in that it can have detrimental and long-lasting effects on their mental health and contribute to gender dysphoria, or the inner turmoil someone experiences when their assigned sex and gender do not match. 

Misgendering is also a microaggression. Microaggressions are actions and/or comments that stigmatize marginalized people and groups. With gender and pronouns, incorrect assumptions contribute to the notion that someone can tell who is a man or woman based off social identity, the only gender options are man or woman, and those are expressed in predetermined and socially acceptable ways. As mentioned above, misgendering and using incorrect pronouns can greatly affect the mental health of the person harmed. It denies a person the autonomy to determine and outwardly express their gender, whether it was done unintentionally or maliciously. Denying a person their autonomy is a form of violence and coercion. At a basic level, it highlights the power dynamics between cisgender and transgender people, who is allowed to enforce how they should be referred to, and who has the power to make another feel lesser than because of their gender.

What You Can Do

Part of concretely dismantling this bias around assuming gender is normalizing introducing ourselves with our pronouns. Cisgender people must create a space where people of all gender identities, including those that do not identify with any gender, are seen for who they are and referred to appropriately. If we all introduce ourselves with the pronouns we use, it can be a continued act of solidarity and allyship. If only trans, agender, and gender-nonconforming people make a point to inform others of their pronouns in an effort to not be misgendered, this effectively outs them and opens them up to more stigma and marginalization. That is why it should be normalized for everyone. Using the right pronouns is a critical step in acknowledging the humanity of trans and gender-nonconforming people, and ensuring they are not othered for being their authentic selves.

Making a conscious effort to share your pronouns can help foster a more inclusive environment, where everyone at your organization or workplace is being referred to in a way that most aligns with their identity. As part of that conscious effort- practice! Whether or not the use of gender-neutral language is familiar to you, continuously practicing and making gender-inclusive language an automatic part of your speech can go a long way to creating a more inclusive society.

As a reminder, we’re all human. We make mistakes. We might use the wrong pronouns. However, it should not be the burden of the person harmed to correct the behavior; bystanders and witnesses might call a person out after asking the person harmed for permission to intervene, and after intervening might offer to follow-up with more resources and learning tools via email. The important part is to not center yourself– don’t profusely apologize or get defensive. Instead, simply thank them for the correction, make a mental note and ultimately change the behavior. Re-commit to doing better: recognize how hard it can be for transgender people to live in a society that continues to erase them, and show that you respect someone’s personhood by referring to them with the correct pronouns and markers of their identity. When you make a mistake, CLAIM it![4]

As a point of reflection, there are many questions we can and should be asking ourselves as we continue to deepen our knowledge surrounding identity and belonging. Some things to consider are how might the impact of your words differ from your intent? How might your own comfort level, assumptions, expectations and prior experiences be influencing beliefs and decisions? Additionally, how can we call out the behavior while calling in the person causing harm? Part of calling out the behavior is ensuring that we are actively creating a space outside of the gender binary so people are not excluded. Another reflection question is to understand the why: why are we putting pronouns in social media bios, email signatures, and Zoom names? The goal is to create a place where people under the trans and/or gender non-conforming umbrellas are able to be their full selves, and not have to worry about safety concerns because of their personal identity.

Resources:

Many LGBTQ community members and accomplices have contributed to this conversation. These resources can be used to further understand on consequences LGBTQ community members may have to face because of our cisgender, heteronormative society.

Community and Social Services

Gender

Legal

Pronouns


[1] Personal and Social Identity: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/personal-and-social-identity ; https://psychology.anu.edu.au/files/Abstracts-Presentations-1-Personal-and-Social-Identity-Self-and-Social-Context-Princeton-1992.pdf

[2] Human Rights Commission: https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity-terminology-and-definitions

[3] Human Rights Commission: https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity-terminology-and-definitions

[4] CLA(I)M model adapted by Lukayo Estrella, http://lukayo.com/

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