Ask a Trans Woman: The Epidemic of Misgendering Trans People Must End Immediately

transgenderLorelei Erisis on inclusion of trans women and femininity, makeup, more.
Photo: David Meehan

By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—

I have a new rule. Whenever somebody misgenders a trans person, the proper response will be to apologize. Briefly, correct yourself immediately, and then proceed to give half of however much money you have in your wallet to the trans person you have misgendered.

This will work quite well, I think. To begin with, trans people will have a way easier time getting over the hurt of being misgendered. Trust me, as a waitress of many years, I know nothing eases a multitude of offenses better than a fistful of cash at the end of it all.

As for the rest of you, the misgenderers, I bet it’ll get way easier for you to start consistently getting our pronouns right with a little financial incentive.

Obviously, I’m not entirely serious about this proposal–only because I’m pretty sure it would be impractical to enforce. However, when I mentioned this idea to a group of trans people recently, it is illustrative that they all immediately understood where I was coming from and enthusiastically agreed it would be an excellent plan.

Speaking for myself, I get misgendered a lot. If I’m out and about, it happens on average at least once or twice a day, if not more. Mostly it’s by entirely well-meaning people. It’s honestly pretty rare that anyone misgenders me intentionally or maliciously, though that has happened.

Most people simply aren’t thinking. When people encounter me, they hear my strong voice and my direct manner and they register that I am, more often than not, taller than they are. Things they automatically associate with masculinity, with men.

And the words that come out of their mouths are, “he, him, his.”

It doesn’t matter that I’m really pretty femme-y, or that I have long blonde hair, great legs, well-proportioned breasts, and a feminine frame generally, albeit on a somewhat larger scale than most women. It doesn’t matter that I’m wearing a dress, or even that I am a genuine pageant queen–the ultimate affirmation of stereotypical western femininity.

Even when they are trying to be polite, they call me, “sir.”

Frankly, it’s easy to see the automatic nature of the misgendering.

The misgendering, when pointed out, is almost always followed by a slight flash of embarrassment at the realization of their insensitivity.

If I was a sociologist looking in, I’d be fascinated. But I’m not. I’m trans and I am not watching, I’m just trying to live my life.

And honestly, I know it’s not that hard to get a person’s pronouns right. All it takes is the slightest amount of attention to one’s surroundings and a small degree of sensitivity.

Think, for just one second, and make a conscious effort to readjust any automatic reactions and assumptions. I know that people are capable of doing this, because I see it work all the time.

As a tall person, I am often asked by little old ladies in supermarkets if I can get something down from the top shelves for them. And let me tell you, as soon as they need something, they get my pronouns exactly right. It’s all, “excuse me ma’am,” and “thank you miss,” and “isn’t she sweet.” There’s no hesitation or question at all of the pronouns to use with me. They have a vested interest, so they get it right.

All of this is both frustrating and absurd for me. I tend to present myself as quite femme. I wear skirts and dresses pretty much every day. Not because of any archaic ideas about how a woman should dress. I’m pretty much the only woman in my family or even close circle of friends who wears a dress anything more than occasionally. A woman should dress how a woman wants.

But for me, there is no androgyny. I cannot just put on jeans and a t-shirt. I know that doing so will get me sir’d and generally misgendered all day.

So even though I do, thankfully, identify as a femme, I dress far femmier on a regular basis than I always feel. It’s just short of a freaking, blinking neon sign that says, “Hey! I’m a girl! Use she/her pronouns please!”

I do it because all that misgendering wears on me.

Although people mean well, and although they might not even notice themselves all the he’s and him’s, I hear them all. Even the quiet, quick misgenderings sound to me like they have been screamed in my face.

All of that misgendering adds up and wears me down.

And I’m lucky! My gender is fairly straightforward and binary. None of my pronouns are unfamiliar and no one ever argues with me that the words I use to identify my own gender are “incorrect” or “poor grammar.”

Indeed, non-binary and gender fluid folks face a much harder trial. Not only are they routinely misgendered, but they also have to deal with straight-up erasure of their gender identities. They face not just embarrassed reactions, but often outright hostility, when they try to correct people on their pronouns.

Again though, it’s simply not that hard to get into the habit of properly gendering people, even when it involves adopting pronouns, you might not previously have been familiar with, or comfortable using. Frankly, your comfort here is not all that important. We are talking about people’s identities, not some fashion fad or style choice.

And I know, I know, I do have some sympathy, it’s not even always easy for me to get all these various pronouns right. And it’s my actual job to be an expert on these things!

I myself occasionally misgender other trans folks. Not just gender non-conforming folks, but straight-up binary trans folks as well! Heck, I’ve even been known to slip up and misgender myself.

I know it takes some conscious effort and persistent practice to get into the habit of getting it right. And it feels super bad when we screw up. I always feel like a complete jerk when I do it.

But it’s not nearly as hard as learning to live in the world as an entirely different gender than that as which you were raised. It doesn’t feel nearly as awful as being constantly questioned and cut.

And if you don’t know, just ask. Yes, it might be awkward for a moment. But it’s a heck of a lot less awkward than misgendering someone.

Getting people’s pronouns right is totally possible with a little practice and some small sensitivity. You can do it.

Honestly, it’s just the decent thing to do.

But you are still entirely welcome to give us half the money in your wallet when you screw up.

Slàinte!

*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer, and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: askatranswoman@gmail.com.


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3 Comments on "Ask a Trans Woman: The Epidemic of Misgendering Trans People Must End Immediately"

  1. Funny thing. The other night, I managed to misgender a trans woman friend who I never knew before her transition. And I’m trans myself, so I have no excuse! But it happens. My only excuse was her voice, like mine, is an octave or so below the female range.

    It’s so easy to slip even with the “vanilla” pronouns. And the grammarian in me gets a parity error every time I have to refer to one individual as they / them! So perhaps your monetary incentive idea is a little harsh — though it certainly would get people to pay more attention to their speech.

    As for me, I’m pretty relaxed about this issue. I know I am going to get misgendered so when I don’t I feel I’ve been rewarded but when I do I just roll with it. I’ve been living in my proper gender full time for about five months now and I get misgendered about 3/4 of the time. If your rule were enforced, I’d be getting enough donations to finance my electrolysis treatments. 🙂

  2. Those who wish to befriend trans people should certainly make the effort to learn their friends’ pronouns and use them consistently. The idea, though, that all people encountering a person of ambiguous gender identity should stick their necks out to ask about pronouns before addressing them for some small interaction or transaction is an unrealistic expectation.

    As the above commenter, and you yourself, point out, misgendering is an easy slip. And, the probability of being misgendered is an understood liability of transitioning. Every individual can choose how they respond to the stimuli the world gives them. Microagressions such as misgendering are undoubtedly burdensome and annoying, but most individuals on the planet suffer oppression for some part of the identity. Where intentions are obviously good or at least benign, I do think there is some responsibility on the part of the trans person to roll with that “punch,” so to speak. Everybody gets their feelings hurt by people who don’t know us well or make assumptions about us. This happens to literally everyone. It may not be as persistent as misgendering is for someone who does not easily “pass” as their self-identified gender, but it is universal all the same. Everyone needs to develop a skin thick enough to let some things slide off.

    Because utopia is impossible. And there are too many people with too many beliefs and too many habits. Where intention is good, either muster up the love to educate, or, if it’s someone you’ll never see again, the self-love to not give a fuck. Nobody gets to inhabit spaces where they are perfectly understood, seen, and loved all day, everyday. Nobody. Places like that are called “home,” and unfortunately we don’t get to be home all the time— we have to go out. And when we’re out, we don’t get to dictate the actions of others. Or we shouldn’t, anyway.

    And by the way, I do not think that trans identities are fake or imagined or a fad. Given the incidence of violence and aggression towards transness, I know transitions are undertaken with the utmost forethought and seriousness. I honestly think, though, that fighting so hard for pronouns— a previously, casual, automatic part of speech— is overemphasizing a minor point of contention, and making the larger battles harder to fight. I say what I say here because I want trans folks to be more accepted and less afraid as they walk around. And I think de-emphasizing pronouns would help to lower some of the walls the more conservative cis-folks have. Free speech is a touchy for many people as gender identity is for others. And ultimately, in a world where we wish to see less physical violence, we have to allow for the freest possible speech. Conflicts cannot be addressed with words when the words necessary to address them have been banned.

  3. Your comment about the androgyny spoke so strongly to me. I get told “dress how you want” all the time and I know the second I leave the house with anything remotely feminine, I will have lost all the progress I made towards being properly gendered as a man. I am so tired of being misgendered, it really is exhausting.

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