“This is Miss Joli, and he’ll be substituting for Miss Alison today,” says an elementary school teacher to her class, as I stand in the back of the room in a solid color blouse, patterned skirt, black leggings, and ankle boots.
“Excuse me, sir, I’d like to order now,” says a customer to my girlfriend as she works her barista job, wearing a floral print dress, striped knee socks, dark lipstick, and dusky eyeshadow.
Misgendering — referring to someone by the pronouns or honorifics of a gender that is not theirs — is a daily event for most trans people. Even those of us who are often read as our actual gender, rather than the one we were assigned at birth, live with at least the threat of misgendering dogging our heels — a heart-wrenching, day-ruining landmine that usually lies dormant but can go off without warning. Others of us can barely leave the house without being sirred or ma’amed incorrectly.
Anyone with a basic education in trans issues has some understanding that misgendering someone is fundamentally not okay. But I’m not certain the majority of cisgender people fully grasp, at a gut level, the tremendous social and emotional violence that misgendering can inflict. Being referred to by our right name and pronouns is so much more than a point of etiquette for us. It is a daily necessity for our mental health and our survival.
Trans people, uniquely among humanity, are in the position of being made to constantly demonstrate and reify our gender. A cisgender person, someone whose gender aligns with the one they were assigned at birth, never has that gender seriously challenged. If a cis man is mistaken for a woman, or vice versa, a profuse apology is forthcoming the instant the speaker realizes their error. Cis people whose behavior doesn’t conform to their normative gender roles are likely to be shamed — a delicate and graceful boy might be called a girl, for instance, or a strong, stolid woman might be called mannish. But these essentialist put-downs are a form of mockery and not a literal challenge to the cis person’s stated gender.
Trans people have to “prove” we are the gender we say we are by presenting and performing that gender far more distinctly than our cis counterparts. Even then, cis people will often ignore an extremely clear presentation, such as the extremely femme clothes and makeup my girlfriend and I wear whenever we leave the house, and gender us instead based on physical traits they associate with our birth-assigned gender.
In examining this hierarchy of gender signifiers, we see the true, heinous root of misgendering. It is a problem not simply because it is incorrect, but because it is an unconscionable denial of our agency. The genitals I exited the womb with take precedence over the name I chose for myself. My beard stubble is more notable than the on-point makeup I spent countless hours mastering. My deep voice is of more import than the darling sundress I raided dozens of bargain bins to find. Simply put, when you misgender you are saying that, in determining who we are, the traits we cannot control are more important than traits we do control.
I work hard to present myself to the world as a woman. Yes, this means I dress in feminine clothes, apply makeup, style my hair, adopt feminine mannerisms, and on and on and on. But that is all peripheral, vital to my mental health though it may be. The central act of living as trans is simply mustering the sheer will to say to myself and others, “This is me: My name is Joli St. Patrick, and I am a woman.”
This is the act that every trans person, regardless of medical status or outward presentation, has done, whether before the world or in their secret heart. Declaring who we are is a daily incantation of such power and splendor that it boggles my mind to think that anyone would dare challenge it. And yet every day, thousands upon thousands of cis people invoke a one-word counterspell: He. She. Sir. Ma’am. Dude. Missy. Bro. Lady. Whether knowingly or in ignorance, these tiny words are used over and over to unravel the fabric of the selves that cis society demands we meticulously construct before it will even consider acknowledging them at all.
For a time, I hated the word “misgender.” I still don’t love it. It simply feels too clinical, too scholarly, to really do justice to the raw, felt experience of sensing the wrong pronoun land on me. That sensation is a potent split-second mixture of anxiety and helplessness and fury and shame and dread and resignation. It arrives in my body as a flinch that tenses my shoulders, heats my forehead, and clenches my gut. My outward response may seem calm, even placid, but inside I am roiling. How could a word like “misgender” encapsulate that?
Misgendering cis person: It is so, so effortless for you to speak a pronoun, and so, so arduous for me to cope with the fallout of hearing it. In an instant, confidence is undermined, hopefulness dissolved, safety shattered, cheerfulness undone. I am suddenly reminded, as if the world would ever let me forget, of just how little my personal autonomy is worth, of just how easily and ubiquitously my right to self-determine and self-identify will be undermined as I move through life. You, on the other hand, may suffer slight, momentary embarrassment, and have to endure an awkward, stumbling apology.
And that’s if I choose to correct you. Because in that awful instant, I need to make a personal evaluation of whether speaking up is likely to be effective or well received, or whether the moment’s passed, or frankly, whether I even have the energy to bother. Correcting a misgendering is always at the very least tense, and will possibly be a panic-inducing, defensiveness-triggering ordeal. It puts me on the spot when all I want to do is have a regular old human interaction without being reminded that I am an incomprehensible alien being with strange rules for talking to me or about me. It forces me to defend my very personhood, because, well, someone’s got to.
Casual misgendering is the most efficient means that you possess to dehumanize me. This really hit home in one particular classroom I worked in as a substitute paraeducator. The classroom’s teacher simply could not get my pronoun right, no matter how many times he used the wrong one and apologized, complete with flimsy excuses. To make matters worse, he couldn’t be bothered to learn my name, so he simply called me “substitute” all day. Hearing a combination of “substitute” and “he” flung in my direction all day left me feeling utterly wretched, an inhuman thing that dared to get up in the morning, go in to work, and pretend to be a person.
When you misgender me, you tell me many things. You tell me that you know who I am better than I know myself. You tell me you are not safe or trustworthy. You tell me you have scrutinized my physical appearance, made invasive extrapolations, and sorted me without my consent into a category based on your conclusions.
It’s not necessarily your fault. You are the inheritor of a wealth of transphobic assumptions that have been drilled into your head from birth. So am I. I recently met a trans woman who I initially read as a cis woman. I noticed that after she disclosed she was trans, I began struggling to avoid referring to her as “he,” despite having seen her as a woman from the moment we met.
When I call cis people out on an accidental misgendering, they often make a profuse, self-abasing apology, but honestly this makes the experience worse, not better. I’m now in the position of placating a cis person’s feelings, assuring them that they’re okay, and feeling apologetic myself for being such a nuisance. The real work is not to place blame or to castigate ourselves for your missteps, but to deprogram our transphobic, transmisogynistic brains until they don’t occur. Correct, move on, and resolve to do better.
Of course, some misgendering is actually purposeful violence. Cis people whose transphobia is remorseless are quite willing and able to wield pronouns as a potent weapon. But intent does not determine impact. Whether misgenderings are actively hostile or honest mistakes, these simple, seemingly innocuous acts are killing trans people. They are beating us down day by day as we try to live our truth. Cis people, you have so much less to lose in that interaction. You need to do the work, rather than expecting us to speak up and do it for you every time you screw up. Use the right pronouns. If you’re not sure, ask. All we’re asking for is a little piece of our autonomy back. I’m pretty sure you can spare that much.[Headline image: The photograph features one person yelling at someone else who is wearing headphones, looking smug. The person on the left has light skin and shoulder-length light brown hair and is wearing glasses and a gray t-shirt. The person on the right has light skin and short black hair and is wearing a long-sleeved black jersey.]