To me, two of the most confusing things in life are gender and social interactions. So it makes total sense when people get confused or frazzled after accidentally misgendering someone. I understand the guilt and panic of not knowing how to fix the situation. It can be almost paralyzing.
As a non-binary person whose pronouns are they/them/theirs, I go through the misgendering gauntlet a lot. I don’t know if it’s my Mickey Mouse voice, my name or my piercings, but I get called “she” a lot more than I would like.
I’d like to think, dear reader, that you understand how much that sucks for me. Honestly, if you don’t, I don’t really want to explain it to you, because it sucks to talk about. The effect varies from person to person, but for a general overview of how misgendering can affect a transgender person, here are a few different resources that may help you better understand.
But even if you’re the wokest person on this side of the Platte River, you’re still going to misgender people sometimes. It happens. Sometimes you catch it before the whole word is out and you can turn it into a “shhh-they” type of thing, but sometimes you’re going to go the whole hog and say an entire sentence with the wrong pronoun.
What happens in the next few moments after a misgendering depends on the person. Personally, I’ve seen a lot of reactions. There’s the “I actually didn’t even realize I misgendered you and I’m going to keep going and ignore the cringed look on your face.” There’s the awkward silence and slight cough followed by a “uh… I mean they, sorry.”
Then there’s the Big Whammy. My personal least favorite. The big sob story. The Cis Guilt™. The “oh my god I’m so sorry, I totally didn’t mean to call you ‘she,’ that’s my bad, I’m really sorry.” The response where the only possible answer I can give without looking like a total asshole is “it’s OK.”
Friends, comrades, Romans, if you take one thing away from this letter from the editor, please let it be this: stop making it about yourself.
Maybe you really do mean well when you launch into a Shakespearean monologue about how misgendering me is causing you the greatest anguish of your life. I know that’s not what you think you’re saying. But when you say “I never want to misgender anyone, I’m so sorry, I have a trans friend at home and I don’t normally misgender hi - I mean, them, I feel so bad, I just want you to know that I respect you and your gender identity, and I’m so so sorry,” all I hear is “oh my god I feel so terrible please tell me it’s OK so I don’t have to feel transphobic.”
In a way, it’s almost worse than no acknowledgement of the misgendering, because it’s requiring me to do the emotional labor of not only setting aside my own dysphoria and discomfort at being misgendered, but also the labor of assuaging your Cis Guilt™. Especially if you continue to apologize after I tell you it’s fine. Maybe you can sense that it’s not really fine, but you’re not making it any better by giving me a speech about how terrible you feel. It’s just making me have to interact with you more, go over that moment in my head again and put my emotional energy into convincing you that no, no, it’s OK, it’s fine, it’s not a big deal.
That’s not to say that I want you to ignore misgendering me. And I’m not saying that every single transgender person is going to despise you for bringing on the waterworks after you misgender them. I’m just saying that in my view, the ideal response to misgendering someone is to repeat the sentence correctly and throw in an acknowledgement of your mistake without expecting a response from the person you misgendered.
So if we were talking and I told you that I love Jimmy Buffett, and someone came up and asked what we were talking about, and you said, “Oh, Syd was just telling me how much she loves Jimmy Buffett,” here’s what I’d hope you’d say: “I mean, Syd was just telling me how much they love Jimmy Buffett. My bad.” And then move on.
That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Correct the mistake and own up to it, but don’t force me to forgive you for it. Because while most of the time it really isn’t a big deal, sometimes I’m having a really terrible, dysphoric day. Sometimes it is a big deal, and I don’t owe you forgiveness for your disrespect of my identity.
That’s just something you need to deal with on your own.
Sydney Miller is the senior opinion editor. Reach them at email@example.com.