I am misgendered almost every day. That's not hyperbole, and may actually undersell how woven into the fabric of my reality this experience is. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve been misgendered by waiters, Uber drivers, baristas, nail technicians, publicists, cashiers and a Social Security office worker who was literally helping me legally change my name to a woman’s name.
In a perfect world, trans people would never have their identities questioned. We’d swan about, happy as clams, having the same respect and care paid to our gender as people pay to boats, pets, or small children. But — shocker! — we don’t live in that world, and trans folks get misgendered every day. We’re able to deal with these painful and triggering encounters because they’re a fact of our daily reality. You know who doesn’t know how to deal with misgendering a trans person? Cisgender people.
While I normally don’t think it’s the job of trans folks to educate cis people, I also realize that we’re still at the beginning of the age of trans visibility, and there are finite resources out there for cis folks who actually want to educate themselves — although even five minutes on the internet will prove that most of them don’t. This feels especially pressing with the holidays looming: maybe your niece just started transitioning and you want to be prepared for the inevitable awkward moment at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Maybe your son is bringing his trans boyfriend home for the weekend and you want to be sure you don’t say anything offensive, or want to know what to say when and if you do.
With that in mind, I reached out to my wider network of friends, acquaintances, allies and hunties and asked them: What do you want to know about properly gendering trans people and what you should do if you misgender a trans person? As a binary trans woman — that is, someone whose gender identity and presentation, for the most part, adheres to traditionally feminine standards — this guide is geared towards my experience and doesn’t claim to include the experience of nonbinary or gender nonconforming folks. I may have a big mouth, but I can’t speak for everyone. And also remember that while all trans people are expected to be experts on being trans, most of us are just people, doing the best we can — just like you. Hopefully.
How can the well-meaning cis person avoid misgendering a trans person entirely? The first step is unlearning all the socially coded behaviors we have when it comes to using gendered language in everyday conversations, which is no small task. Basically, never assume anyone’s gender. We’re conditioned to greet people as “sir” or “ma’am,” to refer to them by whatever we automatically assume their pronouns to be when talking to other people (“He’d like a tall latte with almond milk.” “She just told me the craziest story!”). Instead, get in the habit of using gender neutral pronouns with every new person you encounter (“They’d like a large soy chai.” “That person just told me I had a nice ass!”)
The easiest way to prevent yourself from accidentally misgendering someone is to ask for their pronouns. It’s really that simple: when we meet people we ask them their name, why not their pronouns as well? It doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable or awkward question if you don’t make it one. “Nice to meet you. What are your pronouns?”
What to Do if You Misgender a Trans Person
If you misgender a trans person accidentally — obviously this guide is not for people who are doing it on purpose — the best way to handle the situation is to apologize, correct yourself, and never do it again. This applies whether you realize your own mistake or if that person corrects you. Please do not turn your apology into a monologue or use it as an opportunity to proclaim your support for trans people. Misgendering happens most often in public/social situations, and they’re already embarrassing enough without you creating a spectacle.
Under no circumstances should you explain why you thought the person you’re talking to is a gender other than the one they identify as.
What to Do if Someone Else Misgenders a Trans Person
The best thing cisgender people can do to support trans people in this situation is to take on the labor of correcting other cis people. An example:
Waiter: What are you having, boys?
Trans Woman: …
Cis Person: She’d like a cobb salad and I’ll have a cheeseburger.
It’s also a good practice to correct someone more emphatically when the trans person they’ve just misgendered is out of earshot. In my own experience, I sometimes won’t correct people who misgender me because it ends up being a lot of work for me emotionally, and in those instances it would (and has been) so nice when a cis person steps up to take on that labor for me.
What You Can/Can’t Ask
It’s always ok to ask someone’s pronouns.
It’s never ok to ask someone about their deadname.
It’s never ok to ask someone about their genitals.
It’s never ok to ask someone if they’ve had surgery or if they’re planning to.
Transgender is an adjective, not a noun. “He is a transgender man,” not “he is a transgender” or “he is transgendered.” It’s not “transwoman” or “transman,” it’s “trans woman” or “trans man.” We’re not a different species, just people.
The best rule of thumb to follow when interacting with trans people is: use common sense and treat us with the same respect as you would any other person. It’s really not that hard.