Any member of the LGBTQ+ community will tell you that one of the most challenging things you face is when someone gets your pronouns wrong. For cis-gendered people, this can be hard to understand. We should all try and learn the impact that misgendering someone has on their self-confidence, sense of self, and overall health and well-being.
How It Feels When Someone Gets Your Pronouns Wrong
If you are a cis-gendered, straight person reading this, first imagine this: You are out – maybe at work, a restaurant, the gym, or a party – when someone incorrectly identifies you as the wrong gender. Imagine how awful you would feel being mistaken for a man if you are a woman or a woman if you are a man. Pretty terrible, right? This icky, hurt, and maybe even a bit confused feeling in your gut is what some members of the LGBTQ+ community feel all the time. When someone gets your pronouns wrong, it can feel like a punch to the stomach.
“It’s uncomfortable and invalidating to be misgendered by my coworkers, especially those who are my age or even my friends,” says 20-year old Le of being misgendered at work. “The vast majority of my coworkers are straight, cis men, so they already are carrying that implicit power with them, and it’s hard to correct them — especially when they already know and don’t seem to care. I often feel trapped by the way I need to present.” (1)
“Once, at an office holiday party, we went to a board game cafe, and everyone thought to play Mafia,” recalls 21-year old Winnie. “People kept referring to me with “she/her” pronouns, and by the end of the game, I was nearly in tears at what was supposed to be a relaxing, fun work outing. I told them I wanted to sit out because I was being misgendered, and people apologized a lot. One person kept asking me if I was okay but did it in a way that honestly made it feel like it was about him.” (1)
The Health Impacts Of Not Using Someone’s Correct Pronouns
To the straight person, using the wrong pronoun might not seem like a big deal. However, for the person being misgendered, it can create a lot of anxiety and bring up intensely negative emotions, especially if they are being called the wrong pronoun by people who know them. This ultimately has an impact on that person’s mental, emotional, and physical health. (2) Despite equity training at their school among staff and peers, N, 27, still regularly gets called by the wrong pronoun.
“When someone misgenders me at school I just get this shock of painful tension throughout my body.” (3)
A study done in 2014 found that a large percentage of LGBTQ+ people feel stigmatized when they are misgendered, experience lower self-esteem about their appearance, and have a reduced sense of strength and continuity in their identity. This has a negative impact on their mental and emotional health, which as we know can end up having physical manifestations, as well. (2)
A study from 2017 found that LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience (4):
- Substance use
- Cardiovascular disease
- Rejection and isolation
- Anxiety, depression, and suicide
Much of this has to do with the impact of anxiety surrounding not being seen, particularly in areas where it is most important, like at work or in health care. (4)
How To Do Better With Gender Pronouns
Even those with the best intentions can sometimes get someone’s pronouns wrong or at least have difficulty knowing how to refer to someone. Here are a few tips to help you get your pronouns right and what to do if you make a mistake.
1. Don’t Assume
If you aren’t sure, avoid gendered pronouns and stick to “they” or “theirs.” If it is not made clear to you which pronouns to use, ask. It can feel awkward at first, but the other person will always be happier that you asked rather than assuming and getting it wrong. Also, avoid using gendered language like “sir” or “ma’am” when speaking to people you don’t know or in customer service situations. Use words like:
- My friend
- “You look great/amazing” instead of “beautiful” or “handsome,” which have implied genders.
2. Use The Right Name and Pronouns
Do your absolute best always to use the right pronouns and names of the Trans and genderqueer people in your life. This can be difficult when it is someone who you knew under a different name and gender identity before. If you slip up, apologize (without making excuses) and continue using the correct name and pronouns.
3. Don’t Use Gender-Neutral Language If You Know Their Preferred Pronouns
Once you know what someone wishes to be referred to, use those pronouns. This again goes back to the fact that it is most hurtful when someone knows what someone prefers but doesn’t put effort into using it. If you are cis-gendered, you probably prefer your pronouns over they/them because you find a certain amount of your identity in those pronouns.
4. Avoid Passive Language
Rather than saying “XYZ identifies as a woman” use active phrases such as:
- XYZ prefers him/his pronouns
- XYZ is a woman
- XYZ’s pronouns are he/his/him
When someone gets your pronouns wrong, it can be uncomfortable, embarrassing, and bring about feelings of shame, insecurity, and like you don’t belong. In many cases, the misidentified person may feel uncomfortable or afraid to speak up or correct someone. This can be because they aren’t sure if they are in an LGBTQ+ friendly environment, or perhaps because speaking up might out them when they didn’t want to be.
Determining someone’s pronouns can be difficult at times, so always remain neutral until you know the correct pronouns, don’t be afraid to ask, and if you get it wrong, apologize and make sure to get it right from that moment forward.
- “Work Sucks, Especially When People Get Your Pronouns Wrong.”VICE. Mary Retta. June 21, 2019.
- “Misgendering harms health of trans individuals.” MJA. Cate Swannell. March 2, 2020.
- “How does misgendering affect people who are transgender?” Healthline. KC Clements. September 18, 2018
- “Health Care Disparities Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: A Literature Review.” NCBI. Hudaisa Hafeez, et al. April 2017.