9 Ways To Avoid Misgendering Someone & What To Do If It Happens

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.
For eight years, Sara Kaplan truly believed that her first-born child was a girl. It wasn’t until a classmate told Kaplan that her kid had a secret, and that secret was that his “inner person is a boy,” that she realized she’d been raising a son all along.
Kaplan took her son — James, who’s now 10 — by the hand as they walked home that day, and listened as he told her how he’d struggled to connect the sex a doctor assigned him at birth with how he truly feels. He began his transition soon after that conversation.
But even though Kaplan is a loving and supportive mother, she couldn’t immediately retrain herself to say “he” instead of “she,” or to use the new boy name her son chose.
“At the beginning, when I’d get angry, I’d want to call my son by his dead name [the name a transgender person was given at birth, which they often change after transition]. It was on the tip of my tongue,” she says.
Like all non-transgender people who know someone who has transitioned, Kaplan had to relearn how to refer to her son and later her daughter — Kaplan’s younger child also came out as transgender soon after her brother. It took practice to let go of the names she chose for her kids, and the idea she had of who they’d be based on their sex assigned at birth, Kaplan says. But it’s important for the cisgender (non-trans) people in a transgender or gender non-conforming person’s life to do this work, and to use their proper name and pronouns.
Mistakes happen, especially as people are learning new ways to refer to people they’ve known by a different name or a different pronoun. But purposely misgendering (using the wrong name and/or pronouns for) a transgender or gender non-conforming person is an act of violence, as transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox has said. Even when it isn’t intentional, though, using the wrong pronouns can still be hurtful.
“Ask any trans person, and they can tell you how awful being misgendered makes them feel,” trans YouTuber Riley J. Dennis said in a video on her page. “It’s a way of invalidating their identity. It makes them feel disrespected, isolated, uncomfortable, and hated, simply because of their gender.”
It’s up to us, the cisgender people in their lives, to do everything possible to remember to use their new names and pronouns, so that the people we love won’t have to feel this way — even though it’s not always easy. As Kaplan says, “It takes a minute,” because you’ve known this person by a different name and pronoun for however many years. But it’s absolutely necessary.
Read on for tips on how to avoid misgendering your loved ones, acquaintances, or even a person you just met — as well as what you should do if it accidentally happens.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.
For more of our many paths to, through, or away from parenthood, head over to Mothership.
1 of 11
Never assume someone’s pronouns.

If you’re walking down the street, it can be easy to assume that the person walking toward you who looks feminine is a woman — but they might not be. You may have to retrain your brain, but let go of the idea that you can tell someone’s gender based on how they look, and make sure not to assign pronouns, even mentally, until you know how someone identifies.

“The only way to know what pronouns a person uses is by asking them — or by them telling you,” says Cass Clemmer, an artist and activist who uses the pronouns they/them. “Don’t presume to know someone's pronouns based on the way they dress, the way they look, the way they act, their sexuality, gender performance, etc.”
2 of 11
Get used to saying your own gender pronouns.

If you feel awkward asking someone what their gender pronouns are, offer up yours first, says Tiq Milan, a writer and trans rights advocate. “Invite them in,” he says, and say something like, “My name is Tiq, my pronouns are he/him.”

“It creates a safe and affirming space for people to say who they are,” he says.

Getting used to saying your own pronouns will also help with Clemmer’s suggestion to train your brain to stop gendering people based on appearance. “When you can start to recognize that pronouns are not something you have to be on guard about around a specific individual, but rather something you should be aware of in 100% of your daily life, it becomes less about remembering that one person's specific pronouns and more about making a general rule to remember everyone's pronouns,” they say.

Moreover, remembering that you also have pronouns and being open about them takes some responsibility off of the transgender or gender non-conforming people you know — because owning pronouns isn’t just something the trans community should have to do. “Make it habit to ask people their pronouns and tell people yours,” says MJ Okma, associate director of news and rapid response at GLAAD. “Don't leave this work solely to the transgender community — cisgender folks should pick up the legwork and make this practice commonplace as well."
3 of 11
Practice, practice, practice.

As Kaplan said, it can take time to get used to your loved one’s new name or pronoun, but it’s important that you do anything you can to make that time as short as possible. For Kaplan, that meant talking about her children often, and using their proper names and pronouns even when referring to them before they transitioned. “My son was never a girl,” she says. “He’s always been a boy, we just didn’t know.” So she would talk to family and friends or even strangers and refer to her son as James and “he” as much as possible, so that she could get used to saying those words.

Milan’s mother would do the same.

“My mother could not get my pronoun together at first,” Milan says. So she’d call her sister and make up scenarios in which she’d have to call Milan her son instead of her daughter, or refer to him as “he.” “For cisgender and heterosexual people, it can be difficult, but you need to be intentional about trying,” Milan says.
4 of 11
Slow down, and be deliberate with your language.

Part of being intentional is thinking before you speak, so that you don’t accidentally say the wrong name or pronoun. It can make you feel tongue-tied and awkward — it did for Kaplan — but that’s better than misgendering the person you love.

“I tend to speak quickly and without much thinking. I have a very small filter,” Kaplan says. “I had to sit down and talk with a lot more intention and more thought, because otherwise it would be so easy to say the wrong name or pronoun.”
5 of 11
Put your gender pronouns in your email signature.

Sometimes, though, the person you’re at risk of misgendering isn’t actually someone you love or even know. When sending emails, for example, you can’t know a person’s gender identity unless you know them personally — even if they have a name like Courtney or Elliot. Just like appearance, gender identity can’t be determined by a name. So instead of starting an email with “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.,” use the person’s first and last name instead.

It’s also good practice to list your pronouns in your email signature, Milan says, which can help you remember not to assume gender as well as tell the person you’re emailing that you’re not assuming their gender, either.
6 of 11
Don’t use gender-specific language.

If you’re one of those people who calls everyone “guys” regardless of their gender, it’s time to rethink that impulse. Even in a room where only cisgender men and women are present, it leaves people out. Instead, use something gender-neutral.

“Don’t say ‘hey guys’,” Milan says. “Say ‘y’all,’ ‘good people,’ or ‘folks’ — that way, everybody feels included.”
7 of 11
Put reminders in your phone contacts.

If the person who recently came out is someone who texts or calls you often, your phone could be a great resource to help you remember their new name and pronouns. Clemmer suggests putting their pronouns next to their name in your contacts list, so you’ll have a reminder every time they get in touch.
8 of 11
Update autocorrect to remind you.

Like the “hey guys” situation shows, misgendering someone can happen in more ways than just using the wrong pronouns. And if you’re close to a person who recently came out, then the autocorrect on your phone could actually help. Clemmer says that when they first began their transition, their therapist suggested that their partner at the time update autocorrect to suggest gender-neutral words. “So, if she was writing, ‘You're a great girlfriend,’ autocorrect would pop up with a more gender-neutral suggestion like, ‘partner,’ instead,” Clemmer says.

Not sure how to make that happen? Apple has a how-to for iPhone users to set up text replacement.
9 of 11
Join a support group.

If you’re close to a person who recently came out as trans or gender non-conforming, a support group for friends and family of gender non-conforming people might be helpful. Kaplan joined one after her son came out, and says that it helped her to talk to other parents and to begin thinking of her child as her son, not her daughter.

“It’s not the person who’s trans’ responsibility to work it out with you,” she says. “What most cis people will deal with as a parent of trans kids is that they’re going to have to meet and get to know the child they have, and surrender the hopes and dreams they may have had based on genitalia. These are real feelings that deserve attention, but are best to work out not around the person who’s come out.”
10 of 11
Even with all of these tips in mind, chances are you’re going to slip up — and that’s fine. The trans and gender non-conforming people in your life probably know that this is a learning curve for you, and they likely don’t expect you to be perfect. But, they do expect and deserve your understanding and your respect. So, if you do use the wrong pronoun or name in their presence, it’s important to both apologize and correct yourself.

“If someone misgenders someone accidentally, the best thing to do is to not make a big deal out of it,” Clemmer says. “Apologize and move on — it’s not our responsibility to make you feel better for messing up, so don't go on a tirade about how much trans or non-binary lives matter to you, or how liberal you are. Say, ‘I'm so sorry,’ correct yourself, and then move on to the conversation at hand.”
11 of 11
Related Video

More from Wellness


R29 Original Series