I received an excellent question to my article “My Child is Non-Binary and I’m Confused.” Someone wrote in and asked, “I have friends and work colleagues who are transgender. [Sometimes I slip up and misgender them.] Interesting that I am slipping more with my friends. It upsets me when I do it. I immediately apologize and try to validate what I imagine is pain, anger and frustration. I would … like to identify steps I [can] take to not misgender again. I have not asked my friend if he has suggestions as I don’t know if that would be more upsetting.”
This person’s instincts are serving them well: don’t ask a transperson how you can avoid misgendering them. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I keep hurting you. How can I stop?” The responsibility belongs to us, not to them.
As we take on that responsibility, it’s important to know that everyone will slip up from time to time. We live in a world that pressures us to think, talk and act in accordance with the binary options of male and female. That being said, it’s incredibly painful for someone to be misgendered and it’s the job of cisgender people to figure out how to resist societal pressure and avoid these mistakes.
So, how do we stop misgendering people? First of all, practice non-binary thoughts. Let’s say you see a person holding a baby. Don’t ask if it’s a boy or a girl. Say, “What a cute baby!” It’s likely the person will tell you what they think the gender is. They might say, “Thank you, she’s 7 months old!” Think to yourself, “They’re 7 months old.” There’s no need to contradict the parent or caregiver, but there is a need to contradict yourself and not buy in to a gender that’s been assigned to a baby. Let’s say you want to ask the age of the baby. Say, “How old are they?” Again, the parent or caregiver will probably provide a gender, but you need to automatically re-think it in your head to be “they” instead of he or she.
Another example: You’re walking down the street and you see a person wearing cute shoes or a nice hat. Your immediate thought may be “Oooo, I like his shoes” or “I like her hat.” Contradict yourself internally. Say to yourself, “No. I like their shoes,” or “I like their hat.” Gender everyone you see using the gender neutral pronoun “they” unless they tell you differently.
The other day, I was with two young friends, one of whom uses the pronouns “she/her/hers.” I had just met the other person and referred to him as “they.” He patted his chest and said, “He/him/his.” There was no rancor, no hurt feelings, no anger, because by using the gender neutral pronoun “they,” I allowed him to gender himself. Alternately, I could have chosen to not make an assumption and, instead, asked him outright what his pronouns were. I would start with myself: “Hi, I’m Julie. My pronouns are she, her and hers. What are yours?” I could also have simply listened to the friend I’ve had for a long time to determine how she referred to him and then followed along accordingly.
Using a person’s correct pronouns may be even harder if you knew them when they were living in the binary gender of either male or female. In those situations, old habits have a tendency to kick in and you’re more likely to refer to them as the gender you knew them as before. In cases like these, you must work even harder and practice your friend’s pronouns all the time. By this I mean that when you think of them during the day, remembering a story they told or an event that happened to them, actively correct yourself when you misgender them. It’s easy to gloss over incorrect pronouns when we think them as opposed to saying them aloud. After all, thoughts can be fleeting. But rather than gloss over the mistake by making some sort of mental note that it was incorrect, actually go back and think the whole thought over again using the correct pronouns this time. Additionally, you can practice writing about your friend in a journal. Or make up songs about your friend. Or draw a picture of your friend and put a title on it using their correct pronouns, saying something like: “This is my friend. He / She / They make me laugh.” I know it may sound either silly or like a lot of work, but this is your friend you’re talking about. It’s well worth the work to keep a friend.
Finally, if you do misgender someone, apologize and correct yourself, but don’t over apologize. Say, “I’m so sorry. I meant he/she/they. I apologize.” When we over apologize, beating our breasts and begging for forgiveness, going on and on about how horrible we were to have misgendered them, it comes across not as an apology, but rather as you needing to prove how sensitive you are to transpeople.