On Tuesday’s season premiere of The Ellen DeGeneres show, Caitlyn Jenner joined Ellen DeGeneres for her first sit down interview since coming out as transgender in April. During the daytime interview, the two women talked about a number of important things such as the issues facing the transgender community, marriage equality, and how Jenner has been dealing with dating as a trans woman. But in the middle of all of this education goodness, there was one moment that stood out among the others: At the beginning of the third segment, DeGeneres misgendered Jenner and referred to her as “he.” It was a slip for sure, one that DeGeneres immediately caught, corrected, and apologized for, but it was an important moment nonetheless. In an interview that was largely about the tremendous issues facing the trans community, this mistake showed another issue: The importance of referring to transgender people by their correct names and pronouns.
After DeGeneres referred to Jenner as “he,” she apologized and said, “See that happens all the time.” Jenner was quick to respond in agreement. “It does,” she said. “Don’t worry.” Jenner was nothing but gracious about the slip, and the two women moved on from it without a glitch.
As quick as the moment was, it served as an important lesson as the media continues to highlight and talk openly about trans experiences. Misgendering Jenner was clearly an innocent oversight by DeGeneres, and Jenner was generous in moving past the moment with forgiveness. But the exchange highlighted the fact that the language surrounding stories of transition can be very complicated, and we need to be very aware of and careful to use terminology that empowers trans people rather than undermines them. The pronouns that we use and the names that we use to identify ourselves and to refer to others matter. In fact, they matter a lot — intentionally calling someone by their birth name or the gender they were assigned at birth rather than the gender or name with which they identify delegitimizes their experience and identity as a transgender person. But the more people talk about the trans experience, the more comfortable other people will become with using the right pronouns and referring to individuals by their correct gender.
All three of the segments were educational, important, and incredibly powerful. I commend Jenner for the hard work she is doing in the public eye. And for being so kind in forgiving DeGeneres in her slip up. It was a small part of a much larger interview, but it was an important learning experience for everyone watching.