If Someone’s Being Misgendered In Public, Here’s How To Step In, According To Experts
For nonbinary, gender non-conforming, or transgender people, being misgendered in public or in private — identified, deliberately or accidentally, as the wrong gender — can be a very upsetting experience, even if it wasn't intentional. It can be a simple mistake, but it can also be intended as bullying or harassment. But no matter the speaker's intentions, if you hear someone being misgendered in front of you, the best thing you can do is step in and respond. But it can be hard to know what's most helpful in that kind of situation.
When you're considering speaking up, always be aware of the potential consequences for transgender people, including discrimination and violence. Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality, tells Bustle, "When most transgender people are misgendered, we typically grit our teeth and try to move on. At most, we may correct the person at hand in as polite a manner as possible. Most incidents of being misgendered are accidental in nature — such as by a store clerk or server — and making a scene can often put a transgender person at more risk of mistreatment than simply bearing the humiliation and going on with their lives."
Experts tell Bustle that allies can take certain steps that cement the idea that misgendering isn't acceptable, without taking away the agency of the misgendered person to deal with the situation themselves.
"As a cisgender ally to the trans community, there are many things you can (and should!) do when someone is misgendered in front of you," Dr. Maria Anderson-Long, an expert on the gender binary and gender-inclusive housing, tells Bustle. This kind of action can normalize that, no, it's not OK to misgender someone, and it is OK to step in and help. The next time you hear someone misgendering a friend, colleague, celebrity, or anyone else, you'll know how to step in.
1. Wait For The Person Themselves To Speak Up
If a coworker or friend is being misgendered, Branstetter tells Bustle, the primary focus always has to be their safety and comfort. "The best advice is to follow the transgender person’s lead — do not do anything that might increase their discomfort or out them in public," she says. And that means letting them take control in the first instance.
LGBT+ expert and social worker Kryss Shane tells Bustle, "If you witness a person misgendering someone, take a beat to allow the person being misgendered the opportunity to correct the situation. Your role is to advocate if/when a person cannot advocate for themselves." If your coworker can handle the situation, let them.
People who are misgendered may not advocate for themselves, explains Shane, "if they are in a professional setting and fear backlash from someone in a higher position or they may not feel safe speaking up.) Taking the beat first allows the space for the person to speak on their own behalf before you step in."
2. If You're On Your Own Together, Don't Let It Slide
"To address misgendering in your presence, the most important thing an ally can do is say something — anything — to not let the wrong gender slide. The more mis-gendering slides, the more it sticks," corporate gender and inclusion strategist Emily Meghan Morrow Howe tells Bustle. "At the very least, allies should utter an 'oops' which usually pauses the conversation; then offer the preferred/right gender. As in: If somebody says, 'Did you see M. at lunch? She was running super late,' respond with 'Oops.' 99% of the time, the person will correct themselves. In my experience, it's better to make the smallest deal of it possible that still gets the point across and enforces that you're not willing to let misgendering slip."
Simple correction on your own can also work, Anna Bond, a solicitor specializing in discrimination law, tells Bustle. "As soon as possible following the misgendering, find an opportunity to use the person's correct pronoun in the same conversation," she says. "This may be sufficient to correct a wrong assumption or serve as a reminder. It also avoids drawing excessive attention to the issue (potentially unpleasant for the person who was misgendered), as well as reaffirming their correct pronoun."
3. Be Clear
If the misgendered person is present and hasn't spoken up, says Shane, it's time to act. "Make eye contact with [the misgendered person] and calmly correct the person [speaking]. "It's she, not he" or "Her name is Jaclyn." If it happens again, repeat the statement. This shows support for the person being misgendered without creating unnecessary stress or attention within the conversation."
"Confront in the moment," Dr. Anderson-Long says. "This can be done by either correcting the person's language (replace the incorrect pronoun with the correct one), or by otherwise calling attention to this mistake, as calmly and neutrally as possible. This is a good option if you are in a group of trusted individuals, or in a setting that will otherwise not embarrass or call unwanted attention to the person who has been misgendered."
Bond, however, says you need to make a judgement call. "Although this can be very emotive, consider whether addressing the issue with the wrongdoer right away is the right way forward in the situation. If the person who has just been misgendered is still there, to be involved in a lengthy debate may be the last thing they want," she tells Bustle.
4. Use Your Position To Make A Point
What do you do if you're in a professional situation and misgendering keeps occurring repeatedly? In that situation, the misgendering "is clearly intentional," Shane tells Bustle, and how you respond depends on your own position. "If you are in a position of power within the conversation, you can address the situation by ending the conversation." She suggests saying something along the lines of, "Three times now, you've misgendered Jaclyn. You either need to stop this or this conversation/meeting is over."
Not in control of the room? "If you are not in a position of power, continue to calmly correct the speaker," says Shane. "You can also make eye contact with someone in a position of power within the space to encourage them to speak up. If this happens while people are standing, you may wish to move to stand nearer to the person being misgendered as an additional show of support."
5. Be Aware Of The Risks
Your first priority in this situation is always to make sure your misgendered friend or colleague is safe, says Branstetter.
"The biggest and most important point here is to avoid doing anything to make your transgender friend uncomfortable. Do not let good intentions blind you to how your actions might impact the person most at risk in that situation." If the misgendering is happening in public, in a store or restaurant, and your friend doesn't speak up, it's wise to take their lead and keep quiet too, as they could simply be making the best choice for their safety at the time.
Dr. Anderson-Long adds that discretion in the workplace is important, too. "Make sure that you will not be outing this person. If you are certain that this person has come out to the person who just misgendered them, then you should proceed."
6. Check In With The Misgendered Person
Misgendering can be upsetting, and it's important to be there for your friend. "Reach out to the person who was misgendered privately, after the conversation," Bond tells Bustle. "Tell them you're sorry that they were misgendered and that you hope they're doing okay. Offer to talk privately if they want to discuss it with someone." She says that you shouldn't expect them to do all the directing, though. "Beware of putting the emotional labor back onto the victim," she tells Bustle.
Shane adds that you should "acknowledge that the situation was not acceptable, that you will always advocate with them, and ask if there is another way they prefer you to do so in the future or if there is something else they'd like you to do now. This gives them the opportunity to see that the experience was seen by someone other than themselves, it lets them tell you how they want you to respond in the future, and it gives them the chance to ask for your support in other ways, if they see fit."
If they don't appreciate your help, take that into account, too. "I can imagine plenty of day-to-day scenarios where a well-intentioned ally may actually further embarrass their transgender friend by making a big deal out of something the transgender person themselves is ready and willing to move on from," says Branstetter.
7. Follow Up With The Person Who Did The Misgendering
Ultimately this interaction is about the person who made the error, not the misgendered person. "Follow up with the individual at a later time. This can be done in person ideally, and should be used as a learning opportunity, assuming the person had no ill intent behind it," says Dr. Anderson-Long.
"This conversation might look something like this: 'Hey, I wanted to follow up with you about yesterday when we were all talking in the break room. I noticed that you referred to Alex by the incorrect pronouns. I just wanted to remind you that Alex told us last month that their pronouns are they/them/theirs.'"
Bond agrees. "Sure, it's uncomfortable, but trans, non-binary and other gender non-conforming people should not be left to fight their own battles," she says. "If it was a mistake, [the speaker] may well be thoroughly embarrassed, but that's no bad thing. If they didn't know the person's pronouns, they'll likely be grateful for the correction," she tells Bustle.
8. Know The Laws
"As an ally, you should familiarize yourself with your state's laws and protections for transgender individuals," says Dr. Anderson-Long. "The Transgender Law Center has a wonderful resource that summarizes the laws by state. If you live in a state with few laws protecting transgender individuals' liberties, consider how as an ally you can advocate for change."
9. Know Workplace Policy & Use It
In the workplace, deliberate misgendering needs to be brought to the attention of the right people. "If it’s someone you know — such as a coworker or mutual friend — ask your transgender friend if they would mind if you spoke to the third party about it," Branstetter tells Bustle. "In the workplace, it may also be appropriate to bring it up with a supervisor, HR department, or union representative."
Outside of work, there are other options. "If it is in a school setting, it may be appropriate to reach out to your Title IX Coordinator, or other resources," says Dr. Maria Anderson-Long.
The next time misgendering happens in front of you, whether it's a professional setting, a party, or a casual conversation, pay attention. Be prepared to be an ally — whether that means standing up for their rights, or staying silent but supportive to make sure they feel safe and comfortable in the moment.