The malevolence of misgendering: a trans dilemma

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“I felt very alone and isolated — the worst part is I knew damn well my school wasn't going to stand up for me,” said Adam Stark, a 23-year-old trans man living in Kennesaw, Georgia.  

Stark was speaking of his high school experience, one which forced him to navigate the all-too-common minefields of transphobia — misgendering, when someone refers to a trans person using the wrong gender pronouns, and deadnaming, when someone refers to a trans person by using the name they were assigned at birth, not their actual, or chosen, name — often one changed to match their gender identity.

“In high school, I came out as trans to my color guard instructor who was a gay man,” Stark said. “Then [he] outed me to the principal and guidance counselor. The guidance counselor said point blank: ‘In this school system you can never go by Adam or use he/him pronouns. We have to go with whats on your birth certificate,’” Stark said.

Stark [ pictured in the middle] meets famous Youtubers Dan and Phil.

Stark [ pictured in the middle] meets famous Youtubers Dan and Phil.

Of course, Stark pointed out, this wasn’t an issue for kids named Charles James who wanted to go by “CJ” or for kids named Jillian who preferred Jill. This clearly was about gender, not legal red tape, Stark reasoned.

In their article for Healthline, non-binary author KC Clements explains how misgendering is harmful. In the piece, Clements explains that misgendering can be caused by genuine ignorance or confusion based on assumptions people often make about the gender of others, like the common assumption that if someone has a beard, they have a penis, or that having either one of these things makes someone a man.

“I've actually had several queer and trans people use he/him pronouns — I identify as nonbinary and use they/them [pronouns] — and masculine terms to describe me recently which has felt really jarring and almost worse than when it happens with cis, straight folks who probably just don't know better,” Clements said. “In my daily life, I'm generally read as a cis-passing man which is more comfortable for me than being identified as a woman but is also invalidating of my nonbinary identity.”

Misgendering can be accidental, but it can also be an intentional act of maliciousness. A study conducted by IPSOS and published at The Financial found that in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and the United States, three in five people are likely to misgender trans people. In the U.S., 22 percent of those surveyed said they would intentionally misgender a trans person.  

Photo courtesy of Tracee McDaniel.

Photo courtesy of Tracee McDaniel.

“About seven years ago my best friend’s mother misgendered me during a party,” said Tracee McDaniel, an activist and trans rights advocate based in Atlanta, Georgia.

“[It was] in reaction to her ex-husband openly flirting with me at another one of their family gatherings, which made me feel really uncomfortable at the time it was happening. Her actions caught me off guard because I’ve previously spent time with my best friend’s other family members over our over thirty-year friendship and none of them have misgendered me, to my face that is. I’ve concluded that I’ll just decline from going to any future family events they invite me to that she will be in attendance, [so that] . . . I don’t lose my friendship with my friend whom I consider family.”

Some trans people can leave situations where they are regularly misgendered and/or deadnamed, but others face this in school, home and workplace environments where they cannot leave.

Deadnaming has a multitude of harmful effects on transgender and gender non-binary people. A study from the Journal of Adolescent Health found that using the chosen name of trans youth reduces their risk of depression and suicide.

Stark recalled a friend who regularly deadnamed him in high school.

“She refused to call me Adam so I started calling her by her ex’s name,” Stark said laughingly. “She got slowly angrier and angrier until she finally stopped deadnaming me — it might have been petty but it worked.”

A 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that, between June 2012 and May 2015, 51 percent of female-to-male transgender adolescents have attempted suicide, that 30 percent of male-to-female transgender adolescents have attempted suicide and that 42 percent of adolescents who identified as not exclusively male or female have attempted suicide.

“For transgender youth, we know, for example, that peer, school, community, and family based rejection, discrimination, and victimization are associated with greater risk for suicidal behaviors,” Russell Toomey, the study’s lead conductor, told news agency Reuters. “Transgender youth might respond to these experiences by internalizing this rejection (e.g., shame), feeling like a burden to others, or perceiving that they do not belong.”

Recently a viral video of a trans woman yelling at a GameStop employee after he repeatedly misgendered her went viral, sparking an onslaught of transphobic memes and comments.

In an interview with Alberque’s KOB4 that woman, Tiffany Moore, explained how she felt to be a subject of memes calling her “sir” and a “man” and memes using transphobic slurs.

“What’s really sad is it’s bringing so many bigots out of the woodwork,” Moore said.

She went on to describe the anger she felt in the moment captured on film.

"Yeah, I could have reacted a whole lot better,” Moore said. “But you know what, I look back at it and if I could, I wouldn't change a single thing . . . because my actions were justified. I mean, it was blatant and malicious hate. It was blatant and malicious misgendering."

Clements shared their thoughts on the video.

“It's hard to watch, honestly,” Clements said. “While it's important that the incident is on film, the fact that they felt the need to tape it and post it — leaving this woman and other transfeminine people open to virulent critique from right-wing trolls — feels like one more way in which trans women are uniquely and unacceptably surveilled. Having that on camera with millions of people watching is a nightmare.

Clements takes a selfie with their dad’s llamas, Rocky and Columbia.

Clements takes a selfie with their dad’s llamas, Rocky and Columbia.

It is important for cisgender people to realize the nature of complacency in affecting transphobia. This video went viral because millions found it humorous, and misgendering simply isn’t funny.

In Clements’ Healthline article, they suggest to avoid assuming someone's gender based on appearance, to ask which pronouns to use when unsure and to — easily enough — refer to people how they wish to be referred to.

“When I was coming out, the prevailing wisdom was that you should put up with misgendering from the people in your life and be patient with them, so at the start of my transition I would either let it slide or I would get completely furious about it,” Clements said.

“Now, I think myself and many other people have developed better tools to handle being misgendered. It's just a fact that we're all going to mess up sometimes because, of course, none of us [are] perfect. For me personally, the best thing someone can do in that situation is correct themself and move on, so I generally take that approach with others when I'm the one who's in the wrong.”

Stark pointed out the importance of the role his friends played in his own experiences by calling out people who misgendered him, a step any of us — LGBTQ or not — can easily take.

“I've noticed when ignorant people realize that they don't have anyone on their side they give up the fight rather quickly,” Stark said.


Luke Gardner is a radical journalist and student who lives in metro Atlanta. To see his work or for contact information click here.