What does it mean to misgender someone — and why is it such an issue? Experts explain.

Misgendering trans and nonbinary people can leave invisible scars that are hard to heal, say experts. (Alex Cochran for Yahoo / Getty images)
Misgendering trans and nonbinary people can leave invisible scars that are hard to heal, say experts. (Alex Cochran for Yahoo / Getty images)
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TikToker Dylan Mulvaney and the singer Sam Smith were both misgendered after journalists stated their pronouns incorrectly on air.

In the case of Mulvaney, who became the target of anti-trans backlash in April after uploading a Bud Light-sponsored post on social media, she was referred to by the wrong pronoun by a CNN national correspondent, Ryan Young, who referred to Mulvaney as “he” instead of her preferred pronoun “she.” Anchor Kate Bouldan apologized Wednesday live, saying, “CNN aims to honor individuals ways of identifying themselves and we apologize for that error.”

As for Smith, who uses "they/them" pronouns, a TV host Lorraine Kelly repeatedly referred to them as "he/him" in a recent segment on Britain's ITV. The incident prompted the host to acknowledge the matter on Thursday, albeit without an apology, in a reply on Twitter: "Not in the least intentional but will take on board. Thanks for bringing to my attention," she wrote.

Unintentional or not, the impact of misgendering someone can have profound effects on an individual’s mental health and well-being, say experts. But for those who struggle to understand the ins and outs of the trans/nonbinary experience, finding solutions is easier said than done. Here’s what you should know.

What does it mean to misgender someone?

Misgendering is the act of incorrectly attributing someone’s gender identity (male/female/person) by using the wrong pronouns (he/him, she/her, they/them) or misusing gendered language (Mr., Ms., sir, ma’am, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, husband, wife, etc.) to describe or address them.

Groups disproportionately impacted are trans people, those who feel their gender identity does not match their biological sex (and who sometimes undergo gender-affirming care to better align themselves, either surgically or by adopting gender-affirming clothing, hairstyles and pronouns, otherwise known as “socially transitioning”) and nonbinary people, those who identify as no gender at all and sometimes (but not always) prefer nontraditional pronouns.

Misgendering often happens, despite the fact that 1 in 20 young American adults identify as nonbinary or transgender, per the latest Pew Research poll on the topic. Other studies, including a 2021 report from the Williams Institute, show that nearly 900,000 nonbinary Americans are under 30 years old, suggesting that younger folks are exploring gender identity to an extent older Americans have not.

Dylan Mulvaney in a black evening dress, wearing a diamond choker and blond hair.
The trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney has spoken openly about the stress she experienced after being misgendered online. (Aurora Rose/Variety via Getty Images) (Variety via Getty Images)

As a consequence, says Jean-Marie Navetta, director of learning and inclusion at PFLAG, an organization offering support for parents with LGBTQ kids, older folks, in particular, might have trouble understanding the nuances of the trans/nonbinary experience that many young people have embraced.

"A significant portion of trans and nonbinary people will be intentionally misgendered, which, for anyone who cares about respectful environments, should be a problem," Navetta tells Yahoo Life. "This isn't just a trend or a political thing. This is an issue that has a real, measurable, demonstrable impact on a whole population."

What's the mental health impact of misgendering?

Being misgendered can bring up a mix of emotions for gender-diverse people, including feelings of being alienated or “othered” by their peers. That's led to a significant increase of social anxiety among trans people, as noted in a January report from the Center of American Progress showing that 90% of trans/nonbinary people take at least one action to avoid such discrimination: avoiding public places, travel destinations, places of worship, hospitals, family gatherings and office spaces, for example.

While it’s common for people to associate gendered language with the gender a person appears to be expressing — masculine, feminine or somewhere in between — research shows that when a person directly states their gender (even when it doesn't match their visual expression) and peers intentionally misgender them anyway, it can make a person feel inadequate and "unseen."

Those feelings are echoed by Mulvaney, who told Chelsea Handler in May that she’s routinely “called a man” online. Recently, the influencer left for Peru, citing that she's felt "unsafe" in her own country. Similar stress recently led singer Demi Lovato to readopt she/her pronouns after coming out as nonbinary in 2021, citing the “exhausting” experience of being misgendered by people and on paperwork.

Sam Smith poses on the red carpet, swathed in wide-leg jeans and an oversized sweatshirt.
The nonbinary singer Sam Smith, on the red carpet in wide-leg jeans and an oversized sweatshirt at the European premiere of Barbie in London, was recently misgendered by a journalist. (Antony Jones/Getty Images for Warner Bros.) (Samir Hussein via Getty Images)

How do you make it right?

While there isn’t exactly a best practice to correct misgendering someone, Navetta says the most important thing is to lead with compassion and to own the mistake. However, to limit the chances of saying the wrong pronoun in the first place, you should always ask beforehand if you're not sure, as a sign of respect.

“When someone tells you their pronouns, use them. It actually is that simple,” Navetta says. “Saying things like, ‘You know, I'm new to this conversation around pronouns, and I really want to understand better, so I can get it right. Sometime, might you be able to tell me about your pronouns and why you use them? And if not, can you recommend a resource for me to learn more?’ can be a great opener. It makes clear that the person is trying to do better. The other option is the easiest go-to of all. If you don't understand something, look it up online and start reading.”

Ariel Emmanuel, associate director of the Training, Gender and Family Project at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, adds that “It's important to use your discretion and make a judgment call about how to best approach each situation without causing it to escalate.”

Leading by example, she notes, is vital for change. “If you want to be an ally for trans and gender-expansive folks, you can use your own power and privilege to speak up and educate,” Emmanuel says. “It can be difficult for trans people to always be the person that must educate everyone else about their identity.

“Allyship is an active verb,” she adds. “Your role as an ally is to advocate for a person when they cannot advocate for themselves.”

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