Pronouns 102: how to apologise when you misgender trans folx
Welcome to the second post in a cis person’s guide to pronouns, my mini-series explaining why trans people are always talking about pronouns. Spoiler alert: it’s because cis people often apologise badly when they misgender trans and non-binary people. You need to apologise in a way that doesn’t put pressure on the trans person to assure you that it’s ok that you messed up their pronouns.
Disclaimer: not every single trans or non-binary person will want you to apologise in exactly the same way.
We all fuck up and make mistakes. Every trans and non-binary person has been misgendered. I have been misgendered by people I love. I have also fucked up and misgendered people that I love. We grow up thinking about gender in very binary ways, and it takes time to train ourselves to use pronouns that we’re not used to.
No one is expecting you to never mess up someone’s pronouns – what matters most is that you try, and that you apologise when you do fuck up and misgender a trans person.
The important thing to do when you have misgendered someone is to quickly correct yourself and move on. If you realise halfway through a sentence that you’ve messed up, apologise and correct yourself:
“I was talking to her yesterday about – no, sorry – I was talking to hir yesterday about this book.”
If someone else corrects you, follow the same pattern. Apologise and correct yourself:
“He asked me -“
“Shit, sorry. They asked me…”
When someone misgenders a trans or non-binary person in front of you, and you know that they’re definitely out as trans in that situation, the right thing to do is correct them. Gently correcting someone when they use the wrong pronouns for a trans person is one of the most important ways that you can show up as a trans ally. Dealing with someone’s potential defensiveness when they are corrected takes on some of the emotional labour that usually gets put on the trans or non-binary person.
If you mess up and misgender someone in a tweet or in a blog post, delete the tweet or edit the blog post. If you’ve done this in an email to someone else, send a follow up email correcting yourself! If a trans person won’t have noticed that you misgendered them, I would advise you not to tell them that you misgendered them. An apology like that, rather than just correct your mistake, is more about you not wanting to feel guilty than about you trying to make them feel better.
Which leads me to some tips on how not to apologise when you misgender a trans person…
Don’t centre yourself in your apology. The guilt you are feeling does not compare to how awful the person you’ve misgendered feels, and it’s not helpful for you to tell them how bad you feel.
Don’t tell them how hard this is for you. It might be hard for you to remember that there are more than three sets of pronouns, but it is not as hard as it is to navigate a world built for cisgender people.
Don’t keep apologising. Repeated apologies don’t help the person you’ve misgendered, they just make them feel like you need them to tell you that it’s ok when it’s not.
Don’t tell them how many trans friends you have, or how out of character this is for you. This again puts pressure on the trans person you’ve misgendered to reassure you that you’re not a bad person.
Don’t do it again. To me, the biggest deal in whether an apology is genuine or not is whether the person tries to do better and makes an effort not to mess up again. An apology feels much less sincere the third or fourth or fifth time someone has misgendered me and is messaging me to tell me how guilty they feel and how sorry they are.
Cis people, you have to get used to feeling uncomfortable. You need to learn how to apologise when you misgender a trans person without centring yourself in that apology. You don’t have to be perfect, but I don’t have to make you feel comfortable if you’ve misgendered me.
You know what will make me feel better if you’ve misgendered me? Both pledging to my Patreon at the $2 level – even for just one month! – or buying me a coffee work great as an apology. Your support also means I can keep creating content about being a better trans ally in a world that constantly misgenders me.
Quinn Rhodes (he/him) is a queer, trans, disabled sex writer. He’s a sex nerd with vaginismus who creates educational content about trans inclusivity. Quinn can usually be found wearing stomp-on-the-patriarchy boots and figuring out what it means to be a feminist who’s also a trans guy. For more explicit writing about his adventures in learning to fuck without fucking up, check out onqueerstreet.com.