What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns

It can’t be emphasized enough: Coming out as transgender or any variation thereof is downright terrifying. It is often met with criticism, resistance, and invalidation. When I came out to friends, it felt like the world was crashing down all around me.

And by far, the worst part was the resistance I faced when asking others to stop saying “she.” Beyond coming out, we also ask others to change a very ingrained habit — to use different pronouns when speaking about us. This is where I encountered the most turmoil.

Some folks simply don’t understand what they are saying when they refuse to use someone’s stated gender pronouns.

When someone states their pronouns (he, she, ze, they, etc), they are asking for your respect. And when you choose not to use these pronouns, and instead opt for your own, you are not only invalidating someone’s identity, but you are also saying a plethora of harmful things that you likely never intended.

So what are you really saying when you’ve decided to continue using a pronoun that someone doesn’t identify with? Here are just a few things you could be suggesting when you use the incorrect pronouns:

1. I know you better than you know yourself.

When you make the decision to not respect someone’s pronouns, what you are ultimately saying is that their personal truth is something you are more knowledgeable about than them. You are saying, “How could you possibly know your gender? Only I could know that, and you’re wrong.”

The reality is, someone’s gender identity — how they relate to their bodies, and to the notions of femininity and masculinity — is only for that person to discover and declare. You are not living their life, and therefore, could not possibly know their gender better than they could. When you use the incorrect pronouns, though, you are saying that you are intimately more familiar with who they are than they are. And logically speaking, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Since when are you the expert on other peoples’ lives? If she says she’s a woman, I would think she would know better than you do, just like she knows her favorite food is spaghetti, she’s a Buddhist, and her favorite color is teal.

2. I would rather hurt you repeatedly than change the way I speak about you.

Each time we misgender someone, we are inflicting harm. Would you rather hurt someone? Or simply change the way you are speaking?

3. Your sense of safety is not important to me.

When we misgender someone, we run the risk of threatening their personal sense of safety, as well as their physical safety. When someone feels invalidated or disrespected, they may not feel safe or comfortable in the space.

We might also risk outing them as transgender to other people around us — folks who may not know they are trans, who may become aggressive or even violent if they realize this person is transgender. This could cause harm that we did not intend. A transgender person could lose their housing, their job, or even their friends if their status as transgender is revealed. If someone has asked you to use their pronouns, it could be a matter of safety — whether it’s their sense of safety, or their physical autonomy and security.

The bottom-line: If they ask you to use specific pronouns, use them unless they ask otherwise. Their safety could and often does depend on it.

4. Your identity isn’t real and shouldn’t be acknowledged.

When you ignore someone’s pronouns and opt for your own, what you are saying is that you do not recognize their identity as authentic, and you are refusing to acknowledge it as such. In other words, you heard their truth, but you are not accepting it. Instead, you are ignoring it. You are saying, “You said this is so, but I don’t believe you, so I will reject your truth and replace it with my assumptions.”

“You said you have a dog, but I like cats, so I’m going to pretend you have a cat. Here, have a bag of cat food.”

“You said you have cancer, but that’s too much for me to deal with, so I’m going to pretend you’re healthy. Let’s flush your medications down the toilet in celebration!”

“You said you are filing for divorce, but that makes me sad, so I’m going to keep pretending we’re married. Where do you want to get dinner tonight, honey?”

“You said you live on the third floor, but I hate climbing stairs, so I’m going to throw your housewarming party in the apartment downstairs, which I’ll pretend is yours.”

“You said you’re a man, but that would force me to use different pronouns, so I’m going to pretend you’re a woman.”

What you’re ultimately doing is living in a make-believe land. Someone has told you the truth, their lived experience and their reality, but you have replaced what you heard with your version of what you wish were true. We should treat each other as the experts on our own experience, and respect the identities we claim. To do otherwise is to live in denial. The truth will not change no matter how adamant your refusal to see it may be.

5. I want to teach everyone around me to disrespect you.

When you continue to use the incorrect pronouns, you are teaching everyone around you to use those same (incorrect) pronouns. Your transgender friend now has to correct not only you, but all of the people you’ve taught to use those same pronouns. You are working against them, and forcing them to come out as transgender over and over again. You are making their already very difficult job much, much harder.

6. Offending you is fine if it makes me feel more comfortable.

What you are really saying is that your sense of comfort is more important than offending someone else. You are saying that you are okay with hurting someone repeatedly, as long as you get to remain comfortable and unchallenged. It’s okay to be disrespectful, as long as it keeps things easy for you.

7. I can hear you talking, but I’m not really listening.

Yes, I heard you speak your truth, your lived experience, your journey — but I wasn’t really listening. I’m going to ignore what you’ve said, and continue misgendering you. I will hear what you’re saying, but I won’t truly listen to you, because your experience isn’t important to me.

8. Being who you truly are is an inconvenience to me.

Rather than being proud of you for living your truth, or commending your courage for revealing that truth to me, I’m going to ignore what you’ve said, because your identity is an inconvenience. I should never have to change how I refer to you. I shouldn’t have to change anything. I should be able to be comfortable at all times. Valuing your identity is a burden on me.

Even though transgender people face disproportionate rates of violence, suicide, homelessness, and discrimination, the REAL inconvenience here is me having to change which pronouns I use to refer to you. Because your struggle isn’t difficult enough as it is. It’s MY struggle, the struggle to switch pronouns, that is the real tragedy here.

9. I would prefer it if you stopped being honest with me.

When someone reveals their truth and you ignore and invalidate it, what you’re really saying is that you’d prefer that they weren’t honest with you. You’d prefer that they lied to you, so that you would never be burdened or inconvenienced by their identity or their struggles. What you’re saying is that you’d prefer if they were always dishonest, just to make your life easier. You would rather them live a lie and make things easier for you, instead of embracing their truth and happiness, and moving forward as their authentic, best self. You like dishonesty, it seems, because dishonesty allows you to maintain the illusion of what you would rather this person be.

10. I am not an ally, a friend, or someone you can trust.

Because I have criticized, rejected, and invalidated your identity, and refuse to acknowledge it as real, I’ve proven I am not someone you can talk to, not someone you can feel comfortable around, not someone who will listen and advocate for you. When I choose to misgender you, I have decided my own interests are far more important than your safety, validation, and dignity. And when I made that decision, I probably gave you the impression that I am not someone you can trust.

Yikes. That’s a lot of nastiness, isn’t it?

No, I imagine that this isn’t really what you are trying to say. But the intent is different from the impact. While you may not intend to say any of these things, that doesn’t change how it impacts the person on the receiving end. When you misgender someone, these are some of the take away messages that are received when you invalidate them.

When someone takes the brave step to come out to you, it is absolutely essential that you respect their journey, TRUST their lived experience, listen intently, and celebrate their identity. Rather than replace their reality with your own assumptions, celebrate their choice to move forward and live as their most authentic self.

Someone’s gender identity is never for you to arbitrarily decide — nor a doctor or parent’s decision, either. Only YOU can know, and consequently name your gender identity.

You may not understand their identity — gender is complicated, and the transgender spectrum might be a whole new concept for you. It’s not important that you understand everything perfectly. They’ve had years to arrive at this conclusion, and you’ve likely only had a few minutes, if that. It’s important that you listen, and trust that, with time, you will begin to understand how they came to know themselves.

Transition can be an exciting time. For me, I finally felt free to live as I was destined to be living, in the body I was intended to have. A supportive, caring friend can make all the difference in the world.

It’s as simple as using “he” when he asks you to, “she” when she asks you to, “they” when they ask you to, or even “ze” if ze asks you to. Using someone’s pronouns is just another way of saying, I trust and respect you.Β 

Using the correct pronouns is a way of validating that we ALL have the right to live our truth, however that truth looks or however that path twists or turns. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

36 thoughts on “What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns

    • El says:

      I misgendered someone fully aware of their gender, and that was three years ago. I AM NOT DEFENDING MYSELF what I did was absolutely terrible. I’m sorry! I have not forgiven myself. I never will. And I just want you to know that I was a terrible person, and wasn’t aware of the struggles of the trans community. I’m now a lot more educated. And now I will never forget those words that came out of my mouth three years ago. Words can hurt, and I know this, for I’m part of the LGBTQA+ community. And now I hate myself and I don’t know how to apologize cause he is now in college. And I want to say sorry this has been a huge weight on my shoulders I need to say sorry and that he is amazing and the most manly man I know and I just want to apologize I’m so sorry what to do with myself.

      Like

  1. Tabby Cat says:

    I follow a lot of pages on Facebook (mostly HP fandom ones, but that’s beside the point). Most of them are multi-admin pages and not all of the admins identify with the traditional male/female gender identities. I can’t remember what most of the admins identify as, unless they are one of my favourites or they’ve come out, either on the page in question or on their personal admin page, as being transgender, and a couple of my favourites have. Therefore, unless I know for certain the pronoun the admin in question has chosen to identify as, I’ll either refer to them by name or as “they” when talking about them, or by name or “you” when talking to them. I generally try to use their name more than anything, and, if I’m talking about/to a particular admin, it will be used at least once in each conversation, or at least once in each comment if more people are involved.

    I do this in the hope of not offending anyone as “they” and “you” are normally considered gender neutral and the admins choose their admin name.

    I also hope I’ve not offended/triggered anyone with this comment. I am aware that there are probably some people out there that don’t wish to be identified as “they” or “you” and if I have offended/triggered any of you I am deeply sorry.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. tempestletrope says:

    Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    My son’s best friend is trans (female to male). He has encountered a lot of ignorance and bullying. He lives with a severe version of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and this is more than enough of a challenge without people always telling him that he’s a “freak” or a “pervert.”
    I don’t know how long this young man has in this world. All the medications he’s on plus the effects of the disease on his vascular system have caused him to have seizures and, more recently, a subarachnoid bleed and a stroke. He’s not even 20 years old.
    This boy is not a pervert or a sicko, he is simply a person who feels that he was born into a body of the wrong gender. He is the gentlest soul and does not deserve the abuses that have been heaped on him.

    Like

  3. krisalex333 says:

    Hi Sam – very well said, but I feel we are preaching to the converted here on WordPress when we write about our emotions, hurt, fears, etc. I sincerely hope that I am wrong and that other than GLBT+ people also read our blogs and take heed. Thanks for the post and I hope you have opened a few eyes (and hearts). Take care.
    Kris

    Like

  4. Millie says:

    Great article that really spread awareness of the importance of respecting a person’s pronouns! I do feel like using the word “preferred” can perpetuate the idea that a person can choose their gender identity, though. When I hear “preferred pronouns,” I fear that a person who is cisgender or just doesn’t know much about transgender identity, they may believe that if a person can choose their pronouns – then they can choose their gender identity. We all know that is not the case because gender identity is something inherent within who we are and not something we choose! You may have meant it a different way, or just not paid attention to the language, but if you could please consider my perspective in the future?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      That makes perfect sense. I can (and will) definitely do that in the future. You get so used to hearing it a certain way in your community that you forget the implications at a point. Thanks for the feedback!

      Like

    • plymouths says:

      I think there’s some truth to this but it’s also not quite that simple because pronouns and gender identity are not a 1:1 relationship – not all people who identify as women use “she/her” pronouns, not all people who identify as gender-fluid use alternating “she/he” pronouns, etc. So when a person says “based on my gender identity these are the pronouns I prefer” it would either mean “these pronouns are kinda better than some other pronouns” or it could mean “any pronouns except these will make me curl up in a ball of misery” or anything in between. I know that for myself my preferred pronouns are “they/them” but I will also accept “zie/zir” or other gender-neutral pronouns and at work where I’m not out I’d prefer gender-neutral pronouns also but I don’t know how to ask for them so I tolerate gendered pronouns. And if someone is going to be totally wigged out awkward when they use gender-neutral pronouns I’d honestly prefer they just go with the gendered ones since stilted language and people acting all uncomfortable around me bugs me more than being misgendered (it makes me feel like my gender is an awkward inconvenient thing for them). I have another genderqueer friend who reacted with fury when I asked it was ok to call him “they” instead of “he” because apparently I was supposed to intuit that “prefer” meant “require on pain of vitriol and unfriending” (I didn’t even USE they – just asked if it was OK). So it’s an entire mess. It would be nice if people didn’t use “prefer” when they actually mean “require” but I don’t want to retire the idea of “prefer” entirely when it matches my personal experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jasper Liem says:

    Sam, this is a great summation of why language is so important! I’m doing a trans101 training this week, could I use this in my slides? I’ll of course credit you and this blog.

    Like

  6. dbp49 says:

    Another very informative post Sam. I do thank you for the education as this is not an area where a person should knowingly allow themselves the option of ignorance. Just too many people’s lives, and their safety at stake. If a person can’t take the time to educate themselves on the issues, eventually they will probably be responsible for another human being suffering on their account. Thus, (I should point out that I myself am a Christian), I would be all for some kind of course that taught this subject in our school system, both so that children would learn the proper use of these pronouns at an early age before anyone gets accidentally hurt, and also to teach the children that there is nothing strange or unusual in this matter of not everyone using the same pronouns. I see it as no stranger than telling a child that sometimes its normal to have two parents who are both of the same gender. Anyway, best of luck in your efforts to spread this very important message. Stay strong buddy. Read you later.

    Like

  7. Art Vandelay says:

    I have simplified it for everyone.
    “Hello, my name is Art. What is yours?”
    “My name is Sam.”
    “May I call you Sam?”
    “Yes.”
    Problem solved thanks to personal nouns. You are welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Allison says:

      Frick’n Art Vandelay! How goes the importing/exporting of your latex industries?
      (I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself… ^.^;;)

      Like

  8. Fatsycline says:

    I just want to say thank you for saying this better than I ever could. I sent this to my family who are having a hard time using correct pronouns, I hope it helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Blake Blume says:

    im putting togethr a zine on the queer, pronoun dilemas and how to not be an asshole to queer friends.
    could i include this article?
    I print diy under Soaring On Broken Stapled Wings in unceded ‘BC’

    Like

  10. Katie T. says:

    Pronouns are like names, therefore if you say “he” instead of “she” (for ex.) the way the person asked you too, you’re basically saying “Jack” instead of “Amelia” , which is the person’s name.

    Like

  11. Curious Z says:

    Empathy is important too.

    When I tell someone that I’ve changed gender and wish to be a “he” from now on, this often doesn’t actually fit into their world view. People have limited understandings of the world and the transgender issue is completely foreign to many many people akin to asking people to accept that I’m an alien. I’m not saying it’s accurate; I’m just trying to have some empathy on the mental and emotional impact I’m having on someone by changing genders. To many, me changing genders (or at least pronouns) makes no sense and is felt as an attack on their reality.

    Changing gender can have as extreme an impact as telling someone that their religion is wrong. I am asking someone to change their reality and their belief system so that it molds into mine. I think you are trivialising the impact I have on others by asking them to change not just their language, but their whole world view for me. I don’t expect people to be able to do that very easily but the way I say it with love and kindness is of utmost importance. Calling people out is such a stupid, distancing tactic.

    Like

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      I’m not sure what about my work reads to you as lacking love or empathy. I didn’t write an article about the impact on loved ones; I wrote an article about the impact on trans folks. Writing about the pain of trans folks doesn’t invalidate or contradict the pain of loved ones — it’s just not part of this article.

      Like

  12. Allison says:

    Not going to lie, when I saw the word “feminism” in your repertoire I literally cringed and shuttered. (Not because I hate feminists, I just hate the new wave of feminism that seems to hate gamers… I’m a hardcore gamer lol).

    But after I read this article I really do appreciate you and the work you put into this. I’ve been ‘out’ about my GID for almost 3 years now, even crossdress when I’m not at work and I still can’t get my supposed ‘friends’ and ‘family’ to use my proper pronouns or preferred name.

    I sent all of them the article, though I don’t know how responsive they will be, at least they might be able to understand just what I’m going through everytime they don’t do it.

    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      I’m a gamer too! So far, I’ve never seen my love of gaming as being in conflict with my feminism. I try to learn what I can from both.

      I’m so glad that this resource has been helpful and resonated with you. I hope that the folks you’ve sent it to can take something away from it too.

      Best of luck. πŸ™‚

      Like

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