By Dr Marco Pino and Dr David Edmonds
This article is about misgendering of trans people and quotes examples of misgendering. We are allies and write from and adopt a trans-affirming perspective. We acknowledge that, despite our efforts, we can get things wrong. Our aim is to keep learning, and we welcome feedback.
Misgendering occurs when a person is addressed, referred to, or described with language that does not match their gender identity (Dolan et al., 2020). Misgendering affects transgender people (henceforth trans)—people whose gender is not the same as the sex that they were assigned at birth. Misgendering has repeatedly been cited as contributing to the social exclusion and oppression of trans people, and it can have negative impacts on their health (McLemore, 2015). Existing studies of the experiences and effects of misgendering have been based on survey or interview data. While the findings of such studies acknowledge that misgendering occurs in conversations (although not exclusively), to our knowledge, there is no research on how it actually unfolds in situ. Our project focuses on how misgendering happens and is addressed (or not) in social interaction.
Extract 1 is an example of misgendering from a television interview, where the presenter Alison Hammond is talking about Caitlyn Jenner, a well-known trans woman. Before this extract, Hammond has commented on Jenner’s use of the Geordie accent in a reality show that she was participating in. Two guests are present in the studio, including Ruth Langsford. The following happens:
Hammond refers to Caitlyn Jenner using the incorrect pronoun “he” (line 2). She starts a new TCU in line 4, again using “he”. By this point, it has arguably become available to her recipients that Hammond has passed on the opportunity to fix the incorrect reference through self-repair in the same TCU or in the ensuing transition space. Langsford interjects in line 5, midway through Hammond’s TCU-in-progress. Langsford’s turn is packaged as an agreeing assessment (“↑She is very funny”) but appears to be mobilised to correct Hammond’s misgendering of Jenner (note the emphasis on “↑She”). Hammond completes her TCU in line 6, in a way that has the potential to erase the sequential implicativeness of Langsford’s turn. However, in line 7, Langsford produces an upgraded version of her assessment (“She is very very funny”). In line 8, Hammond affiliates, and she now refers to Jenner with “she”.
This example appears to match the pattern of embedded correction identified by Jefferson (1987) and further documented by Land and Kitzinger (2005) within sequences of talk where heteronormative assumptions are corrected. In our collection, we have observed a range of different patterns of correction in cases of misgendering—including exposed and embedded corrections, as well as instances where incorrect pronoun use is not corrected (what one might call ‘non-correction’).
Identifying cases of misgendering
The extract above appears to show a rather straightforward instance of misgendering. Nevertheless, we have found that it is not easy to come by cases of misgendering. Our collection is largely based on cases from publicly available data, such as interactions taken from Youtube.com and podcasts. All the while, we continue to search other data sets. The following example, which Laura Jenkins kindly gave us permission to use, comes from a family mealtime interaction recorded in the UK. It involves Charlie, a 5-year-old child, and his Mum and Dad. Charlie is telling Dad a story involving Mum. The following happens:
Charlie refers to Mum with the incorrect pronoun “he” (line 1), and this prompts Mum’s emphatic repair initiation in line 2. Charlie does not deliver the repair (note that in line 2 Dad reacts to Charlie’s story, not Mum’s repair initiation). Mum delivers the repair in line 6. This example is interesting because it points to a broader notion of misgendering, beyond interactions involving trans people (either as co-participants or as referred-to absent parties). It is also interesting to observe that although Mum’s turn in line 6 happens to correct Charlie’s conjugation of the verb ‘take’ in line 1, this is clearly not the purpose of her turn, which is ostensibly mobilised to correct Charlie’s misgendering of her. We can see that misgendering arguably attracts moral considerations that other speech errors do not attract—indeed, Mum does not ordinarily correct Charlie’s other errors.
We are currently identifying instances of misgendering and analysing them on a case-by-case basis. Whilst we have not settled on a specific focus yet, we are interested in the first instance in understanding when and how misgendering happens. We wish to draw on feminist conversation analysis (Kitzinger, 2000) and evidence the ways in which talk can be used to establish inclusive (versus exclusionary) social orders and institutional realities. To this end, we find it essential to acknowledge how our own positionality informs and limits our perspective on these matters. As we are both cisgender, we lack the lived experience of the impact of misgendering (and of cisgenderism more broadly). Our biases may limit our understanding of the data and our ability to foresee the impacts of our research on trans people (see Vincent, 2018). Nevertheless, our research process involves direct consultation from trans people.
Some of the trans people we consulted have warned us about the risk of taking some analytic findings to suggest that some ways of correcting misgendering (e.g., ‘polite’, less overt, embedded) are better than others. The risk they see is that this might translate into advice for trans people not to correct others in ways that might upset them. This could reinforce existing forms of oppression in which trans people are tone-policed for correcting cisgender people in ways that can be perceived as aggressive or blunt (Ahmed, 2021). These observations are powerful eye-openers on the need for us to develop awareness of broader issues to ensure that our research process is sensitive to the needs and experiences of trans people; that our findings are not used to further harm trans people; and that our research does not unwittingly reproduce dynamics we wish to critique.
How people respond to being corrected
The trans people we have consulted also suggested that a useful direction for research would be to document the different ways that people respond to being corrected for misgendering others. This would shift the focus away from the assumption that trans people (the targets of misgendering) need to do something about it and rather make cisgender people responsible for making things better – in the first instance, by responding to misgendering in ways that do not create additional burden for trans people. Two instances can exemplify this.
Extract 3 is from a podcast that Kevin Whitehead kindly brought to our attention. The podcast makes publicly available a therapy session involving Monique, her mum, and psychotherapist Esther Perel. In one of her voiceovers included in the podcast, Perel informs the audience that Monique has asked for Monique’s name to be used as an “all-encompassing reference and pronoun”. This means that Monique is always correctly referred to as “Monique” (not through “she”, “he”, “they”, or any neo-pronoun). Before the next extract, Monique has already corrected Perel for referring to Monique as “her”.
Addressing Mum, Perel refers to Monique through the incorrect pronoun “her” (line 2). Apparently exploiting an emerging pause after the pronoun, Monique steps in to correct the reference (line 3). Despite the lack of video data (the interaction is available online as an audio recording), there are indications of interactional trouble. After substantial silence (line 4) and a click and inbreath by one of the three participants (line 5), Mum starts what might be projected as an emerging complaint about Monique (e.g., “is it [necessary…]”, line 6). Monique produces what we hear as ‘nervous’ laughter (line 7). Perel intervenes from line 8. What we notice is that Perel validates the correction (line 11) and subsequently frames the matter of correctly referring to Monique as something that Perel, as a professional, needs to learn (lines 11-13, and 15). This can be seen as a supportive intervention (a way of doing being an ally for Monique), especially in the face of a possibly incipient complaint by Mum. The next case offers a stark contrast.
Extract 4 is from the programme Good Morning Britain. Journalists Susanna Reid and Piers Morgan are debating with guest Juno Dawson (introduced as a “trans activist and author”) on the topic of “genderless acting awards (sic)”.
Morgan incorrectly refers to the performer Asia Kate Dillon as “she” (line 6), which Dawson corrects in line 7 before Morgan’s TCU-in-progress reaches possible completion, pointing out that the correct pronoun for Asia is “they”. Morgan completes his TCU, dis-attending the correction and persisting in using “she” (lines 6 and 8). Reid then draws attention to Dawson’s correction (line 9). We observe that, rather than supporting Dawson, this makes her accountable for the correction; Dawson delivers the account from line 10. Morgan’s repair initiation in line 12 challenges Dawson’s correction (on the use of “what do you mean” + [repeat] see Raymond & Sidnell, 2019)—a stance that Morgan makes explicit in line 15 by objecting to the use of “they” to refer to an individual, thus concurrently displaying lack of knowledge or understanding of appropriate ways of referring to nonbinary persons.
Extracts 3 and 4 exemplify what we think is a promising focus for our research: documenting how people’s responses to being corrected can embody radically different positions. Through supporting and validating responses (e.g., Extract 3), speakers take responsibility for adopting inclusive language. By contrast, in Extract 4, the person who corrects a journalist for misgendering a nonbinary person is singled out and made accountable for making what is framed as an unusual (perhaps even unreasonable) request.
Final note and call for data
In all, our project seeks to examine how misgendering occurs and is responded to in social interaction. Thus far, we have identified two fruitful analytic foci—patterns of correction in misgendering and how people ‘doing misgendering’ deal with being corrected. We would welcome feedback and input from the wider ISCA community. Furthermore, we are always on the lookout for more instances of misgendering; any cases that can be provided to us (ethically, of course) would be invaluable.
Ahmed, S. (2021, April 16). Complaint activism. https://feministkilljoys.com/2021/04/16/complaint-activism/
Dolan, I. J., Strauss, P., Winter, S., & Lin, A. L. (2020). Misgendering and experiences of stigma within health care settings for transgender individuals. Medical Journal of Australia, 212(4), 150
Jefferson, G. (1987). On exposed and embedded correction in conversation. In G. Button & J. R. E. Lee (Eds.), Talk and social organization (pp. 86-100). Multilingual Matters
Kitzinger, C. (2000). Doing feminist conversation analysis. Feminism & Psychology, 10(2), 163-193.
Land, V., & Kitzinger, C. (2005). Speaking as a Lesbian: Correcting the Heterosexist Presumption. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 38(4), 371-416.
McLemore, K. A. (2015). Experiences with Misgendering: Identity Misclassification of Transgender Spectrum Individuals. Self and Identity, 14(1), 51-74.
Raymond, G., & Sidnell, J. (2019). Interaction at the Boundaries of a World Known in Common: Initiating Repair with “What Do You Mean?”. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 52(2), 177-192.
Vincent, B. W. (2018). Studying trans: recommendations for ethical recruitment and collaboration with transgender participants in academic research. Psychology & Sexuality, 9(2), 102-116.