NAMI: Misgendering can lead to stigma against trans people
With June being Pride Month, it's a fitting time to talk about an issue that is prevalent within the LBGT+ community: misgendering.
Misgendering is not only hurtful to those affected by it, but it can also lead to serious mental health effects and social isolation. As such, it's important to look at what misgendering is, how it affects mental health, and ways in which we can lessen these affects.
Before we start, let's define a few terms:
• Cisgender: Someone who's gender identity matches with that given at birth, an example being someone who is born male identifying as male.
• Transgender: Relating to someone who's identity doesn't match with their birth gender, an example being someone who is born male identifying as female.
• Non-Binary: Someone who doesn't identify with any gender or identifies with non-traditional genders not part of the gender 'binary'.
Misgendering is when someone is called by a name, title or pronoun that doesn't match with their own personal gender identity. Being called "he" when you identify as "she", "sir" instead of "ma'am", "he/she" instead of "them." This is something that can happen to anyone, but it is more likely to happen, and is in fact more mentally harmful, to transgender and nonbinary individuals, according to a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School.
Misgendering is a frequent phenomenon. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that around three-fifths of participants would intentionally misgender those they knew to be trans or non-binary. Further, surveys of trans and non-binary persons have shown that close friends/family would only refer to them by their preferred name 58% of the time.
While this serves as a reminder of stigmatization and marginalization that is faced by transgender people, it is also a showing of the mental health effects that misgendering can inflict. The mental health effects of misgendering are numerous, and can include:
• An increase in anxiety, depression, and stress
• Low self-esteem
• Negative body image
• Social isolation from friends and family
While these effects may be felt by those who are cisgendered, they are felt far more by those who are gender non-conforming. As previously mentioned, transgender individuals are more likely to be misgendered. This increased frequency can lead to these individuals feeling beat down by the frequency of it, making these effects more likely.
The root of this misgendering problem is a societal issue. It's an issue of acceptance that requires a major change in how we all think for it to go away. Thankfully in the time of here and now, there are some ways to mitigate the harm done by misgendering.
Peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that the best way to mitigate the negative mental health effects is to have a strong support network. The better the support system someone has, the less anxiety, stress and depression they face. So, if you know someone who is facing these issues, one of the best things you can do is to let them know that you'll be there for them.
People who don't face frequent misgendering might have questions when it comes to the gender/pronouns of transgender and non-binary people. How do you go about asking people's pronouns? What do I do if I do misgender someone? Zil Goldstein, an associate medical director for transgender and gender non-binary health at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, has a few answers for such questions.
"Making pronouns part of everyday social rituals of introduction helps to normalize the practice," Goldstein said. "Instead of reserving it, pointedly, for trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people."
By normalizing the sharing of pronouns, it helps to make transgender and nonbinary people feel less out of place. This kind of normalization can then also help to reduce the stress that can come with being misgendered.
Further, Goldstein says that the best way to apologize to someone for misgendering is to do just that, apologize. There's no need to skirt around the issue, the best and most compassionate way is to address the issue and put the other person first.
Ultimately, being misgendered isn't some mild annoyance, it's something that can bring real mental harm. While there's no fault in slipping up now and again, the important thing is to understand that words carry meaning with them, and that we should be mindful of how they can affect others.
Your language matters.
Bart Brewer is the newsletter editor for Clackamas County's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
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