Responding to incorrect transgender pronoun and/or gender identity usage

[I wrote this for The Huffington Post. You can read this article on the HuffPost site as well: ]

With incorrect, offensive, or downright transphobic phrases like “man in a dress,” “male-to-female transsexual,” “he calls himself Brandi,” or, likely the most offensive of them all, “he-she,” mainstream media simply cannot get it right. Sometimes it’s deliberate, especially in tabloids and other media that use exploitation to generate revenue. In other instances ignorance prevails in the media by those who ought to know better.

In addition, even if one is aware of proper transgender terms or pronoun use, writers make gaffes, anchors misspeak, copy editors get confused, and proofreaders change previously fixed errors back into mistakes again.

Should it be this way? Of course not. But until awareness of all things transgender becomes the norm in this world, I suggest we not blow gaskets but simply correct, educate, and move on.

Indeed, in my writings on transgender topics, I’ve lost track of a person’s correct gender more than once. In instances of research, contradicting sources left me choosing to use gender-neutral terms like “person” instead. Often, there is very little truly factual in the media to work from.

Recently I wrote about a trans person killed in a shooting. The only credible piece of evidence that suggested the victim was a trans person was an undated photo released by the police. There were no comments from friends or relatives or other clues indicating which gender the victim usually presented as. Rather than speculate, I choose to use gender-neutral terms. After the article was published, I faced harsh criticism from one set of people for not using female pronouns (as the police photo suggested I should have), and at the same time I literally was blasted by another set of people for “insulting” trans people with gender-neutral terms. I didn’t bother to read the hate comments from people who insisted that the victim was “obviously” male.

Not too long ago a prominent LGBT organization was discredited by a transgender blogger for getting a supposed trans victim’s gender wrong, causing a bit of a ruckus, but another blogger uncovered evidence that the LGBT organization’s report was correct all along. Meanwhile, I ended up changing the gender ID of the victim I was writing about three times, trying to stay factually correct.

In addition to the frequent lack of facts, know this: There are very few of us writing almost exclusively on trans issues, and most of us are likely unpaid and don’t have a second set of eyes looking over the material. In reporting, paramount are the four “w”s: who, what, where, and when. On trans topics, correct gender and pronouns are added to that mix. And with the source material likely loaded with incorrect or purely speculated gender IDs, we have our hands full.

If any one of us trans writers, or our allies, should make a gender or pronoun error, know that we’re likely doing the best we can, and it is often a no-win game. If you must disagree, just make your case and be nice. We’re here to learn, too.

Please note, however, that there is no excuse for any media to deliberately misinform or launch a hate piece.

17 replies

  1. I am sorry you have to deal with the hate for getting some things wrong. It would be hard to have your job and making it all correct based on one photo.. I my self would rather see you talking in gender nutural than have it wrong and upsetting that many more.. It is people like you who help us to move ahead and have great futures.

  2. I have a trans* friend, and a few times, when we’re having a discussion on her page on FB, a few of us still slip up and say ‘he’. This is usually when we’re talking about an event in the past, before her transition, when we knew her as a male. We usually just go something along the lines of “Sorry! Gah, this gets confusing at times, lol. I was thinking of you as ‘he’ because at the time, you were ‘he’, and I wasn’t paying enough attention.” And we have a laugh, and move on.

    I guess sometimes, you gotta have a laugh, and move on. Slip ups happen. Relax. If it’s unintentional, and/or not meant in the spirit of being malicious, then relax. I’d rather see gender neutral pronouns being used than the wrong ones. Until you know for certain, better safe than sorry.

    I’d be offended, as a woman, if I was a victim of a crime, and my identity, and gender, were not released, and I was referred to as ‘he’, because the writer found it more convenient, then using gender neutral terms. And I’m not trans*.

    • “when we knew her as a male,” “at the time, you were ‘he’,”

      So, so, cissexist. Just because you previously ASSUMED she was male, and she may have been putting on a facade reinforcing that assumption does not mean she WAS a male. You don’t get to decide that for her. Also “at the time, you were he.” At the time, you assumed she was a he. *Now you know better*, and yet you still try to force that incorrect label on her when talking about the past. I’m surprised she’s still friends with you.

      • Carol at least they are trying. My wife has that happen to her occasionally, and she doesn’t unfriend them because of it. It’s called being human, have some compassion and try it sometime. If that’s all it takes for you to get your panties in a bunch, I’d be surprised if you had any friends left yourself.

      • Carol, people are human and humans make mistakes stop being so super critical. I myself ID as female but so many people knew me when I had to live in disguise as a male that misgendering is very common. Todays activists need to grow a thicker skin. Ive lived through the 70s and honestly feel great strides have been made. Im still misgendered by some and I either let it go or correct them quietly.

      • Carol, “at the time, you were ‘he'” is clearly a reference to the fact that, at the time, their chosen pronouns and expressed gender identity were male.

        You’re doing something close to what Courtney is advising against in her article, and assuming bad faith and getting worked up over a simple mistake. I’d recommend saving your ire for actual ignorance and malice, you’ll feel better!

      • At the time she presented male, and therefore he was the correct pronoun. Get off tumblr and join reality.

        -Friendly neighborhood trans-woman

  3. I feel my transition is not just mine. I have forced a transition on all those around me without their permission and I do not get huffy if they make a mistake. My sweet 94 year old mother has been a challenge. She loves me dearly the way I am and in describing me to her friends I finally got her to describe me as “her one and only” because she cannot say “daughter”. She just cannot make the change. But she does buy clothes for me and we are fine with my transition every other way.

  4. Its our right to transition if we feel we were born in the wrong body. Time and Time again AND deliberately after I’ve told the offender they persist in doing it, using a male term when they know I am female, have a female name and even look/pass as a female. Its a state of mind that the offender persists in refusing to move from. Its also pure ignorance. I do know a mistake, but much of it is not a mistake, and to those who persist I will make no apology for embarrassing them as much as they embarrass and humiliate me and think its OK to do it.

  5. I hate to post a question here, but I’m hoping someone may have advice on a very related issue. There is an artist that I need to write about who seems to identify as male and talks about the process of receiving testosterone. Yet in a video, “J” said “I don’t feel male or female”. I don’t have this artist’s contact info or else I would just ask. The last thing I want to do is avoid writing about this brilliant artist just because I’m not sure how to do so. If anyone could help me, please let me know. Thanks : )

    • I’m just now seeing this. You can write to avoid the use of pronouns. Or you can state that you are unsure how the person wants to be addressed so you’re using “he” for the purpose of the article. Good luck.

  6. Just read this. You’ve raised some good points and as some of the other comments have pointed out, there are some people, either friends or family, who simply cannot make the mental leap to the new gender. I’ve had very little problems personally with others calling me “he”, but I’ll admit that since the Province of Ontario allowed me to change my birth certificate to show “female” it has been easier. My sons still call me “Dad”, but that is understandable since I was their father and I accept it. Their wives/girlfriends refer to me by my first name.

  7. anewcatsworld; Thanks for the comments, I think it’s kind of you to be patient with your friends and family. I think what you said highlights the fact there there are people who do things innocently (out of habit, or lack of education) but mean well, versus people who do it out of a mean spirit or hatred. Personally, I read this blog partly because I don’t want to hurt or offend someone out of ignorance of not knowing what to say or do, so I’m trying to learn as much as possible. I think a lot of people would be more accepting if they just learned more because many people are afraid of what they don’t understand.

  8. Hi Lexie
    I’m sure you didn’t wake up one morning with the aspiration to be a role model, but that’s exactly what happened.
    I have a close friend who is transitioning. Your articles helped me (and his family, as I forwarded your work) understand a lot of what is unknown to cis people. You helped us see how hurtful using the wrong pronoun can be, and how much my friend must have struggled to tell his family (he was raised in strong Catholic faith).
    It’s funny. If these events had not happened so close to me for the last 10 years, I would still be clueless.
    I feel sorry for the person I could have been.
    I don’t think cis people realize how hurtful they can be, even if they don’t mean to be.
    Thank you for all of your work and making this world a better and more accepting place to live in 🙂

  9. I can handle still being called “him” or “he” pretty well most of the time, last week in the E.R. exam room the male doctor started calling me “It” and that really hurt especially since I was coming out of a T.I.A. (mini-stroke). He was looking at my medical file on his computer screen (hospital records show me as female) and demanded to know if I was a Mr. or Miss. , I suggested he just call me my legal name Richelle. “We’re not allowed to call patients by their first name, Sir !” he snapped back at me. He than told the poor nurse that she should keep “It” on all the monitors and ask “It” about pain and dis-comfort levels. “Explain to “It” the 1 to 10 pain level thing” and walked out of the room. The very nice nurse then asked me if I was crying because of the pain or the doctor’s attitude. “Both” I told her feeling very weak.

  10. Sorry, this happened to you. I don’t know the circumstances or urgency, but asking for a different doctor is an option. Also, you could ask to see the Hospital Administrator to complain as they are more in tune with the hosital’s reputation. You can also call her if you’re already out of the hospital. Good luck!

Leave a Reply to Gliktch Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: