We live in a society in where gender is an integral part of our identity. No matter how much we skirt around it, gender says a lot about who we are, often dictates how we act, and heavily influences the way we are treated. Gender is often seen as a key piece of information in social situations – we need to know other people’s genders and we are uncomfortable when we are not able to determine them.
In Western society, people are sorted into a binary system of gender. There are men and there are women, and the prevailing mode of thought is that you must be one or the other (this, of course, is not necessarily true). We seek to determine gender and we assign gender to others without conscious knowledge and often without the person’s consent.
We gender people in everyday conversation all the time, even when we don’t notice it. It can be as simple as the barista telling you “have a nice day, ma’am,” or someone referring to you as “he.” We assign genders to strangers based on cues that have relatively little meaning, and we are wrong more often than we would like to admit.
Misgendering occurs when there is a disconnect between our gender identity and the perception of our identity by others. In our society, being mistaken for a gender we do not identify with is demeaning. To be a woman who is mistaken for a man is humiliating, and to be a man who is mistaken for a woman is degrading. Our genders are so central to our concept of self that misgendering is taken as a sign of disrespect.
How is it possible to avoid misgendering (and thus to avoid inflicting this sort of disrespect) entirely, if we have to work within a system that encourages us to gender even strangers? The answer is simple: stop gendering strangers.
The primary mode by which we gender those whose gender is not outright known to us is through our language. Luckily, the English language is flexible enough that we can easily avoid gendering, simply through the use of gender-neutral or non-gendered language. For example, we might (and often do) say “this person” when we could say “this guy” or “this girl” and risk getting it wrong. It is also easy enough to leave off gendered terms like “sir” or “ma’am” without changing the meaning or intent of the rest of our sentence.
“What about pronouns?” you may be asking yourself. “How am I supposed to get around using ‘he’ or ‘she’?” Well, the singular “they” pronoun has been in use since the 15th century – and if it’s good enough for Shakespeare (and it was), it’s good enough for you.
Gender neutral language is respectful not only for people who don’t fit into the gender binary, but also for those who do. I urge you to make a simple linguistic shift towards gender-neutral language, and to make your social environment safer for everyone around.