Riley: In 2014, Laverne Cox said that misgendering trans people is an act of violence. Since then, she has repeated this statement multiple times, but some people still don’t want to believe it.
So I thought I’d explain why intentionally misgendering trans people is an act of violence and why you shouldn’t do it. But to get started, we need some definitions.
“Misgendering” is the act of referring to someone by the wrong gender or implying that they are a gender that they are not. So if you call a boy “she” or refer to him as a “girl,” that’s misgendering.
You can misgender cis people or trans people, but it’s particularly dehumanizing when done to trans people, and it’s something that basically all trans people have to deal with at some point. Of course, there are times when people intentionally misgender feminine cis boys or masculine cis girls as a way of trying reinforce arbitrary gender roles, and that’s awful as well, but I’m mainly going to be discussing misgendering towards trans people in this video.
Violence is a harder thing to define. Several dictionaries say that it involves the use the physical force, including the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries. However, dictionaries are not intended as all-knowing, unchangeable rulebooks.
They change and adapt over time as our usage changes – they are almost always descriptive, rather than prescriptive, nowadays. I would argue that their definition of violence is outdated and doesn’t encompass all of the forms of violence we recognize today.
And the World Health Organization agrees with me. In their 2002 World report on violence and health, the WHO defined violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”
This definition is purposefully broad. The WHO recognizes in their report that violence is culturally influenced and varies widely across the globe. What some people see as violence, others may not. However, in an effort to fight violence worldwide, this is the definition that the WHO came up with, and it explicitly includes non-physical forms of violence.
They say “physical force or power,” and they note that power isn’t necessarily physical; it includes all types of societal power imbalances. Plus, their definition states that violence doesn’t have to result in physical injury or death – instead, it can result in psychological harm.
Given that this is the definition that experts on the topic of violence have come up with, I would argue that it’s a much better and more effective definition than the one currently listed in most dictionaries. Therefore, violence does include psychological violence, and misgendering a trans person is absolutely an act of psychological violence.
If you still – for some reason – have a problem calling it violence, then call it aggression or abuse or whatever you want. The point is, it’s a bad thing that we shouldn’t do.
Ask any trans person, and they can tell you how awful being misgendered makes them feel. It’s a way of invalidating their identity. It makes them feel disrespected, isolated, uncomfortable, and hated simply because of their gender. It tells them that they should hide who they really are, that people will never fully accept them. Misgendering a trans person causes real psychological harm.
And not only that, but it contributes to physical harm, too. Lots of factors contribute to the extraordinarily high rates of suicide among transgender people, but misgendering is definitely one of them.
According to the 2014 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 4.6% of the US population reported that they have attempted suicide at some point in their life, while that number was about 41% for trans people.
However, studies show that having a supportive family – like people who don’t misgender you – can greatly reduce that rate. The 2015 US Transgender Study found that the rate of suicide attempts for trans people with unsupportive families was 54%, while it was 37% for those with supportive families.
Plus, misgendering contributes to a culture where violence against trans people is terrifyingly prevalent.
A 2013 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that trans people, and particularly trans women of color, were murdered at much higher rates than other LGBTQIA+ people.
Misgendering may not cause someone to go out and murder a trans person, but it does contribute to a culture in which hating and disrespecting trans people is the norm, which does allow some people to justify violence against trans people.
However you look at it, misgendering trans people causes real harm. And that applies to all trans people, not just the ones you like. Because there are some not-so-great trans people in this world, just as there are some not-so-great cis people, but everybody deserves to be gendered according to how they identify.
If you misgender someone just because you disagree with them, you’re basically telling all the trans people around you that their humanity is conditional, and that the second you don’t agree with them, their identity goes back to being invalid. There are so many ways you can insult someone without disrespecting all trans people.
And I know that sometimes you’ll misgender someone unintentionally. Maybe you didn’t know their pronouns or you just made a mistake. That’s fine. Just correct yourself, move on, and try not to do it again. You don’t need to apologize profusely and make a huge deal out of it – that’s probably drawing more unwanted attention to the situation anyway.
But once you know someone’s gender, if you continue to misgender them, that’s when you get into violent territory. Yes, it can be tricky to switch over to new pronouns or a new name for someone, but if you respect them or trans people at all, you need to do it.
And all of this includes non-binary people. If someone asks you to use they/them pronouns, just do it. If you need help accepting the validity of these pronouns, I’ve made an entire video on the subject, but you should know that misgendering a non-binary person is just as hurtful as misgendering a binary trans person. Non-binary identities are valid as well. And if you need help accepting that, I also have a video on that topic that will be linked down below.
So, intentionally misgendering trans people is an act of violence. It causes direct psychological harm and contributes to a culture where physical violence against trans people is commonplace. The solution is easy: Just don’t misgender people, and call out your friends or family if they misgender someone.
This video is a part of my Feminism with Riley series that I’m doing in collaboration with Everyday Feminism, a website dedicated to helping you stand up to and break down everyday oppression. Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time.