Health Effects of Misgendering

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on November 10, 2022
5 min read

No matter who you are, each person has their own gender identity. In society, this identity can help others know how to address you. But in some cases, another person might mistake your gender identity and refer to you incorrectly. If you're transgender, nonbinary, or gender expansive (you don't identify as male or female), this may happen to you more often. We call this misgendering,and it can have major impacts on people's health, especially over time.

Using the wrong gendered language when you refer to someone is considered misgendering. In some situations, people may purposely misgender someone to harm them. But in other cases, you might accidentally refer to someone by the wrong name or pronoun.

Some examples of misgendering include:

Deadnaming. If you're transgender or nonbinary, you may choose to change your name to better fit your identity. This means you'd no longer like to go by the name you were given at birth. But sometimes, people either mistakenly or purposely call you by your old name. This is called deadnaming.

This can be very hurtful to people who've changed their name. It can bring up trauma or invalidate their identity. It's crucial that you make the effort to call someone by their chosen name.

Using the wrong pronouns. It can be harmful to assume someone's pronouns if you aren't sure. It's always a good idea to ask if you don't know. Someone's pronouns aren't just a preference. They're an important part of their identity. It's respectful to make the effort to use a person's correct pronouns. Keep in mind that someone may change their pronouns throughout their life as well.

Some examples of different pronouns include:

  • She/her/hers
  • He/him/his
  • They/them/theirs
  • Ze/zir/zirs
  • Xe/xem/xyr
  • Ve/vir/vis

People may choose to use different combinations of pronouns as well. For example, someone may identify as she/her and they/them.

If you've been misgendered, you might feel unseen, frustrated, or a mix of emotions. Misgendering can cause you to feel "othered," or alienated and different from the rest of your group.

Impacts of misgendering include:

Gender dysphoria. If others fail to refer to you by your identity, you may feel uneasy. Over time, this can create inner confusion and chaos between your assigned sex at birth and your gender identity. Experts refer to this as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria can also result from internal tension from a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity.

Mental health impacts. The effects of gender dysphoria can be so strong that they lead to depression and anxiety. When the effects of misgendering impact a person's mental health, they may begin to develop low self-esteem, isolate themselves from their social circles, or show more risky behavior.

One study showed that transgender people ages 15-21 showed 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression if they were able to choose their name, compared to young transgender people who weren't able to choose.

A higher risk of suicide.The same study found that transgender people who could choose their name were less likely to think about suicide. People who could choose were also 65% less likely to attempt suicide than those who couldn't choose their name.

Transgender youths already have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts than non-transgender young people. One out of three transgender youths reported that they've thought about suicide. But the ability to choose their identity and have that identity respected lowers that risk.

Don't overthink it. If you're unsure of a person's identity, ask them. If you ask rather than assume, you show that you respect your peer and want to view them the same way they see themselves.

If someone you know has changed their pronouns or name, it may be a bit trickier to remember. But if you show that you care and put in effort to make the change, you'll show more respect than if you decide to ignore their identity.

You can do a few things to help you remember to refer to someone the correct way:

Never assume. It doesn't matter how someone looks or appears to you. You shouldn't ever assume a person's identity. You can ask anyone how they like to be identified, even if they're not transgender.

Instead of doing so in a group setting, ask a person how they'd like to be identified one-on-one. This way, you're not making someone uncomfortable around others.

Use gender-neutral language. You can use pronouns like they/them/theirs to avoid gendering someone. This can help you avoid hurting someone, especially if you aren't sure how they identify.

Slow down. Sometimes when we talk too fast, we'll say things without thinking. If you just met someone, or someone you know changed their pronouns or name, it's a good idea to take a breath before you accidentally misgender a peer. Similarly, reread texts and emails to make sure you spoke correctly.

Practice makes perfect. Make the effort to use someone's pronouns and name correctly. This will help you learn and remember to use the correct words. Over time, it'll become second nature.

We're all human, and we all make mistakes. As long as you're not intentionally misgendering someone, don't beat yourself up. Just make the effort to sincerely apologize and put in the work to avoid another mistake.

Keep your apology brief and move on. Correct your sentence and use the right pronoun or name and continue with the conversation. You don't want to focus on your mistake because that may embarrass or make the other person uncomfortable.

If someone else corrects you, thank them and move on with corrected language. Don't be defensive or feel awkward, accept the help, and remember to use the right words next time.

Similarly, if someone is being purposefully rude to someone and using the wrong pronouns or name, it's important to stand up for them. Speak up and politely let them know your peer's actual name or their pronouns. Let them know that if they can't respect that, then they don't need to interact with your friend or loved one.