Insects, trees and people congregate at a PFLAG camp tucked inside the Durham Regional Forest near Uxbridge. This camp welcomes people no matter what race, gender or sexual orientation they are. You’re supposed to feel accepted.
However, even with all the support, Sid MacIsaac still felt uncomfortable. Miserable. Misplaced. Misgendered.
Diana tries to make MacIsaac feel more feminine. She says people weren’t judging.
MacIsaac is a gender non conforming individual.
Gender non conforming (or non-binary), refers to people who do not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth.
Sid prefers “they, them and their” as opposed to “he, him and his”.
In 2015, the singular ‘they’ became widely accepted as a gender-neutral pronoun. “They” was the American Dialect Society’s (ADS) word of the year. According to ADS’ website, “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”
In a clearing in the woods, MacIsaac slumps over, breathing shallowly while a friend, Diana, rests her hand on MacIsaac’s back in an attempt at reassurance.Kevin, the director of the camp, walks towards Sid and Diana. He notices Sid is having an anxiety attack.
“Sid you’re a great guy and any person would be lucky to know a dude like you,” says Kevin.
With each word, the anxiety worsens. Any help Diana is providing becomes useless.
“He was a gay guy hosting this gender variance, sexuality variant camp for a whole week and it was him out of all people who made me feel like shit,” says MacIsaac.
This experience is called misgendering.
According to the Oxford dictionary, to misgender someone is to refer to someone, especially a transgender person, using a word, especially a pronoun or form of address, that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify.
David Moulton, registered therapist and Canadian certified counsellor, says misgendering comes in two forms: intentional and unintentional.
Intentional misgendering is when a person knowingly refers to another individual by the wrong gender. For example, if a person would like to be called he but another person refuses and calls the individual a she.
Unintentional misgendering happens mostly by accident. For example, going to a Wal-Mart and referring to the cashier by “Sir” but really, her gender is female.
Almost every individual whose gender does not match their assigned sex at birth person has been misgendered either intentionally or by accident.
Although MacIsaac was misgendered and can look at his past and grow from it, other misgendered individuals like Kyler Prescott cannot.
Kyler Prescott was a Southern California transgender teenager who was nearly 15-years-old when he died by suicide in May 2015, due to intentional misgendering by medical professionals.
Prescott was admitted to the hospital in San Diego Calif. for suicidal ideations and self-mutilation. Prescott was born a female but realized his assigned gender at birth didn’t reflect who he truly was.
While at the hospital, his parents requested the nurses call him Kyler. They didn’t comply. Six weeks later, Kyler died by suicide.
According to Moulton, people can react differently when misgendered. But they often feel dysphoria about their bodies.
Gender dysphoria occurs when there is a conflict between assigned gender at birth and the gender an individual identifies with. According to the American Psychiatric Association, people who experience gender dysphoria are very uncomfortable not only with their gender assigned at birth but also with their body.
According to Moulton, misgendering causes anxiety and it can cause an individual to be in distress. Misgendering can slowly chip away, and in some cases, Moulton says misgendering can lead to suicide.
As many as “77 per cent of trans respondents in an Ontario-based survey had seriously considered suicide and 45 per cent attempted suicide,” according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Moulton says intentional misgendering can be very hurtful and can have a large impact on an individual.
Michiko Bown-Kai is a genderqueer individual living in Toronto. Genderqueer is an umbrella term for people whose identity does not conform with either male or female.
Bown-Kai had many unfavourable experiences when first coming out as genderqueer.
People who knew Bown-Kai for a long time would say things like, “You’re so feminine why can’t I use she and her pronouns?”
The problem was Bown-Kai, who prefers to use “they” rather than “she”, felt others were trying to give their opinion on Bown-Kai’s personal identity. “In the moment that I was coming out to them and that’s where the hurt was done,” says Bown-Kai.
According to Bown-Kai, it was as if people were deciding their opinions were more important than how Bown-Kai felt inside.
Intentionally misgendering someone during their transition may be a sign of transphobia, says Moulton.
A transition can happen in more than one way.
Clinical transition occurs when someone surgically starts the procedures to change their gender. A social transition happens when an individual requests people start referring to them using a preferred gender.
According to Moulton, misgendering someone going through their transition has a very negative effect.
Moulton says it’s deliberately disrespectful and undermines the new self the individual in transition is building. It also can be discouraging and can lead someone to believe they shouldn’t transition.
Although unintentional misgendering may not be as hateful as intentional misgendering, it can be hurtful all the same.
MacIsaac says unintentional misgendering is very hurtful and can be tiring, especially when first trying to come to terms with identity. When people assume Sid was male, it would make Sid feel dysphoric because feeling male was uncomfortable.
Early on, Sid identified as female and would wear dresses, skirts, and makeup. Sid says this was an attempt to escape masculinity and embrace femininity.
Although Sid doesn’t feel right as a female and feels best as a non-conforming/non-binary identity, being unintentionally misgendered, as an individual who was born as a male, is still bothersome.
When people see Sid, often they notice the clothing or hear Sid’s deep voice and assume Sid is male. This leads to the use of masculine descriptors such as “dude” or “sir”.
“I would just love it,” says Sid, “if you knew that I wasn’t actually a guy.”
Bown-Kai, the Torontonian who moved from Whitby, also faces similar experiences of being unintentionally misgendered.
The unintentional misgendering makes Bown-Kai feel invisible. “It’s every person you talk to, it’s every time you go outside, it’s every conversation happening in the media about what it means to be a male or woman, it’s all those things that piled up very quickly,” says Bown-Kai. “For me the struggle wasn’t necessarily that it happened once in awhile, it’s that it happened consistently.”
Drew Dennis is the co-founder of TransFocus consulting, a consulting group that helps companies become more trans friendly.
Dennis, who made the physical and social transition nearly 25 years ago, has grown past the age when misgendering has a very significant effect. Dennis was born biologically female but identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronoun “they” or “their”. This preference is included at the end of Dennis’ email:
Nearly 25 years ago, Dennis used to feel more concerned about misgendering, but doesn’t take it on anymore.
“At least not as much as I did before, but there’s still a level of fatigue,” says Dennis.
“I think if you’re the person who has misgendered a person who is trans and the trans person is upset, what’s helpful to keep in mind is you might be the tenth or the twentieth person that has misgendered the person today.”
Moulton says continuous misgendering can severely affect self-esteem, motivate someone to transition before they’re ready or force an individual to return to closet.
According to Moulton, constant misgendering is very discouraging and gives gender dysphoric people a feeling of desperation and hopelessness.
What’s more, constant misgendering can explain the high rate of suicide within the trans community.
Even clothing or binary washrooms can negatively affect people who are non-binary.
Bown-Kai felt like having only two binary options, male or female, was an attack. “When I first came out as genderqueer I felt very personally attacked by it,” says Bown-Kai.
“I felt erased, I felt like the message that I consistently got was ‘you don’t exist’, and for me that line between you don’t exist and you shouldn’t exist can feel pretty similar a lot of the times,” says Bown-Kai.
“If you feel like everywhere you look, there’s no mirrored society that reflects who you are, you can feel really invisible and you can really feel like people don’t notice your existence…”
Moulton believes this type of exclusion can leave a person with nowhere to belong.
A lot of people base gender on preconceived social cues. This leads to unintentional misgendering. For example, a dress equals female.
People who intentionally misgender others might do so to be disrespectful, or transphobic. When it’s family or close friends, misgendering can even be due to fear of loss and the feeling of grief, says Moulton.
According to Moulton, parents may fear loss of a daughter. Even though the person is still there, the change of gender may signify losing a daughter. At one point Dennis’ father withdrew to the point of abandonment.
According to Dennis, many trans youth become homeless because of family abandonment.
Support is the best way to assist someone who has been misgendered.
MacIsaac tells a story of a teacher calling them by their birth name Ethan.
On the attendance it said Ethan and in parentheses Sid. The teacher, however, knew Sid’s name had changed but refused to say Sid.
“The whole room went silent, and the girl two or three rows behind me said ‘their name is Sid’ I looked around me and saw people not looking happy with the teacher… That was a big moment for me because I felt like the class had my back,” said MacIsaac.
Moulton suggests showing empathy and acknowledging how someone is feeling is a good step. Likewise lending an ear is sometimes all someone may want.
It’s also helpful to normalize gender talk. Starting with your own pronouns and preferred names is a way to normalize conversations about gender.
This shows you’re not just tolerating them and adjusting to their pronouns but being respectful to them like you would anyone else, says Moulton.
It’s also good to ask questions if you’re not sure and explain that you’re trying to be respectful, and apologize if you slip up.
Misgendering is something that can affect the lives of just about anyone who doesn’t consider themselves to be born in the right body. Sid MacIsaac, Drew Dennis and Michiko Bown-Kai have all been victims of either intentional or unintentional misgendering.
Misgendering can lead to feeling dysphoria, depression and suicide.
The late Kyler Prescott encountered misgendering daily and this led to his death.
But not all stories need to end that way.