September 20, 2023

What does it mean to misinterpret someone – and why is it such a problem? Experts explain.

Mistakenly gender-trans and non-binary can leave invisible scars that are hard to heal, experts say.  (Alex Cochran for Yahoo/Getty Images)

Mistakenly gender-trans and non-binary can leave invisible scars that are hard to heal, experts say. (Alex Cochran for Yahoo/Getty Images)

TikToker Dylan Mulvaney and singer Sam Smith were both mistyped after journalists misspelled their pronouns on the air.

In the case of Mulvaney, who became the target of anti-trans backlash in April after uploading a Bud Light-sponsored social media post, she was referred to with the wrong pronoun by a CNN national correspondent, Ryan Young, who referred to Mulvaney as “he” rather than her preferred pronoun “she.” Anchor Kate Bouldan apologized live Wednesday, saying, “CNN strives to honor individual ways of self-identifying and we apologize for that mistake.”

As for Smith using the pronouns “she/she”, TV presenter Lorraine Kelly repeatedly referred to them as “he/him” in a recent segment on Britain’s ITV. The incident prompted the host to acknowledge the matter on Thursday, albeit without an apology. in a comment on Twitter“Not the least bit intentional, but will take it on board. Thanks for bringing it to my attention,” she wrote.

Accidental or not, the impact of misinterpreting someone can have profound effects on an individual’s mental health and well-being, experts say. But for those struggling to understand the ins and outs of the trans/non-binary experience, finding solutions is easier said than done. Here’s what you need to know.

What does it mean to misinterpret someone?

Misgendering is the misattribution of one’s gender identity (male/female) by using the wrong pronouns (he/him, she/her, she/it) or misusing gender language (sir, madam, sir, ma’am, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, husband, wife, etc.) to describe or address them.

Groups disproportionately affected are transgender people, those who feel their gender identity does not match their biological sex (and who sometimes undergo gender affirmative care to better align, either surgically or through gender affirming clothing, hairstyles, and pronouns also known as “socially in transition”) and non-binary people, those who identify as neither male nor female and often (but not always) prefer non-traditional pronouns.

Misgendering is common, despite 1 in 20 young American adults identifying as non-binary or transgender, according to the latest Pew Research survey on the topic. Other studies, including a 2021 report from the Williams Institute, show that nearly 900,000 nonbinary Americans are under the age of 30, suggesting that younger people are exploring gender identity to an extent that older Americans are not.

Dylan Mulvaney in a black evening dress, with a diamond choker and blonde hair.

The trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney has spoken openly about the stress she experienced after being misgendered online. (Aurora Rose/Variety via Getty Images)

As a result, says Jean-Marie Navetta, director of learning and inclusion at PFLAG, an organization that supports parents with LGBTQ children, especially older people, it can be difficult to understand the nuances of the trans/non- binary experience that many young people experience. have embraced.

“A significant proportion of trans and non-binary people will be intentionally mis-gendered, which should be a problem for anyone who cares about respectful environments,” Navetta tells Yahoo Life. “This isn’t just a trend or a political thing. This is an issue that has a real, measurable, demonstrable impact on an entire population.”

What is the mental health impact of misgendering?

Being misgender can evoke a mix of emotions in people of different gender diversity, including feelings of alienation or being “different” by their peers. That has led to a significant increase in social anxiety among trans people, as noted in a January report from the Center of American Progress showing that 90% of trans/non-binary people take at least one action to avoid such discrimination: avoiding public places, travel destinations, places of worship, hospitals, family gatherings and office spaces for example.

While it’s common for people to associate gendered language with the gender a person appears to be expressing — male, female, or somewhere in between — experts say that when a person directly states their gender (even if it doesn’t match their visual expression) and peers deliberately misinterpret them, one can fe
el inadequate and unseen.

Those sentiments are echoed by Mulvaney, who told Chelsea Handler in May that she’s routinely called “a man” online. The influencer recently left for Peru, citing that she felt “unsafe” in her own country. Similar stress recently led singer Demi Lovato to re-adopt her/her pronouns after coming out as non-binary in 2021, citing the “exhausting” experience of being misrepresented by people and on paperwork.

Sam Smith poses on the red carpet wearing wide-leg jeans and an oversized sweatshirt.

The non-binary singer Sam Smith, on the red carpet in wide-leg jeans and an oversized sweatshirt at the European premiere of Barbie in London, was recently misunderstood by a journalist. (Antony Jones/Getty Images for Warner Bros.)

How do you make up?

While there isn’t really a best practice for misinterpreting someone, Navetta says the most important thing is to lead with compassion and admit the mistake. However, to minimize the chances of pronouncing the wrong pronoun in the first place, always ask ahead of time if you’re not sure, as a sign of respect.

“If someone tells you their pronouns, use them. It really is that simple,” says Navetta. “Saying things like, ‘You know, I’m new to this conversation about pronouns, and I really want to understand it better so I can do it right. Could you tell me about your pronouns and why you use them? And if not, can you recommend a source for me to learn more about?” can be a great opener. It makes it clear that the person is trying to do better. The other option is the easiest of them all. If you don’t understand something, look it up online and start reading.”

Ariel Emmanuel, associate director of the Training, Gender and Family Project at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, adds, “It’s important to use your discretion and weigh up how best to handle each situation without this escalates.”

Leading by example, she notes, is essential for change. “If you want to be an ally to trans and gender-expansive people, you can use your own strength and privilege to speak up and educate,” says Emmanuel. “It can be difficult for transgender people to always be the person to inform everyone about their identity.

“Allyship is an active verb,” ​​she adds. “Your role as an ally is to advocate for a person when they cannot advocate for themselves.”

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