Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
This week, I want to talk about writing misgendering, a topic which affects many gender expansive folx. Though I staunchly advocate erring on the side of positivity and acceptance when writing queer characters, the simple fact is that it’s not always realistic or compelling for a character’s story arc
Trans* characters do not have to suffer for your narrative to be compelling. However, sometimes it’s appropriate to write a character being misgendered, so long as it actually serves a plot or characterization purpose. So today, I’m going to talk about writing misgendering, and touch on some situations in which it would be appropriate.
What is misgendering?
Writing misgendering would be awfully difficult if you didn’t understand the term.
“Misgendering” refers to when someone — usually a trans person — is ascribed a gender which does not align with their gender identity. This is most often improper gendered language such as using the wrong pronouns or honorifics, or referring to someone as a man or woman.
There are, however, some subtler linguistic or social cues that can also be read as gendered, especially to gender expansive individuals. Consider casual language (such as “guys” or “dude”), which some consider gender-neutral but others consider misgendering.
These vary significantly from person to person, but it’s good to consider how your gender expansive character will react in a variety of gendered contexts, not just blatant misgendering. Thinking about these things will also help you realize some smaller moments when a gender expansive person might experience gender euphoria!
What’s it like to be Misgendered?
Put simply, it sucks
A lot of cis people don’t fully realize how emotionally trying it can be to get misgendered. If it happens only on occasion, it can be a hurtful surprise. If it happens near constantly, it can wear you down over time and contribute to poor mental health. Misgendering is also particularly trying if it comes from a loved one or close friend.
Gender identity is so intrinsic to so many peoples’ experience of themselves that it can make people feel drastically misunderstood if they aren’t gendered properly. If you’re having trouble imagining this, think of something intrinsic to your own identity which you would want people to know as soon as possible — perhaps that’s some aspect of your personality, your career, your politics, or even your own gender identity. Think of how you feel when someone fundamentally misinterprets this, insisting that in fact that aspect of your identity is fundamentally different from how you yourself experience it. That would suck, wouldn’t it?
This can be a casual misunderstanding or a force of habit — neither of which necessarily makes the misgenderer a bad person! However, your narrative should treat your trans characters with kindness and understanding and show the misinformed character learning to do better.
Other times, misgendering is intentional and malicious. Gender expansive people know what it means when someone sneers incorrect pronouns in their directions, or aggressively uses their deadname: that they are unsafe and unwelcome, and that can evoke feelings of fear and distress.
I’ve spoken in the past about how traumatic this can be for gender expansive folx, and how you should use it sparingly and with care. Characters that do this should either be coded as antagonistic, or will need to undergo a pretty massive character development arc in which they see the error of their ways. If you plan to frame someone as being right for misgendering someone, please reevaluate your narrative and reasoning.
There are a handful of tips I have regarding how to effectively utilize misgendering in your work.
First, make sure it matters. Misgendering sucks, and gender expansive people will take note of who around them is misgendering them. In fiction, this means that misgendering can’t really just happen — it has to serve a purpose, either to the plot or to characterization.
For a plotline about overcoming adversity or gaining self-confidence, misgendering might be a good way to show where your gender expansive character is starting out. Perhaps their current situation is unsafe or unkind, and the narrative is focused on them finding a happier, gentler life. Or, perhaps this story is about changing the status quo in their current life, and the misgendering serves to signal just what about their current life needs to change!
Misgendering can also be used for characterization. Increasingly, misgendering — especially the malicious sort — is becoming a shorthand for coding a character as mean or antagonistic. This is great, in my opinion, as it illustrates to the audience that misgendering should be either avoided, unlearned, or both. Note, however, that it’s possible to have antagonistic characters who don’t misgender people — like Kevin from Steven Universe, who correctly uses they/them pronouns for Stevonnie despite objectively being a gross jerk.
Second, make sure the response is appropriate — both from the misgenderer and the misgenderee.
For the person on the receiving end, please don’t infantilize your trans characters. We aren’t going to throw a temper tantrum or be reduced to a catatonic mess because someone calls us “dude.” We might get fed up at some point, but no gender expansive person is going to blow up at the slightest act of misgendering (not the least because doing so would be unsafe). Popular ideations of trans people behaving this way have been constructed largely for use in transphobic memes and media.
For the person doing the misgendering, be careful not to make them too overly apologetic. My partner and I have talked about this on our podcast, but often a knee-jerk reaction when someone realizes they’ve incorrectly gendered someone is to profusely apologize to the point that a trans person is forced to forgive them, foisting the emotional responsibility onto the trans person. This sucks. If your character does this, paint it as something they need to learn and grow out of, not something to be lauded as good allyship.
If you’re going to include incidents of misgendering in your narrative, make sure that they mean something, and that you understand what they mean. Don’t use this tool flippantly, and consider how you’re framing the characters who dish out and receive misgendering.
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week with more queer writing tips, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!