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What do I do about someone who will probably misgender a guest?

Updated: Mar 13

Q: my mother has a serious problem with misgendering. it's not malicious and she gets really offended that her character is being maligned when it's pointed out because she "doesn't mean anything by it" and prides herself on "being a good ally." it's bad enough when she misgenders me or other people while talking to me, but since i've never had to introduce any of my queer friends to my parents before i can just take the hit when i run out of energy to fight her. the problem is, i have a queer long-distance friend coming to visit for the first time soon and interaction with my mother is unavoidable. my mother already misgenders them frequently while talking to me about them no matter how often i correct her so i have a lot of anxiety about the likelihood that this friend will be misgendered in person while they're visiting. i just don't trust my mother to be conscientious even for a guest. do you have any advice?

K: This is a tough situation to be in, and it's a relatable one. I think this involves two separate conversations to start with. I'm not sure how much this will help your specific situation since I'm sure you've tried a bunch of things already, but it is worth saying for other people, perhaps.

The first conversation you should have is with your friend. You should give your friend a heads up on what your mom is like if they don't already know. You should tell them that your mom has a track record of misgendering both you and your friend, and gets defensive when corrected despite considering herself an ally. You should offer some ways of handling this (you can correct her in the moment, you can pull her aside to privately correct her, or you can ignore it) and ask your friend what they prefer to happen during the visit. This might also be a good time to workshop ideas about how to handle things. Is there a way to minimize the number of or length of interactions between your friend and your mom? What are some ways to redirect the conversation if your mom gets weird? Are there ways for your friend to leave the interaction without calling attention to the reason why they want to leave? How can you and your friend support each other?

The other conversation should happen with your mom. Some of this will undoubtedly be things you've already tried and some of this is just me explaining why your mom's behavior is an issue (which, I'm sure you understand, but others might not). It's important for your mom to be someone who can be corrected without getting offended or taking it personally. Yes, I'm sure she isn't doing it intentionally in order to hurt people, but "I don't mean anything by it" isn't actually true. What your mom means is that she doesn't truly see someone as their gender, and likely sees them as the gender she assumes they were assigned at birth. It's different to get hit by someone who was just swinging their arms around versus someone who meant to punch you, but at some point if you keep getting hit because someone refuses to stop swinging their arms around and gets mad when you point out they've hit you or other people, it's an issue.

I don't imagine that metaphor would work well with someone who is clearly very sensitive about corrections, so sometimes it helps to come at it from the other side and tell them that correcting them when they misgender someone isn't about pointing out their failings or making them feel bad. When someone corrects them in this context, it is often because they think of them as someone who does indeed want to do better and that they felt safe to correct (this is technically a lie in this situation because people who are very defensive do not feel safe to correct, but direct and honest communication doesn't seem to work here). People who respond like your mom does need to re-frame how they handle feedback and they need to do work on their own to practice saying the right pronouns and gendered language. Conversations with or in front of the people affected should not be where this practice happens.

It's possible (and likely) you've already tried this type of conversation with your mom many times. I think there should still be some sort of conversation with your mom, and it should at least directly address the fact that your friend is visiting soon and she isn't always gendering them correctly. Ask your mom if she would practice your friend's correct pronouns in advance of the visit. You can say you'll practice with her, or ask that she spend like 10 minutes a day saying sentences out loud around her house using the right pronouns. If your friend said they were comfortable with you correcting your mom, let her know that you're planning to remind her of the right pronouns if she slips up. Perhaps advance notice and involving her in that conversation will help make it easier. I hope this helps.

S: In theory I agree with K's advice, and it's definitely what I'd recommend to someone who wasn't already getting misgendered by the person in question. If you are up for having a conversation with your mother about the patterns of misgendering and getting defensive, that would be ideal for addressing the harm she does by misgendering you and others. An easier version of this could focus on your friend's visit--instead of correcting her in the moment, raise the topic of their pronouns separately and ask that she really make an effort to use them properly, or at least accept corrections with grace. If she's not feeling defensive about something she has just said, she might respond less badly. Of course, this is a softer approach than should really be necessary, but we're focusing on minimizing harm in this specific situation. You could also share some resources with her and ask that she read them, so you're not trying to do the education yourself and so she has space to think about the ideas on her own. pronouns 102: how to stop messing up pronouns is a free blog post, and A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is a very affordable comic. Or just send her the link to this post if you feel like it.

However, also as K says above, we don't know the specifics of your situation. Perhaps you've already tried some or all of this and it hasn't helped, or you've been punished for it. Perhaps you're not in a position to push the issue without negatively impacting your life in some way. It's very much your decision what to do here, and it's completely okay to protect your emotional (and perhaps other types of) well-being if you can't trust her to respond appropriately to very normal corrections. Trans and gender diverse people have no moral imperative to keep trying to educate those who refuse to be educated, especially at risk to ourselves.

The thing you do have control over, and I would argue a responsibility to do, is to talk to your friend very clearly about the situation. For one thing, I often find misgendering easier to handle in the moment if I am prepared for it. Whether or not you're in a position to have further conversations with your mother than the ones you already have, be direct with your friend about what they can expect and ask what they would like you to do within the limitations of the situation. This is always a good idea--some people don't actually want others to correct misgendering on their behalf at all, or to do it while they're present--and in a context where you likely can't prevent the misgendering from happening, it's especially important to give them the tools to prepare. Since this sounds like a situation in which you are also being harmed in an ongoing way, you could also think about whether there's anything you want to ask of your friend--do you want them to correct your mother when she misgenders you, if they're willing to? I would probably want to know how you'd like me to respond in that situation too.

Very broadly speaking, most trans and gender diverse people are well aware that ignorance around pronouns and other issues is common and can't always be avoided. Letting someone know what to expect so they can take steps to protect themself (whether that involves asking you for specific types of support or is just a matter of mental preparation) is something that you can usually do even if the overall situation is outside of your control.

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