The Impact of Respecting Another Person's Gender
Respecting gender can save a life. Here's how.
Posted August 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Gender is a social construction, and someone's gender may not match their sex.
- Everyone is capable of adjusting their language to respect the transgender people in their life (including using "they" pronouns).
- Gossiping and judging individuals who are transgender, genderfluid, or gender non-binary can exacerbate prejudice and lead to violence.
- Respecting an individual's gender, name, and pronouns can significantly positively impact mental health.
It's often said that love is a choice. Hate, too, is a choice.
Gender, on the other hand, is a social construction. According to the World Health Organization, “gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed,” and may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology at birth (2021).
Your gender is yours. It’s not mine. It’s not mine to choose, to comment on, or to judge. What's more, someone's gender identity does not cause harm to another person.
I am a cisgender woman, a psychotherapist, and an individual who cares deeply about other individuals, some of whom are transgender.
My own experience of gender aligns with the physiology of the body I was born into. But not every person has that privilege. Some people have a gender identity that does not align with their biological sex, or that does not fit within a gender binary of male or female. I recognize that my privilege has limitations in understanding the lived experience of someone who identifies outside the gender binary created by our society, or whose gender differs from the gender they were assigned at birth.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind if someone you care about has transitioned (or is in the process of transitioning):
- If this is a loved one you have known with a different gender identity previously, you may feel grief at the loss of the identity you knew. Note: Your emotions are valid. Also note: The previous gender identity of your loved one may not be their true self, and what may feel like a loss to you may be a life-affirming (even life-saving) gain for them.
- Using different pronouns or a different name may feel uncomfortable at first. Using “they” pronouns may feel uncomfortable at first. Have you ever learned a woman’s new last name after she got married, or integrated a new word into your vocabulary? You are capable of changing your language. And your discomfort is likely small fries compared to the discomfort (and in many cases, outright lack of safety) experienced by an individual who is experiencing gender dysphoria.
- Addressing internal biases may be uncomfortable; for that, I absolutely recommend connecting with a therapist. We all need a therapist at times (myself included!), and good therapists provide safe spaces in which we can grow.
Why Respecting Gender Matters
To pass judgment on another person’s gender identity may feel easy, casual—a slight comment here, or a bit of gossip or speculation there. But that comment or gossip or judgment or speculation in a group conversation can cause significant harm to the recipient—and not just emotional harm.
There may be someone in the group who identifies differently than the speaker, or is contemplating coming out, or has a family member who is transgender, genderfluid, or gender non-binary. Making an offhand comment, or outing a person’s gender, belittles the personhood of the individual and decreases their safety. Doing so emboldens acts of hatred and violence
And there are acts of violence. Forty-four individuals in the U.S. were murdered because of their gender identity in 2020, and as of this May, 27 individuals have been murdered so far in 2021 (Factora, 2021).
On the flip side of perpetuating violence, respecting the name and pronouns of an individual can have a huge positive impact on their mental health. Transgender and non-binary youth whose pronouns were respected by all the people they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate of those whose pronouns were not respected by anyone they lived with. Those who were able to change their name on legal documents and change their birth marker on legal documents also reported lower levels of suicide (The Trevor Project, 2021). This means that by merely using an individual’s preferred name and pronouns, you have the ability to help save a life.
Learning to say “they,” “he,” or "she," or to use a different name for someone, is an easy way to bolster your relationship and help contribute some good to the world at large, without expecting anything in return. If you mess up a pronoun or a name for someone who is transitioning, apologize and move on. Show respect for the deep internal work the person in front of you has engaged in. Read a book about how to show this respect, like The Person YOU Mean To Be by Dolly Chugh, or dive into a poetic description of the lived experience of being transgender in The Thirty Names of Night, by Zeyn Joukhadar.
Bottom line: Your gender is not mine to judge. Someone else’s gender is not yours to judge. And if it’s not yours, that means it’s also not your story to tell.
Every person has the power to pile on weight to another person’s burden by prioritizing their own personal discomfort. Every person has the ability to lessen that same burden through the respect for another individual’s personhood. Our ability to harm is matched by our ability to heal.
I’ll repeat: Love is a choice. Hate is a choice. Gender is a social construct.
Chugh, D. (2018). The person you mean to be: How good people fight bias. HarperBusiness.
Factora, J. (2021 May 25). 27 Trans people have been killed less than halfway through 2021. them. https://www.them.us/story/27-trans-people-have-been-killed-in-2021
Joukhadar, Z. (2020). The thirty names of night. Atria Books.
See the Genderbread Model to learn more about the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex: Killermann, S. (2017). Genderbread Person v4.0. Genderbread. https://www.genderbread.org/resource/genderbread-person-v4-0
The Trevor Project. (2021). 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2021/?section=ResearchMethodolo…
World Health Organization. (2021). Gender. https://www.who.int/health-topics/gender#tab=tab_1