You Need Help: Reacting to Misgendering in Public

Q: I’m a tall, short-haired, tomboy-femme cisgender bisexual woman, and I’m often called “sir” by people in public who aren’t paying much attention. Usually immediately after the person actually looks at me and realizes I’m not a “sir,” and then it’s just awkward. I realize that there are a lot of people who must deal with this much more extremely than I do, but it still really bothers me and I never know how to respond. I feel like that shouldn’t have to pretend that I’m ok and it’s not a big deal when it feels like it is, and that it shouldn’t be my responsibility to make them feel more comfortable when they’re the ones who made me uncomfortable in the first place.

As someone who purposely has an androgynous style, why can’t I just let it roll off me? And do you think there’s a way to react that might make the situation a little less miserable for me?


Hello friend! First, I want to say that your feelings of frustration and uncertainty are totally valid and you are not alone! You absolutely do NOT have to pretend it’s OK, because being misgendered hurts.

That being said: we’re a long way as a society from people understanding, respecting, or even appropriately addressing folks like us, who challenge mainstream gender norms with our presentations — so if you desire to exist in public this is going to keep happening. The good news, though, is that both challenging misgendering and letting it slide get easier with time. I know that’s not very comforting, but it’s true! I have been misgendered almost every day for the last five years at least, and I’ve learned some things (as has staff writer AE Osworth, who I consulted with on this article), so here are some tips.

Correcting Misgendering

If you want to correct people when they misgender you, go for it! It’s worth it to consider these things in advance and in the moment:

  • Do I know this person? Will I ever see them again? If no, consider whether it’s worth it! It’s very likely that a random waitress won’t actually learn anything about gender from being corrected by you, and it’ll just make the interaction more awkward.
  • How might they react to your correction? Are they receptive to learning or will they just be upset that you’re challenging their worldview? If they are a member of queer community or otherwise seem receptive, maybe it’s worth it! If they seem like an aggro dudebro or something, they could react violently, which is definitely not what you want.
  • What is your emotional capacity in the moment? If you have the strength to endure 294026 apologies or have a long conversation with a stranger about gender in the moment, then go for it. If you’re already tired of dealing with bullshit that day, then maybe don’t subject yourself to more bullshit by inviting the “conversation.”

I let misgendering slide 90% of the time with strangers because it just doesn’t feel worth it. I correct people I know 90% of the time, though, because if they care about me they will use the right name and pronouns for me, and if they persist in misgendering me I get data about how safe of a person they are to be around and act accordingly.

If you do decide to correct someone, usually it helps to be as quick and clear as you can and to embed it in the context of the conversation. It also helps to have something to do or say right after so y’all don’t have to sit there and wallow in the awkwardness.

For example:

Barista: What can I get for you, sir?
Me: Just a coffee for here, please! And I’m a woman, by the way.
Barista: OMG, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know, I-
Me: It’s no big deal! Here [hands them my card to pay so I can get out of there].

Letting It Slide

Letting it slide is usually what I do. It’s super hard! It’s delegitimizing and stressful and bothersome and it hurts. There are some ways you can prepare yourself to make it hurt less, though! Try these exercises:

  • Pretend you are a superhero in disguise! It can help to breathe and say, “Well yes, I am a superspy and that is my role for today. I am in disguise as Sir Reginald Fooferaw/Agent Jane Yaxby, 0069” (or what have you). Remember to say this in your head, though, otherwise it might get weirder.
  • Chat with someone immediately after who gets your gender! Make sure you have a strong friendship/chosen family support network to hold you down. Grabbing a phone and sending someone that upside down smiley face and telling them what happened can turn into a lovely, affirming conversation. You’ll forget that person who misgendered you quickly in the face of a dear friend, partner, or family member.
  • Remember that it’s totally not personal and the vast majority of people were taught that there are two distinct sexes/genders, and that’s it, and people, especially in the service industries, are required and trained to make snap judgments based on gender stereotypes and are trying their best, most of the time, to be respectful. They genuinely don’t mean it most of the time and don’t even realize they’re doing anything hurtful! Sometimes it helps me to remind myself of that. Just sometimes, though.

In the end, the choice is always up to you. I guard my mental health and emotional capacity very carefully as I know that’s an issue for me, and generally speaking correcting folks takes more out of me than just letting it slide and dealing internally with being misgendered. For you, it might be the opposite — it’s really personal and it’ll have to be your decision. Good luck!


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Abeni Jones is a multiracial black trans woman artist, educator, writer, and graphic designer living in Oakland, CA. Follow her on Twitter @abeni_jones or check out her website at abenijones.net. Support her work on Patreon here!.

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55 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Abeni. I am a barista and just yesterday was dealing with a customer who not only “ma’am”-ed me, but called me “sweetie” and “honey” through the entire interaction. Like, you are reading me as AFAB, and that’s fair, but also I look like the butchest of lesbians. Did he really think I looked like a person who wanted to be called sweetie??

    Anyway, it is a daily thing with strangers, and I was just considering if it was worth it to try and have these conversations, or if I take it too personally. Thank you for reminding me that (for me) it’s not.

  2. One of my coping techniques, for good or ill, is to pretend all pronouns when people are talking are incorrect. Like, if they got my pronoun wrong, they probably get everyone’s pronouns wrong and how awkward it must be for them to go through life that way.

  3. I used to be misgendered constantly, which was annoying but also amusing because the moment I said something they would realize their mistake and turn 16 shades of red.

    Now I don’t get misgendered so much, even though my style is increasingly MoC. Maybe it’s because I try to make eye contact with everyone I interact with (okay I flirt shamelessly). Or maybe it’s because I’m older now and people react differently to older folks ? Whatever, I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

    • Eye contact! I think you nailed it. Many public interactions aren’t personal enough, and people are moving too fast. We’ve taken the human connections out of public life, and sometimes people just aren’t paying attention. It’s not an excuse…but a reality.

      • “sometimes people just aren’t paying attention. It’s not an excuse…but a reality.”

        Definitely a reality ! I won’t go so far as my slightly older fellow humans in engaging the cashier or barrista in endless conversation (also I live in the North, we’re politely curt), but I will seek out some connection.

  4. When dealing with retail or food service folks, I generally let it slide if it’s a one-off interaction. If I’m going to have an extended conversation, or it’s a place I’m going to visit regularly, I usually go to “it’s ma’am, actually” and power past it with a smile.

    What I’d really love is a cultural default honorific that isn’t gendered. I’ve argued, tongue in cheek, for “comrade,” “friend,” or “citizen,” but without effect 😉

    • What I loved about New Orleans culture is that “sweetie” and “honey” some other lil nicknames seemed very gender neutral and ppl would use them regularly, for men too.

      I totes understand how that could be problematic for folks, especially MoC folks. 😓

      ENGLISH! get with the times!

  5. I don’t have a problem with the fact that people misgender me (I’m a cis woman who has short hair and a tomboy-esque style), the problem for me comes when the person realises that they’ve made a mistake and get very embarrassed and either apologise profusely and/or giggle. Then because they make such a big deal out of it and assume they’ve totally offended me I end up feeling humiliated/offended! I wish people would just apologise and then move on and treat it like the simple mistake it is, not like it was the biggest insult in the world, because for me its really not a big deal until they make it one!

    Its funny I’ve taught lots of small children and they always get confused about my gender but they are so much easier to talk to about this stuff and generally treat the whole thing with much more respect than adults!

    • I find that the younger people are, the less they make a big deal out of my (or anybody else’s) gender. In the circles I move in, at least, the switchover age is somewhere around 40 or 45. Younger than that, no big deal. Older than that, it takes some work for them to think it through.

    • Yo this is the worst. Apologize once and move on! I hate the 482957 apologies the most and honestly that’s usually the most difficult part of correcting ppl and why I let it slide. The over-apologies are so annoying 😓

    • I kinda wish folks would read the scene a little more. I’m not saying that being misgendered doesn’t hurt, but not everyone experiences it the same way. However, I also feel like asking anyone other than yourself to put in the kind of effort needed to be aware of your situation is fruitless. I think it’s nice that folks at least consider that they might have insulted you, but if you clearly don’t look insulted, why push further on it? It just makes everything worse!

  6. When people call me sir, I sometimes just reply, I’m not British or been Knighted by the Queen so no need for the gendered formalities. One bank teller had a laugh and other just went okay, whatever.

  7. For some reason I find it *hiiiiilarious* and adorable whenever a kid misgenders me, and deeply annoying when it’s an adult who should know better. ‘Sir’ at least carries some implicit respect; ‘buddy’ or ‘pal’ suggest they think they’re talking to a chubby fifteen year old boy rather than a grown ass woman of decent standing and significant frontage.

    (I think it only annoys me so much because it means that they aren’t seeing *me* – I have an unmistakably female face and female shape and they’ll still just stop at the haircut and body language and not think the rest is worth beholding.)

    But hey, at least people usually feel embarrassed and contrite when they realise now, instead of calling us perverts and deviants and chasing us out of the village. Progress!

    • It does not bother me at ALL when kids do it!

      And it’s really tricky and nuanced obviously – I don’t want ppl to assume other ppls genders based on their appearance and stuff, but… sometimes I have a full face of makeup and have boobs and they still go with “sir” and I’m like, really???

  8. I’m a person who probably gets embarrassed all out of proportion when I misgender someone. I feel like I never pay attention to anything. I have a terrible time meeting the eyes of strangers, or remembering names unless I remind myself going into introductions that I have to (and use one of my mnemonic devices). But I also want to be so respectful of people, so when I realize I’ve committed a faux pas (like misgendering), all the thoughts about societal programming, oppression, another person’s discomfort, respecting human beings around us come bubbling up at the same time and I’m frozen.

    It’s useful to get the perspectives here from those who get misgendered in public frequently. I’ve been “sir”ed in my life, but I don’t feel like my experiences are instructive to me. What would be your ideal reaction from the offending party? So far it sounds like a simple, genuine apology is the best bet (as it often is). What else?

    • I definitely remember every time I’ve misgendered someone – those memories will always be etched in my brain! But the good thing about that is I’ve been able to learn from every one of those instances, and not make the same mistake twice.

      People who do get misgendered may want to weigh in here, but I can tell you what I’ve been told: that the best thing to do is correct yourself, make a quick & sincere apology, and move on. Spending a lot of time apologizing profusely kind of ends up making it about your own feelings, which obvs isn’t the goal.

      • “People who do get misgendered may want to weigh in here, but I can tell you what I’ve been told: that the best thing to do is correct yourself, make a quick & sincere apology, and move on. Spending a lot of time apologizing profusely kind of ends up making it about your own feelings, which obvs isn’t the goal.”

        This is what I prefer! I think it’s a great idea to just give room for me to address the feelings of being mis-gendered or put it aside and move on. Plus, it gets us back sooner to either to the task at hand or what we were interested in talking about in the first place.

    • Once, at a Jack in the Box in Texas, the cashier called me “sir” when he took my order. When I spoke, something in his eyes told me that my voice made him unsure that “sir” was correct, but he didn’t make a big deal of it. Then, when he called me to pick of my food, he said, “here you go, friend.” Which was amazing. He corrected himself, but didn’t over-correct himself (didn’t start saying “ma’am” a bunch of times), didn’t make it about himself, didn’t get all emotional or dramatic, AND made me feel good by calling me “friend.” To me, this was the ideal way to handle the particular situation. Social situations are a little bit different, but to me a the same general principles apply. Of course, everyone’s different.

      • This is cool? but honestly would make me feel uncomfortable personally. Dunno about others. I’d prefer “what pronouns do you use?” And I’d theyre fluid or prone to change they can say “right now, she/her, thanks!”

  9. I feel like some of you are meeting nicer people than I am. I tell me not to call me sir, but they keep doing it, sometimes moments after I told them not to. I just now pretend I didn’t hear or they said the more neutral Ser(saw this on trans blog).

  10. So just for context, I frequently get misgendered as a cis woman who is MOC and I get really annoyed when people apologise to me if they realise. Like I wish they would not draw attention to it.

    My reaction to people apologising is “don’t worry, if I cared I wouldn’t dress like this.

    It’s really hard to please me and the person who wrote this letter so my advice is just keep doing your best and don’t stress about it.

    • Same! I hate being dragged into the spotlight by people awkwardly apologizing for something that didn’t even upset me.

      I visited South Carolina last year and could get 4-8 sirs per shopping trip and it didn’t bother me at all unless they tried to apologize. I mean, there are non-binary people and trans guys who present almost exactly the way I do, so besides wanting people to not use gendered terms for strangers altogether it’s hard to be mad.

  11. I wish that it were culturally more common to just *not* gender strangers at all. I’m nonbinary and don’t particularly like masculine or feminine forms of address, but usually the best I can hope for is to get close to an even split on which way I get misgendered. Mostly I feel like it’s not worth correcting, although sometimes I will if it’s someone I interact with regularly. As long as I have the few close people in my life who get it, it’s a little easier to let the rest roll off of me!

    • Right??? Why doesn’t English have a commonly-used non binary/ non gendered standard respectful greeting???

      After years of misgendering I’ve learned how to just not care about strangers cuz why? these days it only bothers me with people who should know better.

  12. I’m a junior doctor in the UK and 90% of my misgendering comes at work, maybe 3/5 days. When it’s just me and an old lady its fine I don’t mind its easy to get confused, I have short hair and dress very MOC. But in front of consultants it can be very awkward when they have no clue how to react other than awkward silence.Just feels like it draws attention to me being ‘other’, something that the medical profession can be a bit thrown by. I tend to correct the old ladys nicely on my own but say nothing in front of senior doctors. I couldn’t honestly say how I could make the latter feel better.
    Gotta love a ‘young gentleman’ comment though

  13. I was raised to ALWAYS refer to absolutely everyone as ma’am and sir so it’s a hard habit to break. I assess kids for autism and I really like their usual response to my calling them sir/ma’am: “Um excuse you that is not my name. My name is —“

  14. I have been being misgendered periodically for going on nine years now, and letting it slide is not getting any easier. Honestly, I think it makes me angrier now than it did when I was younger. This makes me both more prone to be confrontational about it and more upset when I can’t.

  15. It’s funny cause getting “misgendered” (I say this in quotes because I identify nonbinary so it’s not exactly misgendering to be read as male) constantly or people staring at me a long time trying to figure out my gender doesn’t bother me at all, I think it’s kinda fun because I can get read completely differently by two different people who are standing next to eachother. The thing that DOES bother me is people assuming that I am a teenage or preteen boy and talking down to me lol, like, I’m a g-damn adult

  16. I think a lot of times people just don’t look at other people very closely. I have short hair, but my chest would never pass as male. I don’t wear makeup, but my face reads as woman. When I am misgendered it’s usually because someone isn’t staring at my chest before they say sir. I’m ok with that. Wearing a hat makes it a lot more likely that I will get a sir. People seem to have things they use to assume gender on first glance and sometimes don’t bother to look again. I think this says more about society than anything. The way we have these brief interactions with strangers where both of us are being polite but neither of us really care at all about each other. I think perhaps we don’t look closely enough to be sure about gender because in looking that close we might see more than we want to see. The checkout line isn’t a place to make close connections, so do I really care that they aren’t looking closely enough to really see me? Usually not at all.

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