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Approved by the LSA Executive Committee, May 2021.

This is the final version of the LSA's Against Linguistic Misgendering as approved by the LSA Executive Committee.  LSA members are still welcome to comment on it, and may do so in the "Add New Comment" field at the bottom of this page.

Introduction

Linguists rightly reject prescriptivism as an ideology of language concerned with determining which language variants are inherently superior to others and policing their use by speakers. However, linguists are also especially qualified to assess the effects of speech acts on communities and individuals, and to identify those which affirm or impede the ability of linguists and students to live and work safely. As a professional organization, the Linguistic Society of America works to establish and promote ethical norms of appropriate treatment in professional and academic environments; respecting and affirming the gender and other aspects of identity of the members of our community is one of those norms. This document provides a statement of LSA values which recognizes the role of language in creating a welcoming environment for students and practitioners of linguistics, and recognizes the harms that result when linguists or community members reject this role.

This statement is based on extensive research, lived experiences, and professional knowledge of members of the LSA’s Committee for LGBTQ+ Linguistics [COZIL]. This is important in professional circles, but also for linguists who work with language communities outside the academy. As English is the language of professional communication for the Linguistic Society of America, we have drawn our examples from English, though we believe that many of these general principles are applicable to other languages with which linguists may work in professionally or scientifically, given the prevalence of gender-marking across the world’s languages (Corbett, 2013). These guidelines recognize that standardized, prestige versions of academic English hold a privileged status in academia and broader professional contexts, and the principles of communication and respect outlined here are designed to apply in professional circles, classrooms, and in any research activity that involves human participants or consultants.

Misgendering

What misgendering is

Misgendering occurs when a person is called by a pronoun, title, or gender label that they (the referent) do not use or identify with, regardless of the intent. Using gender-inclusive and identity-affirming language is critical both to create an inclusive environment and to avoid misgendering people. Gender-inclusive language is language which does not impose external categories (such as a binary gender system) upon anyone who may not ascribe to that system, and does not introduce presuppositions or imply inherence of those categories. Identity-affirming language is language that not only fails to contrast with a person’s own sense of self, but actively upholds a person’s self-identification.

Misgendering is harmful

Misgendering harms people because it is a refusal to recognize and respect a person’s identity. Misgendering disproportionately harms transgender people (Conrod, 2018c), who are an extreme minority in the linguistics community (LSA Annual Report, 2017). This is true even in cases where the person does not intend to be harmful or is unaware of the harm taking place. Trans and non-binary people already face astronomical rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality, as well as related life outcomes such as poverty, homelessness, and unemployment (Grant et al., 2011). At the same time, social psychological research has demonstrated that trans individuals have significantly better mental health when they are supported by their communities (ibid.). Support includes being gendered correctly. To avoid harming trans people in this way, one must learn to communicate without misgendering others.

Pronouns and misgendering

The primary way that misgendering happens in English is when someone uses the wrong pronouns for another person. Many nonbinary individuals use the singular they as their pronoun, and it is important to respect people and use their pronouns appropriately. 

Almost all English speakers use and understand singular they in a generic, gender-neutral sense as in (1) and sometimes (2) (Conrod, 2019; Bjorkman, 2017; Konnelly & Cowper, 2020). Singular they is incredibly useful as an inclusive language practice, because it is a more inclusive (and less clunky) option than “he/she” or “h/she”, which also presume a gender binary (e.g., “The student needed to finish their exam” as opposed to “the student needed to finish his or her exam”). The examples in (1)–(4) below show the distinction between uses of singular they with different types of antecedents.

Examples of singular they

  1. Generic, ungendered:
    • “No child should ever be separated from their parent.” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)
  2. Generic, gendered:
    • “Just sort of like the same idea when you say- you, you s- meet the man that you're- that you love and you recognize it the moment you meet them.” (Deprogrammed, 2015 film)
  3. Specific, ungendered:
    • “There was one respondent, however, who wrote at length about their positive experiences with their church, family, and school” (Shawn Warner-Garcia, diss)
  4. Specific, gendered:
    • “I think if the listener’s boyfriend has seen the news recently, they can be pretty understanding in general” (Danny Lavery, Dear Prudence)

Not all individual English speakers find the definite, specific sense of singular they (like in (3) and (4)) grammatical (Conrod 2019b). However, this definite specific use of singular they has recently been undergoing a change (ibid.), and is becoming more widely accepted. Most importantly, one's own grammatical restrictions do not excuse misgendering. When talking about a person who you know to use singular they as their pronoun, you should not use any other pronoun to refer to them without their permission.

While many trans and nonbinary people do use they as their pronoun, many use he or she pronouns, or other pronoun sets. If someone does not use singular they, and you use this pronoun to refer to them, consider whether you are implicitly misgendering them. Singular they does not have gender features, but it can still be used to implicitly misgender (or degender) people inappropriately. Additionally, there are a variety of other pronoun sets used in English, often called neopronouns, such as ze/hir or fae/faer. For individuals who use these pronouns, you should use them. Some individuals use multiple pronoun sets; if this is the case, you can default to using the first listed set until you know them better. At the end of the document there are links to other resources with advice for specific social situations. 

Other instances of misgendering

While pronouns are an obvious source of misgendering, it is also important to consider how misgendering can occur in other contexts. Languages with gender agreement that genders the speaker, addressee, or third persons should be treated similarly to any other gendering language: namely, using inappropriate gender agreement or morphology can constitute misgendering, and can disproportionately harm and alienate transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people. Spanish (-e, -i, &c); French (iel, “dot” e) both have robust nonbinary communities of speakers. When working with other languages, look to what trans and nonbinary people are doing as far as inclusive language.

Furthermore, misgendering can occur with terms for gender labels and categories. Phrases such as “men and women” or “ladies and gentlemen” presume and reinforce a gender binary and exclude nonbinary people. There are a wide array of inclusive alternatives depending on the audience and formality, such as “people,” “folks,” “students,” or “honored guests.” Other linguistics research has explored the use of terms like “guys” and “dude” (Keisling 2004); be aware that such words often carry gendered implications in some varieties of English regardless of speaker intentions. Finally, occupational terms (actress, waitress) and other terms of address (sir, ma’am) can be a source of misgendering, and should be used with care. For additional information see the LSA Guidelines on Inclusive Language written by the Committee for the Status of Women in Linguistics (COSWL; now the Committee on Gender Equity in Linguistics (COGEL)).

Summary

The LSA recognizes that identity-affirming and gender-inclusive language is important in cultivating affirming environments for trans people. As linguists, it is crucial that we avoid doing harm through language and avoid misgendering people. COZIL and the LSA affirm the right of transgender people to participate in linguistics, both as a science and as a professional field, free from harassment or microaggressions.

Links to more resources

Further Reading

Statment Drafted By: 

COZIL Pronoun Statement Sub-Committee: Sunny Ananthanarayan, Evan Bradley, Kirby Conrod, Archie Crowley, J Inscoe, Lex Konnelly, and Lal Zimman.

References

Ackerman, L. (2019). Syntactic and cognitive issues in investigating gendered coreference. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 4(1). http://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.721

Ackerman, L., Riches, N., & Wallenberg, J. (2018). Coreference dependency formation is modulated by experience with variation of human gender [Conference presentation]. 92nd Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, Salt Lake City, UT, United States.

Bjorkman, B. M. (2017). Singular they and the syntactic representation of gender in English. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 2(1), 80, 1–13. http://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.374

Conrod, K. (2018a). Changes in singular they [Conference presentation]. The Cascadia Workshop in Sociolinguistics, Reed College, Portland, OR.

Conrod, K. (2018b). Pronouns and gender in language. In K. Hall & R. Barrett (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of language and sexuality. Oxford UP. http://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190212926.001.0001

Conrod, K. (2018c). Pronouns and misgendering [Conference presentation]. New Ways Of Analyzing Variation, New York University, NY. October 18–22, 2018.

Conrod, K. (2019a) Language, gender, and harm. Invited panel: Diversifying Linguistics. Georgetown University Round Table in Linguistics, Washington D.C. March 29–31. Slides, blog post.

Conrod, K. (2019b). Pronouns raising and emerging [Doctoral dissertation]. University of Washington. UW Link.

Corbett, G. G. (2013). Sex-based and non-sex-based gender systems. In M. S. Dryer& M. Haspelmath (Eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/31, Accessed on 2020-09-08.)

Grant J. M., Mottet L. A., Tanis J., Harrison J., Herman J. L., Keisling M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Kibbey, T. (2019). Transcriptivism: An ethical framework for modern linguistics. Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America, 4(45), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v4i1.4535

Kiesling, S. F. (2004). Dude. American Speech, 79, 281–305. https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-79-3-281

Konnelly, L., & Cowper, E. (2020). Gender diversity and morphosyntax: An account of singular they. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 5(1). http://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.1000

Kotek, H., Babinski, S., Dockum, R., & Geissler, C. (2020). Gender representation in linguistic example sentences. Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America, 5(1), 514–528. https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v5i1.4723

McLemore, K. A. (2015). Experiences with misgendering: Identity misclassification of transgender spectrum individuals. Self and Identity, 14(1), 51–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2014.950691

Miltersen, E. H. (2016). Nounself pronouns: 3rd person personal pronouns as identity expression. Journal of Language Works-Sprogvidenskabeligt Studentertidsskrift, 1(1), 37–62.

Papadopoulos, B. (2018). Morphological gender innovations in Spanish of genderqueer speakers [Bachelor’s thesis].University of California Berkeley.

Papadopoulos, B. (2019). Morphological gender innovations in Spanish of non-binary speakers [Conference presentation]. Hispanic Linguistics Symposium 2019, University of Texas, El Paso, TX, United States.

The State of Linguistics in Higher Education Annual Report 2017. (2018). https://www.linguisticsociety.org/sites/default/files/Annual_Report_2017_Final_2.pdf

Zimman, L. (2017). Transgender language reform: Some challenges and strategies for promoting trans-affirming, gender-inclusive language. Journal of Language and Discrimination, 1(1), 83–104. https://doi.org/10.1558/jld.33139

Zimman, L. (2018). Working with transgender communities. In C. Mallinson, B. Childs, & G. Van Herk (Eds.), Data collection in sociolinguistics: Methods and applications (2nd ed., pp. 49–52. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315535258

Zimman, L. (2019a, Jan 4). Listening to trans+ voices (part 1 of 2): Trans-inclusive theory and practice for research on sex, gender, and the voice [Conference presentation]. 93rd Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, New York City, NY, United States.

Zimman, L. (2019b, Jan 5). Listening to trans voices (part 2 of 2): Envisioning a trans linguistics [Conference presentation]. 93rd Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. New York City, NY, United States.