In August 2014, OxfordDictionaries.com added numerous new words and definitions to their database, and we invited a few experts to comment on the new entries. Below, Reid Vanderburgh, retired marriage and family therapist and contributor to Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, discusses misgender. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford Dictionaries or Oxford University Press.
Officially appearing on Oxford Dictionaries’ list of new words, the definition is:
misgender /mɪsˈjendər/ ▶v. [with obj.] refer to (someone, especially a transgender person) using a word, especially a pronoun or form of address, that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify
EXAMPLE: “various media outlets have continued to misgender her.”
Though not a positive word, its appearance in the dictionary is a positive step. Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Depending on geographical location and the demographics of who you’re talking to, transgender people live in all three of the first stages of Gandhi’s process – ignored in some places (through invisibility of identity, not through complete acceptance), ridiculed in many, embattled in others. Though some transgender people live in areas where civil rights are theirs, I doubt any would say “Yay, we’ve won!”
The appearance of misgender in a dictionary is a sign of (a) not being ignored, and (b) not being ridiculed. To be misgendered deliberately is to be fought against. To have someone sincerely apologize and then move on from the mistake without a second thought, is to win.
In recent years, words have begun appearing in the lexicon that have moved our culture further toward the “we win” state for transgender people. For instance, the word cisgender entered the lexicon in the mid-2000s, creating a word for non-transgender people. Now, in etymological terms, we have equally-balanced words: transgender and cisgender, co-existing as do straight and gay/lesbian. Though there is still an imbalance in terms of cultural power, the first stage (being ignored) is surmounted through appearing in dictionaries.
Though many transgender people still wish to live private lives, not proclaiming their transgender identity publicly, the power of the Internet and post-9/11 security laws make such privacy increasingly difficult to maintain. Transgender identities of various kinds have become increasingly visible as a result; like it or not, the “being ignored” stage is passing quickly. This will probably create the tension of being ridiculed, and the pain/suffering of being fought. However, continuing to create a non-pathologizing, non-judgmental lexicon with which to discuss transgender identity moves our culture ever further from the “ignore you” stage, into the realm of “this is normal.” Then we win.
Headline image: Gender neutral toilets at department of sociology, Gotenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden. Public doman via Wikimedia Commons.