For most transgender and non-binary people, being misgendered—meaning being referred to with the wrong gender pronouns—is not a rare occurrence. But no matter how often it happens, it's inevitably an uncomfortable, and can have lasting emotional effects. For many, professional settings—where there is pressure not to seem difficult or create tension with colleagues—can be one of the most frequent places where this happens.
“Being misgendered makes me feel absolutely invisible and disrespected,” says Imani, a 22-year-old non-binary person living and working in Brooklyn. “I’ve only ever felt safe being out at one job.” New York and California have passed strict laws that prohibit misgendering in the workplace and outline consequences for employees who repeatedly violate this protocol. But that level of protection is relatively rare—there are only 21 states that have even some form of legal protections for LGBTQ workers.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that discrimination on the basis of "sex" is illegal, and under the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice confirmed that "sex" should include gender identity—which would mean that repeated and intentional misgendering should qualify as illegal discrimination. Under the Trump Administration, however, the DOJ has pivoted its position, arguing that "sex" does not encompass gender. The Supreme Court will likely soon decide which definition is correct—and the conservative majority does not bode well for trans employee protections.
In an attempt to make the workplace safer for transgender employees, some offices across the country have independently implemented practices such as gender neutral bathrooms, gender sensitivity training, and name tags that include people’s preferred pronouns. Despite this, many transgender individuals continue to feel unsafe at work, where power dynamics often make it difficult for employees, especially ones who are lower-level, to speak out.
We asked seven trans and non-binary individuals to share how it feels to be misgendered at work, and how they deal with it.
Norah, 21, ice cream shop employee
I work at an ice cream shop in Florida and have been misgendered at work by customers, coworkers, and by my employer. I came out as transgender a year ago and have since informed my employer and coworkers that I prefer to be called by “she/her/hers.” After being corrected a couple of times, my coworkers and employer got the hang of it. When my boss has misgendered me, I feel particularly frustrated because we have a close relationship and I wish that she could just put a little bit more effort into making me feel welcome in the workplace. However, I am almost always misgendered by customers. One time, a group of four guys came in to order ice cream. They left, but later one of the guys returned with more of his friends. They came in the door, looked at me, and burst out laughing. They said "He's so f****d up." I went ahead and served them ice cream. They repeatedly called me "sir" until they left the store.
Val, 27 — pet store employee
I work at a pet food store franchised by a family consisting of two sisters and one of their partners. The two sisters owned a childhood education facility prior to the pet food store and went to teacher's college. As a result, one of the sisters feels she can't use my pronouns because in her mind, "they" is only a plural. I'm misgendered daily by customers, but since they don’t know me, it only makes me uncomfortable and not upset. When one of my bosses misgenders me and refuses to correct herself, it makes me feel frustrated, angry, and small. My usual go-to for correcting people is just to raise a hand and say "they" or "pronouns.” Most of the time it is received well with no backlash, but the one time I tried to correct one of my bosses, I was subjected to an aggressive rant on how she used to be a teacher and she doesn't believe in using “they/them” for one person and if I won't let her use “she/her” for me then I'll have to make do with “he/him.” I haven't tried to correct her again. With a few exceptions, my workplace is very accommodating. They let me wear my pronoun pin every day so that I have the chance to not be misgendered by our customers, and for that I am grateful.