Bruce Jenner, 1970s Olympian and star of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, told ABC News's Diane Sawyer, "I'm a woman." But Sawyer continued referring to Jenner as "he," which many on social media saw as an act of misgendering.
Sawyer explained that Jenner, who identifies as a woman but was designated male at birth, asked to be referred to with male pronouns for the time being, so she would respect Jenner's wishes. Indeed, LGBT advocacy group GLAAD explained in a statement said this is what people should do:
At this time, Bruce Jenner has not requested that a new name or pronoun be used, therefore we are respecting his wishes and will continue to refer to Jenner by his current name and with male pronouns. Some transgender people prefer to change their name and/or pronoun quickly. Other transgender people may take more time to decide what name and/or pronoun feels right to them. To be respectful, use the name and/or pronoun requested by the individual.
This is standard advice for referring to people's gender identity: respect their wishes. If there's any reasonable uncertainty, GLAAD says the best thing to do is directly ask what someone's gender identity is. Although it can be awkward for both parties, it's much better than the problems that can arise from not asking and making an assumption. And there's a good chance transgender people may be used to the question — and might even appreciate it, because it shows you don't want to misgender them.
Misgendering is seen as an insult within LGBTQ communities because it characterizes people in a way they don't relate to. What's worse, some opponents of LGBTQ rights purposely misgender people to show their disapproval of identifying or expressing gender in a way that doesn't heed traditional social standards. These subtle acts are viewed by many LGBTQ people as microaggressions, which, while not always overtly or purposely insulting, can act as a constant reminder to people that large segments of the population don't understand or approve of their personal identity.
"Imagine going through life every day and having so many of your interactions involve somebody trying to give you a hug and stepping on your foot while doing it," Emily Prince, a 31-year-old trans woman in Alexandria, Virginia, previously said. "And then when you ask them to step off your foot, no matter how polite you are about it, they respond with, 'Oh, excuse me, I was just trying to give you a hug.'"
Sometimes the problem is magnified by limitations in the English language, which relies heavily on gendered pronouns. LGBTQ communities have tried to propose various gender-neutral pronouns, but none have caught on. Some people and organizations, including Vox, might use "they" instead of "he" or "she" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
The lack of a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun makes it difficult for even the most well-meaning person to correctly address someone without running the risk of misgendering them. That's one of the reasons it's typically better to directly ask about a person's gender identity if there's any reasonable uncertainty.
For more information, read 9 questions about gender identity and being transgender you were too embarrassed to ask.