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Pronoun Trouble: misgendering and its intersubjective consequences in a social work encounter

conference contribution
posted on 2023-09-11, 00:18 authored by Justin CantyJustin Canty

Misgendering, using incorrectly gendered language for a person, can be applied to anyone and can be intentional or accidental. It has specific significance for trans and gender diverse (TGD) people, featuring as a source of minority stress and marginalisation in professional settings (Knutson, Koch & Goldbach 2019, Mizock & Lundquist 2016). Inclusive language guidelines for communicating with TGD people highlight the importance of accurate pronoun use and redressing misgendering when it occurs. Such guidelines commonly rely on generalised examples and principles, which runs the risk of perpetuating communication myths or assumptions. Social work’s professional commitment to social justice makes it vital to embody it in talk and implement effective communications practice. Drawing on naturally occurring data as the framework means that gender affirming language guidelines can be grounded and implemented in practice as it happens.

The data come from a study investigating social work practice with TGD clients. For this presentation, the analysis focuses on a single episode of a therapeutically focused social work encounter (Schegloff 1987). The client discusses a third party (who is not co-present in the session) who they misgender through accidental production of wrong pronouns. The analysis illustrates how misgendering impacts shared understandings and responses by both interlocutors. The episode features a range of interactional strategies related to repair and accountability. These include a) brief self-initiated repair, b) no repair, and c) accounting for mis-speaking pronouns. Pursuing intersubjectivity consequently becomes a significant professional project for the social worker. Analysis illuminates ways that  misgendering is interactionally consequential and highlights
subsequent social actions undertaken in order to make evident and then repair the confusion created by pronoun trouble. It addresses real world consequences to pronoun use for intersubjectivity and accountability in the context of gender affirming health and social care. It contributes to the broader projects of using conversation analysis with social work practice and to ground communications guidance with TGD clients in ‘the world as it happens’ (Boden 1990).

Boden, D. (1990). The World as It Happens: Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis. Frontiers
of Social Theory. the New Syntheses, 185–213
Knutson, D., Koch, J. M., & Goldbach, C. (2019). Recommended terminology, pronouns, and documentation for work with transgender and non-binary populations. Practice Innovations, 4(4), 214.
Martinez, K (2019, October 8) Pronouns 101: Why They Matter and What To Do (and Not Do) If You Misgender Someone. Awaken.
Mizock, L., & Lundquist, C. (2016). Missteps in psychotherapy with transgender clients: Promoting gender sensitivity in counseling and psychological practice. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 3(2), 148–155
Schegloff, E. A. (1987). Analyzing single episodes of interaction: An exercise in conversation analysis. Social psychology quarterly, 101-114.



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  • Accepted

Event title

International Conference on Conversation Analysis 2023

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University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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