February 26, 2023

“And the worst part is…”: The Misgendering Question in LD

How we can address misgendering in LD
Nick Ford


This piece is reflective of my experiences and my experiences alone in the debate community, and any conclusions drawn and explicated within this piece are based on these solely. In no way am I claiming that the conclusions drawn here are universal truths, or that other women within the space share the same intricate experiences that I do. I encourage other debaters to think about the conclusions made here through other, critical perspectives as well, and to continue to investigate this issue. Ultimately, I think that the conclusions that I come to here are dissatisfying. I am sorry if you are in agreement with my own thoughts on this topic.

I myself have made dire mistakes in-round compromising the safety of opponents before. The discussion of my selected experiences here is not in any way calling my judges or opponents in these rounds transphobes. It is perfectly okay to make mistakes so long as we learn from them. These are lessons that I think we as a community need to be more prescient of.

Content warnings: transphobia, mental health, disordered eating

There are few people who will deny the experiences I talk about here. The purpose is not to exert pressure on others to acknowledge the existence of such a problem within debate, or rather the debate community, but instead to forward a suggestion about the action that we might take regarding our responses to such an issue.


As a trans woman in debate, the choices that I have actively made in going to bid tournaments have been some of the worst that I have made in my life. My identity has been challenged countless times throughout the season, despite my minimal engagement with the national circuit, and I have no doubts that if I had participated more extensively in circuit debate (i.e., if I went to or could afford to go to more tournaments) that it would be challenged numerous additional times.

The first time that I was misgendered in-round was at my NSDA districts tournament. At this point in time, I went by they/them pronouns and was referred to by ‘he’ numerous times in the 2AR in partials. Given my local circuit, and the tendencies of NSDA tournaments, I understand that these judges were not inclined to vote on safety violations given their propensity toward lay/traditional forms of argumentation, beyond the fact that the violation taking place in the 2AR meant that there was no opportunity to mention this. I decided to bring it up immediately following the end of the speech.

When I informed the room of this, I, like many trans debaters, was met with doubt. They told me that in spite of what had happened in round, I should be more aware of the possibility of the situation and put my pronouns in the relevant section on Tabroom. I had already done this prior to going to this tournament. Regardless, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that this happened, or that there was no impact on the decision given the context explained above.

1: Trans debaters should not enter rounds expecting to be misgendered. Transphobic violence, even in comparatively lesser cases like misgendering, should not be a norm that we should expect to endure.

The next several times being misgendered in debate happened at the Florida Blue Key tournament in October of 2022. At this point, I began to use she/her pronouns exclusively at tournaments, given that I would not be surrounded by people that I know, and that I might be granted an opportunity to experience gender in different ways than I might in the hyper-conservative political environment of my high school. It is also important to note that I explicitly request not to be referred to by they/them in situations like this, as it is unaffirming and makes me dysphoric. I was misgendered in 4 of 6 prelims, where the response was mostly negative. Several judges just did not “buy” the arguments made regarding my safety in the round.

2: Trans debaters should not be in the business of making judges “buy” their experiences of transphobia in round. A debater’s technical skill should not allow them to get away with murder (or in this case, misgendering).

In my 4th round, I hit a policy cross-over, who had explained in their paradigm that they hacked for substance. Given that this was my first bid tournament, I did not make the most strategic choices this round, and as a result, split the 2AR. However, I was misgendered, and so I read a misgendering shell. The RFD given suggested that though I might have been “on to something” with the theoretical argument that I read, it was simply “not developed enough” in the 2AR. While I have 100% certainty that the extensions on the shell were underdeveloped in the 2AR, this RFD omits that the 2NR did not apologize for the safety violation, and also re-violated the shell by misgendering me egregiously. If you do not care about the safety of the debaters in your room, please do not sign up to judge.

Here are some suggestions for debaters who (genuinely) accidentally misgender their opponents:

  1. Apologize. Give a real, serious apology. Be remorseful for what you did.
  2. Acknowledge that you should be punished somehow if you’ve made the space unsafe. How that gets done is what you should be arguing over. Take the W-0 over the L-28.5.
  3. Ask for the correct pronouns, and use them. This should go without saying, but don’t re-violate the shell or defend your violation.

The very next round, it happens again. I’m willing to give my R4 the benefit of the doubt and assume that was an unfortunate series of mistakes in-round, but my R5 was undeniably the worst experience that I have had at a tournament to date. The 1NC begins the violation, where I’m misgendered a number of times, and so I proceed to read misgendering theory in the next speech. This is a normal procedure, and I’m expecting an apology at the least in the 2N. What I’m not expecting is for the 2NR to be given defending the violation in the NC positions. Regardless of your position in the round, this should be an instant L.

I will clarify here: I think that if you stand up after being called out for transphobia and defend those actions, you are a bad person (or a good person who has made an immense mistake), and should lose that round. I think that if this happens in a round that you are judging, and you do not drop this debater, you are also probably a bad person (or a good person who has made an immense mistake).

The result of my R5? I lose because I’m out-teched, and the shell cannot be voted on because fairness outweighs warrants are conceded. I lose because defaulting to they/them is good, even though I’ve specifically requested not to be referred to by it. I lose, even though my opponent doesn’t care about what they’ve done in that round, and I’m silently trying to figure out why I was misgendered after my opponent reached out and confirmed my pronouns before the round.

I’ll continue to confirm this: my performance at FBK was not good by any means necessary. If my opponent had apologized and made arguments as to why using the ballot for punishment is bad, I would gladly accept the loss and chalk it up to my technical skill (or lack thereof). Instead, I’m forced to debate another round, exhausted from keeping myself from having a panic attack.

(Digression: I neglect to mention a round that I have been told about in which a panel of judges voted for one debater over another on misgendering in a 2–1 decision, where 1 who sat in the decision did so based on the idea that skep takes out misgendering, and on DTA for misgendering. Though I neglected to mention it more explicitly here, as it is not an experience of my own but of another debater which I will not speak for, my understanding of this situation is that this is an embarrassing mistake on the part of this judge, insofar as, firstly, the argument that skep takes out misgendering probably warrants intervention, as it suggests that the debater making this argument is likely unremorseful about their actions, in addition to the fact that, on a truth level, regardless of whether we are incapable of knowing whether transphobia is good or bad, it is probably intuitionally good for debaters to not be transphobic, to not misgender opponents, and to not make arguments which foster an unsafe environment. That is as much as I will say regarding this.)

3: Hold debaters accountable. “Terminal defense” isn’t defense enough.

Isidore Newman is largely the same. Opponents use the wrong pronouns, some apologize (thank you to those who have done this), and some don’t. Regardless, nothing is done, but I shouldn’t expect more, should I?

There are some judges who make themselves clear, here, and explain that they are paradigmatically opposed to voting on misgendering. While I personally do not agree with these positions, I understand where they come from, and appreciate that they are straightforward insofar as what they will/will not vote on in this context.

Some, however, are not.

My R2, I’m faced with the grueling task of defending my identity again. The answer? Not an apology, no, but rather that “eval theory after 2NR” is conceded, so you shouldn’t vote on misgendering. In spite of this egregious mistake, this isn’t even why misgendering is not evaluated. What actually happens is that the shell is evaluated on reasonability, when neither debater has made the argument as to why that should be the case.

Is it possible to be “reasonably transphobic”? If it is, does defending the violation and re-violating the shell in the 2NR constitute “reasonable transphobia”?

I understand that there was likely no malice from this, but debaters need to be held accountable for their actions, especially when there is not a visible effort to rectify those actions.

(I also digress here to elaborate that another reason for which the misgendering shell was not voted on in this round was that I ‘misgendered’ my cis opponent in this round by referring to them as ‘they’. I think that this is a statement to the extent to which many cis people do not understand the trans experience, much less the experience of being misgendered and the dysphoria that comes with it to many trans folks. Take this as you will.)

The rest of Isidore was otherwise, thankfully, pleasant!

At Emory, I think that being misgendered was generally well handled. Though I was misgendered a number of times, it was largely handled in a way that I would argue is acceptable. There was one exception to this.

To be honest, my R4 was a mess. There were a number of reasons that the round was difficult to evaluate, but I think that the response to safety violations in the space was lacking. To summarize: the violation began in the 1AC, and misgendering is first read in the 1NC, the 1/2AR re-violates the shell, but goes for evidence ethics o/w, in addition to an argument as to why they get terminal defense for asking about shells to meet before the round.

I largely agree with the RFD in this round: no argument is made regarding why I should get reasonability on a (potential) evidence ethics violation, and as such, it is probably reciprocal to grant my opponent reasonability on the misgendering shell given the argument in the 1/2AR about asking for interpretations to meet before the round. I think that I should have made arguments as to why safety outweighs evidence ethics, or why misgendering comes prior to arguments about evidence ethics, but I did not, and so I understand why I am losing coming out of the 2AR.

My disagreements begin, however, in how the shell is evaluated within the context of reasonability. This goes back to the previous point made, begging the question of what it means to be “reasonably transphobic”. I think that this argument about evaluating misgendering through a lens of reasonability draws an arbitrary line and grants debaters a (really, non-existent, or at the very least difficult to adjudicate) metric through which they are able to avoid real culpability for their actions. In this particular instance, it was found that the misgendering that occurs in the 1AC, once again in the 1AR, and finally in the 2AR is found to fall within the bounds of “reasonable transphobia”, insofar as there is terminal defense to the shell because of actions external to the round.

The question of terminal defense in this specific instance, though, begs the question of whether trans debaters are responsible for indicating that they would not like to be misgendered in the round. I think that the arguments made as to why terminal defense from asking for interpretations prior to the round fail in cases of misgendering, and plead engaging with the prior parts of this discussion which argue that transphobia should not be a norm within the debate space. Debaters should simply expect their opponents to show them a common courtesy of using the correct pronouns in round, and not specifying this universal sign of respect and recognition of validity should not be a tool that grants the perpetrator an excuse for their actions.

In fact, what warrants an argument granting defense, or whether an action in round warrants intervening to ignore that defense due to its disingenuity? Should a debater lose the defense granted by an argument such as pre-round interpretations if those interpretations are re-violated after they are made aware of them? Or is the very act of not knowing before the initial violation strong enough that it persists through multiple infractions?

I would argue that, in many instances, “terminal defense” to misgendering is rare.

An exception to this is a round in which there are multiple forms of violence that are incorrect to weigh between. I will be the first to admit that I have made mistakes of this kind, and as a result, I think that evaluating debates that boil down to sensitive issues like this in this way is probably the correct course of action.

(Another digression: I think that there is probably some debate to be had over the extent to which judges should dock speaks as a method of holding debaters accountable. I agree with many that low-speak wins are a method of punishment for in-round conduct, the obvious exception being elimination rounds, but speaks which might be considered within a normal range, or potentially slightly low, probably constitute a ‘slap on the wrist’.)

4: ?

Though I know that there is only a fraction of the debate community who will end up reading this and that only an even smaller fraction of it will take seriously what this says, internalize it, and consider what role they play within this problem of debate, what I feel is the core of this issue is best explained by what one judge told me at Emory: that there are judges out there who will let debaters “tech>truth” their way out of a lot of different arguments, despite the disingenuous apologies and side-stepping of accountability that goes on within the space.

The way that we role-play policymakers, critical theorists, and activists alike, as well as how that role-playing is evaluated through the stories told in ballots is impactful to how we perform in the rest of our lives, and it is important for us to remember that the way that we engage within the space can enact real, lasting impacts on those who we interact with.

This is not a call to drop every debater who misgenders their opponent by accident, but rather a call to be more mindful of how you, as a debater or judge, might respond to acts of transphobia. Using the correct pronouns is not difficult, nor is it likely that it inconveniences you in any way, and neither is apologizing if you misgender your opponent by accident.

If you have any questions about what is being said in this, or about gender identity, or would like to have a conversation, please reach out through some channel.

Post-script 1:

Here are some thoughts that I have after Harvard:

Debate as a community/activity is transphobic. Full stop. End of story.

How does that manifest?

Misgendering and other transphobic actions in round. Misgendering and transphobic actions, words, etc., out of round. Speaking about trans debaters in demeaning ways outside of the round with coaches and friends. Co-opting the violence experienced by trans debaters at the hands of the community to win rounds.

I am not going to pretend that I know the identity of all debaters who read these kinds of arguments. I am going to say that lying about pronouns and gender identity is a grievous offense to all trans debaters who struggle with being misgendered within rounds.

I was physically sick after that round.

I had to quite literally swallow down my feelings because of it.

How do we prevent this?

Believe trans debaters.

Believe us when we tell you that certain words and phrases make us dysphoric. Our dysphoria is not an argument that we should have to win. In the words of another debater who has struggled with misgendering in debate: “Safety first means intervention”.

Vote debaters down who are aware of opponents’ pronouns and still misgender them. Care about the safety of debaters in your rounds, and don’t allow cheap cop-outs on tricky arguments that are dropped because we have to devote time to shells or independent voters in order to justify our own well-being within the space.

Low-point wins are not enough for debaters to take lessons from the space: speaks are arbitrary, and giving low-point wins only benefits the best debaters who are likely to break into later elimination rounds; justifications of low-point wins in spite of misgendering based on losses by trans debaters on the technical flow reinforce the idea that, for our safety in the round to be significant to judges, we must be technically efficient. Not only must we defend our survival– that the community should use our correct pronouns– but we must also be able to live, that is, we must be able to debate like cis debaters, despite facing obstacles that these debaters will never encounter.

The problem of reputation, of technical skill, and of competitive success pose a challenge that judges can rectify by voting down disingenuous attempts at avoiding culpability.

Post-script 2:

It’s been five days since writing that last section about Harvard and I’m still thinking about what happened in that round. It makes me nauseous. When I think about the fact that he has great success after that, I start to hyperventilate. I wasn’t going to write this reflective section, but I think that debaters underestimate how misgendering affects trans debaters.

For me, it’s not just something that lasts for the time of the round. It’s not like dropping a competitor on misgendering is going to stop this. Misgendering has implications that I’m still thinking about days later, and that makes my physical health worsen. Seeing his name and thinking about how he’s successful, about how he doesn’t regret what he did in the round and that he doesn’t care about how what he’s said has impacted me hurts my core. My stomach clenches when I think about every time that he used the wrong pronouns, and it makes it worse to read about his coach praising him for his success, something which only came at the expense of those around him.

Being misgendered wasn’t something that I used to think about in solitude. I wouldn’t really go back to the memory of past rounds when I was alone before this. Now, the white-noise whirring of my fan is the only thing distracting me from the constant reminders of what has happened my entire season.

I think that debaters, especially those reading kritikal arguments, tend to oversaturate rounds with the word “psychic violence”. As one of those debaters, I don’t think that I understood what it meant until now. It’s not something that just gets thrown out in attempts to win rounds, but also a real experience that trans debaters face when being misgendered. Psychic violence is the constant recall of experiences that I don’t wish to keep in my mind. It’s the physiological effects of hyperventilation and nausea that come back with those same experiences. Being misgendered isn’t physically violent but I can’t help but think that my experience isn’t an isolated incident. The anxiety that I have in the middle of rounds where I’m misgendered is minuscule in the scope of everything that I have been feeling over the past few days. I don’t want to eat too much because if I think about the wrong thing there’s a chance that it’ll just come back up.

And the worst part is that I don’t know how to make it stop.

I’ve tried the coping mechanisms, breathing in and out to reduce my heart rate and increase oxygen intake, but they don’t help when I’m struggling in the same way 30 minutes later.

I don’t think we can solve this proactively. Debaters will still misgender each other. I also don’t think that ballots will really stop this either. My conclusion about debate is that trans debaters will never be safe. I don’t know if that just means trans folks shouldn’t join the activity out of a desire for their safety, or whether harsher ballot norms should exist because docked speaker points and losing rounds won’t stop this from happening, but as a trans girl navigating the space, I think that the community owes it to us to at least try.

Post-script 3:

I do not owe anyone an explanation of my identity, but there will inevitably be some who ask. To clarify: I am gender-fluid. If you just really want to know something beyond that for some reason, ask me directly through my socials.

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