Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because It’s a Change
This is the fourth installment of a longish and very drafty article on – you guessed it - getting pronouns right. I will post one installment per week until you have the complete draft. Comments are welcome at any time, but I’m not going to rewrite it until I’ve gotten the whole thing written!
When I started interviewing people in my community about what makes it difficult for them to use the right pronouns (or names) for particular trans people in their lives, some distinct themes emerged. One of the most common responses was, simply, it’s hard because it’s a change.
This makes a lot of sense as far as it goes. When someone we know goes through a major life transition – changing careers, getting married, having kids – it may take a while for us to adjust to the change. This is as true of gender transitions as of any other kind. We are used to calling someone one thing, and now they want to be called something else. It makes sense that we might not consistently get it right, right away.
And yet, there are limits to this explanation.
First, “it’s hard because it’s a change” only makes sense if you knew the person before transition. If you meet someone who goes by “he,” and lets you know that (or someone does) the first time you meet him, the “it’s a change” explanation tends to fall flat. If it feels like a change, even though you never knew the person to go by any other pronoun, this is probably a sign that there might be something else going on.
Also, even if you did know the person before transition, the “it’s a change” explanation implies that the pronoun slip-ups have nothing to do with gender – that a pronoun change is no more challenging than any other kind of change. People often cite the example of names. People change their name for many reasons, and it often takes their friends and family a while to get in the habit of using the new name. Pronoun changes, some people claim, are just like that.
If you can honestly say that it would be just as hard if your friend changed his name from Steve to Daniel, as it would be if she changed her name from Steve to Stephanie, then I’ll believe you that “it’s hard because it’s a change.” Otherwise, I’ll argue that the change is probably part of it, and also that there is more to be explained.
That said, when you’ve known someone a long time, “it’s a change” really is at least part of what makes it hard to get their name and pronoun right. In that case, it should be relatively easy to get it right. All you have to do is practice!
Exercises to Practice Pronouns:
Gossip (not really)
Talk about the person when the person is not around, using the pronouns the person prefers. You don’t have to be talking about the person’s gender, just make a point to include the person in your regular chit chat about how your day went. Or, if you know the person in a confidential setting, try talking about the person to yourself in private, such as while you’re in the shower. Get used to thinking, saying and hearing the person’s name paired with the pronoun the person prefers.
Give names to several common household objects in your home. For any object that has gendered associations for you, give it the other gendered name. (For example, your mixing bowl might be Jack and your chopping knife might be Dolores.) While you’re going about your daily routine, tell stories about the objects using the pronouns appropriate to their names. Tell the stories aloud. Actually saying and hearing the pronouns is an important part of this learning process.
Once you’ve got that down (after at least a few days, or however long it takes for the objects’ new genders to feel “natural”), switch pronouns but not names. (So now the mixing bowl is still Jack, but now “she.”) Once that feels natural, switch back. Switch back again. Add additional objects or try using third-gender pronouns* to make the game more challenging.
This one works particularly well if you have a close personal relationship with the person. With the person’s consent, set up a deal where every time you mis-pronoun (or misname) your friend, your friend has permission to mis-pronoun (or misname) you right back. For example, if you accidentally call your friend “she,” even though he prefers “he,” he could then say, “Thanks, Frederick,” even though your name’s Amy. Pick a name ahead of time, and not just any name – pick the inappropriately gendered name you would least like to be called.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t make the situation “even”. After all, you’re consenting to be mis-gendered, whereas your trans friend may get mis-gendered fifty times a day. What it does is to provide you with immediate feedback about your behavior, so that you notice when you mess up. It also creates a mechanism for giving you this feedback that can be light-hearted, and doesn’t have to interrupt the conversation. By volunteering for this treatment, you are demonstrating your commitment to getting your friend’s pronouns right.
Do it together! If one person in your community is transitioning, don’t be afraid to connect with other people in your community about what that means to all of you. Talk with other allies who are also trying to be respectful. Agree to remind each other when you mess up, so that it’s not always the trans person’s responsibility to do it. Consider getting together to discuss any issues that might get in your way, or to go over the reflective exercises on the other handout.
When you’re slipping up on someone’s pronouns because you’ve known them before transition, you have a unique opportunity to be a really valuable ally by doing your work and getting the pronouns right. Many trans people lose friends during transition, some who are outright transphobic and others who mean well but just can’t get over their shit enough to step up and support their friend who’s transitioning. By calling someone the right pronouns even though it’s hard, you are showing them that you are one friend they won’t have to lose. You are also showing them that the image of them that you have in your head is an image of who they are now – not an image of them in the past, or as you wish they would be. You’re saying, “I see you, I recognize you, I believe that you are who you say you are.”