Most of us have been there.
A beloved friend, colleague, or family member announces that they would like us to use a new/different pronoun when referring to them. Or someone we perceive as female comes into our life and requests that male pronouns be used. Or we a new co-worker is genderqueer and asks us to use "they" and "them."
We want to be respectful and kind allies but notice that we keep slipping up. We aren't sure how to handle hurting their feelings, using the right pronoun, apologizing, or making things right. The situation becomes awash in guilt, shame, self-flagellation, and judgment. Well, have no fear. This road has been tread before.
In my universe, which is (admittedly) full of all kinds of genders, people have been using alternative pronouns for at least ten years. I was in my early 20's when I first heard the third-gender pronouns "ze" and "hir," which are pronounced "zee" and "here." I used these pronouns myself for a couple of years early on in my transition. Other people in my life used "ze" and "zir" or other alternative pronouns. Some people struggled to use them correctly, but many of us were quite young and able to shift our language with relative ease.
As genderqueer identities slowly drifted towards the mainstream, a subtle shift began. In general, allies wanted to be respectful of alternative pronouns but had a hard time using brand-new words they'd never used before. There seemed to be a moment of introspection in the trans and genderqueer communities as we searched for an answer to this problem.
Lo and behold, we realized there was another set of pronouns we were already using as a gender-neutral option-- "they/them/theirs"! You're probably using this already:
"Oh look, someone left their bag here."
And so the gender-neutral, singular-person version of "they" was adopted in a more fully flushed-out form. In fact, dictionaries are now officially recognizing the use of "they" in this context.
Now is a great time to step back for a second and think about pronouns and the role they play in our lives. Pronouns are PROFOUNDLY tied to identity. Transgender women are often called "sir" as a pejorative, and being constantly confronted with a world that uses wrong pronouns for you (whether on accident or on purpose) is deeply disconcerting. Conversely, hearing the correct pronoun can make one's heart sing, especially early in transition.
I usually talk about it in terms of hand dominance. Have you ever tried to write with your non-dominant hand? It's awkward and weird, and generally impossible to actually concentrate on what you're supposed to be writing. All you can think about is getting that pen back into the correct hand. Pronouns are the same. When someone calls you "she," and deep down you know you're a "he," all you can think about is that wrong word and how to get the right one to come out instead. You aren't focusing on learning, working, playing, or loving. You aren't your full self anymore. So if you're a teacher, coworker, parent, friend, partner, or lover, getting it right means inviting someone fully into your life.
"Okay," you think. "I get it. But it's hard!!!"
Cue superhero music. I am here to help. Here are my tips and pointers.
Pronoun and Name Change How-To's
1. If it is possible, have grace with yourself. Not to let yourself off the hook, but because shame is not a good teacher. If you beat yourself up, it will take you WAY LONGER to rewire your brain to use the right pronouns. This is especially important if your trans friend is early on in their journey. They simply will not have the capacity to support you as you adjust, nor is it their job to do so. You'll have to do it yourself.
2. We are learning so much about the ways language affects our brains. Based on what we now know, our brains are literally shaped by the words we use. As they say, "What fires together, wires together." You've been looking at people who appear female and saying "she" and looking at people who appear male and saying "he" for your whole life. If you've known your newly-out trans friend for a long time, you've been looking at them and using a specific pronoun enough that your brain has wired that connection. So it's important to remember that we are talking about rewiring certain elements of your brain. The good news is-- the neuroplasticity of the brain lasts well into old age so no matter how old you are... you can learn to adapt to the reality of trans and gender non-conforming people in your life.
3. The way you rewire your brain is with practice. Whether we are talking about a name change, a pronoun change, a pronoun that is different from gender presentation, or a gender-neutral pronoun, if you WANT to get it right, all you need is practice.
(Side note: if you don't want to get it right, none of this will help much and you have to do some soul-searching about transphobia and unconditional love first.)
To practice, all you need is yourself and your brain! I recommend literally using your conscious thinking by "talking" about your trans friend in your head. Like so:
"I really hope Leslie comes to work today because they always wear cool ties and they are great collaborators in team meetings."
"Maybe my daughter will want Stef to do a sleepover, and he's a good kid but I'll have to stick to my guns about slumber parties."
Etc. Just practice sentence after sentence using the correct name and pronoun while thinking about the person. In this way, your brain is forming new neural connections around names, pronouns, and gender.
4. If you mess up, do not throw an apology parade. This happens more than you could ever imagine.
"I'm so sorry, it's just that you were pregnant which I usually associate with women and you used to be a girl so it's just hard to remember to call you a boy and I'm trying really hard and I feel so bad..." etc.
This apology parade is inevitably All About You. It's never actually designed to make amends and show a commitment to doing better. In this scenario, I'm suddenly expected to accept your apology and soothe you, rather than working on taking care of myself and allowing you to make amends. If you mess up, make a simple correction and keep moving. If you feel it's appropriate, you may choose to take the person aside later (not in front of other people) and let them know that you realize you made a mistake and reassure them that you are working on it. That's it. No excuses, no asking for forgiveness. Just a correction, an apology, and an acknowledgment of your commitment to do better.
When it comes to trans issues, or accepting difference in any form, we are all on a journey. Just as there is not just one way to be trans, there are many ways to be an ally. You will make mistakes, and you will hurt feelings. An act of allyship for one trans person will completely backfire with another. It's not your job to "not offend" us-- it's your job to be on your path, to keep moving forward, to do your best and accept when you've messed up, and to work with allies who aren't as far along as you are.
You don't have to be perfect to start doing the work of allyship. Anytime is a great time to use the right names and pronouns, to talk to a friend who is confused about us, to stand up for us and stand with us, to elevate our voices when we write and talk and lead and advocate, and to make the world a better place for all trans and gender non-conforming people.