Pronouns–those tiny little words that can hurt like a broken bone or be as delightful as a birthday present. For many trans and gender-nonconforming people, gender pronouns are an important aspect of self-expression. Whether you want different pronouns because of your gender identity or your views on the gender system, it’s a challenging task. If coming out is safe and feasible, you might be ready to ask your loved ones to start using a new pronoun. How do you go about getting other people to call you by the right words?
1. Ask for what you want. Requesting different gender pronouns can be a nerve-wracking prospect. You might be wondering whether people will take you seriously as a she or a he, whether people will play grammar police when you request singular they, or whether friends and family will be willing to learn a new set of pronouns like ze/hir/hirs. It can be tempting to look for a compromise and ask for whatever you think is most likely to stick. This might be a good option if you think there’s no way friends and family will come around or if you just don’t feel that strongly about it. In general, though, I think it’s worth it to ask for the pronouns you really want. You’re already going out on a limb–you might as well go all the way out!
2. Be patient…for awhile. Adjusting to a pronoun change can be pretty tricky. We tend to use pronouns without thinking about them. Even people who are 100% supportive will probably screw up at first. I’m trans, and I have messed up people’s pronouns numerous times. For some reason, it seems new pronouns take longer to stick than a name change.
So when you first change your pronouns, be patient with friends and family who make genuine mistakes. I’m not talking about people who are disrespectful, cruel, and/or refuse to accept your new pronouns. I’m talking about people who love you, who are good to you, who plain old mess up sometimes. When people use the wrong words, politely remind them and move on. They should be able to acknowledge the mistake and move on quickly, too. So long as people are actively cooperating, allow a grace period for adjustment.
3. Boycott the wrong pronouns. It’s been almost a year since you came out about your pronouns to friends and family. Some people have completely adjusted, some mess up occasionally and then correct themselves, and some call you the wrong pronoun on a regular basis and don’t correct it or apologize. You’ve talked this over with everyone and politely corrected people, dozens and dozens of times. It’s time to end the grace period and stop playing along with folks who claim it’s too hard to change.
At this point, I suggest completely refusing to respond to or acknowledge the wrong pronouns. This is an approach I took and it worked really well for me. The questions I asked myself was, “What would a cis guy do if someone called him she?” I figured he would a) assume the person was not talking about him, b) be shocked and even offended if he realized they were, and c) correct the mistake with indignation and a sense of complete entitlement to the correct pronouns. So, I made it my mission to react in this way, figuring that I am just as entitled as anyone to the right language. I don’t recommend flipping out on people or anything–just acting as if it’s completely obvious that others should use your preferred pronouns, and refusing to play along when they don’t.
For example, a mispronouning would often happen in my family when we got together for dinner and my mom started telling stories about when I was younger. As my mom began an anecdote referring to something she did as a child, I would get a very confused look on my face. She would pause, noticing my confusion–often, that would be enough and she’d correct herself. If that didn’t happen, we’d have a short exchange along these lines.
Me: Wait, who is this story about?
Mom: You, of course!
Me: Oh! Huh, okay. You said she so I thought you must be talking about [female relative].
Mom: Oh, did I? Sorry about that. Anyway, when he was little…
I suggest a “fake it til you make it” approach–act like you can’t imagine being called the wrong words, are shocked someone would make such a mistake, and are obviously deserving of the proper terms. I found that after a few weeks of acting this way, it became second nature.
This worked really well on two levels. First, once using the wrong words stopped being a viable strategy to communicate with me, the last holdouts came around. Second, and perhaps more important, getting mispronouned didn’t sting so bad, because I was not participating in it.
4. Spend time with people who get it. Coming out about your pronouns, correcting people when they mess up, adjusting to the change yourself–it’s an exhausting process. Recharge by spending time with friends and family members who see you for who you are and show it.
When I was knee-deep in my transition, after an exhausting family dinner in which I’d been mispronouned ten or twenty times, it was such a relief to come home with Alma and know I could finally relax. I also drew strength from close friends who got my masculinity and had no trouble seeing me as a dude and calling me he.
To stay in balance during this difficult change, spend plenty of time with folks in your life who just get it. If none of your friends or family members fall into that category, seek out other people for solidarity. You might be able to find trans support groups or meet-ups in your area, or feminist or queer organizations where you can meet like-minded people. If this is not available where you live, connect with people online as much as you can.
5. You are more than your pronouns. At the end of the day, remember that you are a whole person. You are an incredible being of great dignity and power. Whether or not other people get your pronouns right, you deserve respect, happiness and love. Be good to yourself. Don’t let others’ ignorance compromise your self-worth.
Readers–what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you changed your pronouns? If you’re considering changing pronouns in the future, what holds you back?