Our son came out as transgender in a Facebook announcement. In it, he told the world that he wished for us to use the name he had chosen, and the male pronouns he, his, and him. After nineteen-and-a-half years of using she, her, and hers, switching to new pronouns when speaking about my son proved to be complicated.
I found I had to speak slower. It helped to really think about what I was saying and focus on each word as I spoke them. It was when I rushed to get something said that I slipped. The muscle memory of my brain had been trained to refer to my son in a certain way, and it needed time to relearn a new way to reference him.
My husband had an even harder time than I did. He frequently reverted back to feminine pronouns and then would get frustrated with himself for slipping up. When I corrected his pronouns, I was doing it in a way to remind him gently, which I saw as helpful.
He saw it as a way that he was failing our son.
He told me once that it would have been easier if our oldest son had begun wearing dresses and using female pronouns. This would at least be something out of the ordinary for him, my husband told me, and the visual reminder would help my husband remember the correct pronouns to use.
We were standing in the kitchen when he told me this, and all I could do was cry. I didn’t want my husband to feel bad when he got our son’s pronouns wrong, but I also knew how much it hurt my son to hear she, her, and hers in reference to himself.
When a person comes out as transgender, it is a very vulnerable time for them. They are opening themselves up to judgments, criticism, and a host of other things they could have avoided if they just stayed quiet about who they are. Transgender people come out because the pain of keeping themselves hidden is more significant than dealing with all that other garbage.
When a person chooses to actively ignore a person’s request to use their pronouns, they are saying they don’t value and respect that person. You can read more about choosing to ignore someone’s pronouns and what that says to a transgender person at this link.
There’s a big difference between choosing to ignore a person’s pronouns and slipping up.
One is intentional and harmful; the other is accidental and can be forgiven. If you are having a hard time using new pronouns for either your child or another transgender person in your life, here are some tips to try:
Practice. Practice typing and saying the new pronouns out loud. This is made easier if you have someone to practice with. If not, practice out loud to yourself and type messages or emails you don’t send. Honestly, I would do both because it’s good to build those muscle memories for both typing and speaking.
Start with introducing your child to someone you’ve never met. For example, “This is my daughter, Jill. She’s a senior at Memorial High School.” Then, move onto someone who used to know your child before they came out and asks how they are. This is what I used to, and still practice saying (so that it becomes second nature when the question arises), “Oh, I guess you didn’t hear. Ashley is now Leo, and he’s doing great, thanks for asking.” This prevents you from that awkward moment when you get caught off guard by hearing your child’s former name, and don’t know what to say in response. Practice it often, in your head and out loud. It not only reinforces the new pronouns, but it also helps your brain transition to the new name. If you need help using your child’s new chosen name, see this post.
Substitute: Instead of using your child’s name, use pronouns and a lot of them. This is especially good to do with a spouse or partner, or another member of your close family. For example, if someone asked me, “How’s Leo?” I would reply, “He’s good. He’s been busy at school where he’s involved in his spring show for his dram club. He’s got a lead part, and he’s super excited about that. Thanks for asking. I’ll let him know you were asking about him.” Now in normal conversation, you wouldn’t use that many pronouns, right? This conversation would’ve been shorter: “Leo’s busy at school with the spring play. He’s super excited to have a lead role.” Can you see the difference in how many times I used pronouns in those two replies? The first type of response was intentional, and it allows you to really practice using those pronouns and get in the habit of using pronouns you aren’t used to until it becomes second nature. The second time I used my son’s name and one pronoun. Once you are comfortable with the new pronouns, use less of them, but until that time, overuse them. You may find it a bit obnoxious, but don’t let that get in your way. Your mind is a muscle, and eventually, it will remember what you want it to say.
Apologize: You are going to make mistakes as you adjust to someone’s new pronouns. The best course of action is to apologize and correct yourself quickly, then move on. “I’m sorry, I meant her/she/hers.” That’s it. Don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t keep bringing it up. First, it’s uncomfortable for everyone who was within earshot, but especially the transgender person whose pronoun you got wrong. Second, it puts an expectation that they are going to try and make you feel better about your mistake, and that’s not their job. Mistakes happen. Course correct and move on. If you notice the mistake after the fact, you should still apologize, quietly and in private. It shows the person respect and that you weren’t being intentional with your misuse of their pronouns.
The most important thing you can do it be patient with yourself. It takes time to learn a new hobby, a new skill, and a new habit. Learning to use new pronouns takes time also. Keep at it, and soon enough it will be like second nature, and you won’t remember a time when you used something different.