Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pronouns matter

To say that our family has struggled with pronouns in the last two years is a bit of an understatement.

If you've been following these moodlings for any length of time, you'll know that our youngest child (a young adult as of last week) came out as a non-binary person almost two years ago. I haven't moodled much about this transition because I've been too busy trying to get my head around what it all means for our family, and there are still many things to sort out. But thanks to some good people and a few helpful resources, I'm starting to be able to articulate my experience as the parent of a transgender child.

The first thing I'll admit to is that I haven't been very good at this whole transition. From the outset, I was able to say, "I don't really care what gender you are -- I'm your mom, and I love you and support you no matter what." Thank goodness for that much.

But there are lots of things I have struggled with. Realizing that my child -- with whom I had lived and whom I loved (by another name and gender) for their first 16 years -- was not who I understood them to be, was difficult, to put it mildly. To be honest, I am still going through a grieving process.

Understanding and believing that God could create people outside of the two tick-boxes of male and female has been a bit easier for me thanks to my friends in the LGBTQ community, some of whom are very faith-filled people. Unfortunately, my Church is way behind on gender issues (but lucky for me, I've had a fair number of prior disagreements with it to prepare me for this one, and my spiritual director has helped me to gain some peace by emphasizing the importance of my relationship with God above Church).

But one of my main struggles -- and one that everyone I share my story with seems to complain about -- is pronouns. In my frustration back at the beginning of the journey, I once said to Jay, "I'm being held hostage by f***ing pronouns!" But that was just plain wrong. It's Jay who is most negatively affected by the wrong gender-related words being applied, and adapting my pronoun usage is really a minor thing when it makes a difference for Jay's mental health. As I found out in my reading of a helpful resource book by Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney, two experts on gender diversity,
If someone with a non-binary identity asks you to use a gender-neutral pronoun (e.g., they) and you continue to use pronouns associated with their assumed gender, then that is non-affirming... Non-affirmation is associated with mental distress, as well as perceived general life stress, depression and social anxiety.
-The Transgender Teen: 
A Handbook for Parents and Professionals 
Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens 
(2016 Cleis Press, ISBN978-1-62778-174-9) 

For Jay and many others like them, to be called he or she feels wrong. Just wrong. I know that this isn't the greatest comparison, but it's the closest example I can come up with of what it must be like to be mis-gendered. Once I went shopping in the lingerie department of a local department store after a fresh haircut, and the cashier there called me sir. It rankled, and made me question myself and my self-image, at least until the sales clerk became quite embarrassed when they realized their mistake. (See what I did there with those gender-neutral pronouns?)

Being called sir was a very minor incident for me, but the fact that I still remember it says something important. Having that same thing happen over and over again every day, week in and week out would be completely demoralizing. I can't imagine having to constantly correct people who assign me another gender's pronouns. It would be exhausting and humiliating. I'd feel less than myself, I'd get tired of trying, and I'd start to believe that people just can't accept me as I am. Can you imagine?

Jay tells me that being called he or she by people who don't take the time to care what pronouns work for Jay wears them down. If people make an honest mistake, that's one thing, but if they continue call my child a she or a he without even trying to adjust their pronoun use, that's not affirming of who Jay feels they are.

Heaven knows I've made a million mistakes pronoun-wise in the past two years, and Jay forgives me and other family members because they know we are trying even though our brains don't always choose those pronouns properly. I have yet to make it through a week with all the correct pronouns, but I apologize and keep going!

I know it feels strange to use they, them and their, but I also know that railing against they, them and their being used as singular pronouns doesn't help anything. It's interesting to note that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is moving with the times, and has adapted to a new use of what those of us over 30 would prefer to think of as plural pronouns:
They is taking on a new use, however: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. This is a different use than the traditional singular they, which is used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context [Maria's note: like my story about the store clerk above]... The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, “This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.”
Read more at https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they

If Merriam-Webster recognizes the importance of the singular non-binary they, maybe it's time for the rest of us to get with the program. Maybe we need to accept that everything changes, and language evolves with time just as human beings do?

When I was Jay's age, transgender people were pretty much unheard of, and the LGBTQ community was pretty much living in hiding. It's only recently that they are starting to feel safe enough to be themselves, and I shudder to think how many people of my generation were lost to addiction, mental health issues, or suicide because they felt they couldn't be themselves.

I now have three people in my life who ask that I use they, them and their as their pronouns, and I'll admit that it can be a bit confusing at times. When I talk about Jay as they, people who don't know about Jay's transition to non-binary wonder, "They? Jay and who else?" It also can be challenging to explain the use of the singular they to someone who has yet to meet and greet a non-binary person. I'm never sure how people will respond. But as our society moves to be more gender-inclusive, we need to remember that for some among us, pronouns matter a lot, and that we ought to do our best to use them well.

So, when we meet someone who has different pronouns than we'd expect, the best thing is to roll with what works for that person to the best of our ability. We can't ignore pronouns -- we need to pay attention to gender words and use them appropriately. It's simple respect. Of course, we binary-brained cis-gender people can expect to make mistakes, and expect to apologize frequently. But we also need to be gentle with ourselves. It takes a while for our brain synapses to adjust to change, but change is inevitable. Especially if we work at it.

I'm living proof (90 times out of 100)!


  1. what a wonderful world we live in!

    Jay is so lucky to have a mom like you!

    cheers & hugs all around

  2. Mark shared your blog post with me. Jay is fortunate to be in such a loving home. Thank you for sharing your personal story.

    1. Thank you, Shirley. As I commented to Mark, most people just need to be educated on gender- neutral word use. I have to believe that our society can be inclusive that way.


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