Update, 8/10/16: I’ve received a few requests to use this blog post in workplace trainings or classrooms. I’m delighted that people are finding my writing useful, and I’d be thrilled if people circulated it to others who might find it helpful. I’ve converted this post into Word documents–one that retains all the original content, and one with the content reshaped and the curse words removed, for people who work or teach in contexts where swearing is inappropriate. Two requests: 1. If you do use this writing, could you make sure to cite me? 2. Could you drop me a line and let me know what you did and how it went? I’d love to hear what folks are doing out there in the world.
Hi, I’m transgender. I use he/him/his pronouns. Some people have trouble remembering to use those pronouns because when they look at me their brain says “that’s a she/her/hers” and sometimes the wrong pronouns pop out on accident.
I’m going to give you some advice on what to do if you use the wrong pronouns for me. Please remember that I don’t speak for all transgender people, and you shouldn’t assume that what works for me will work for any other trans person you encounter.
Things to remember
- You’re not the first one to call me by the wrong pronouns. I’m not telling you this to let you off the hook, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind as you think about what to do next. Relatedly,
- Your emotional response to what you did is not the same as my emotional response. If you like me or care about me, or if you’re someone who wants to do right by trans people in general, misgendering me (i.e., using the wrong pronouns for me) is going to feel embarrassing and mortifying. You might be super mad at yourself. You might feel anxious and nervous about what to do to recover. But I’m most likely not mortified. I’m most likely not super mad at you. Believe me, I’m aware that it’s hard to remember my pronouns. Believe me, I know that lots of really wonderful people screw up sometimes–I’ve had lots of experience with getting misgendered. Relatedly,
- I’m probably feeling guilty and disappointed. I feel guilty for asking people to do something for me that’s hard for them to remember to do, and I feel disappointed because I like you and want to have an easy and comfortable experience interacting with you. I also feel disappointed because I spend a lot of time holding my breath, waiting for the next time someone screws up my pronouns but hoping that next time doesn’t come.
- I tend to cluster people into categories based on how they deal with my gender identity. I don’t know if other trans people do this. Here are the basic groups I cluster people into:
A. People who basically never have trouble remembering my pronouns: “This is my friend Jake. He’s only been square dancing for ten months and he already dances plus!”
B. People who basically never use the correct pronouns for me: “Jacob’s here to pick up her cat and pay her bill. She’s such a good cat mom.”
C. People who sometimes screw up my pronouns and make a big deal out of it every time it happens: “I was just telling Jake that she needs to–OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE I JUST DID THAT I’VE BEEN PRACTICING AND I NEVER GET IT WRONG WHEN I TALK ABOUT YOU TO OTHER PEOPLE GODDAMMIT I’M SUCH AN ASSHOLE”
D. People who sometimes screw up my pronouns, correct themselves, and move on. “I was just telling Jake that she needs to–sorry, that he needs to see the new Ghostbusters movie because he’ll find it hilarious.”
I would like to suggest that if you’re not someone who falls into group A (most people don’t, and that’s okay, really), you should work on being someone who belongs in group D. Here’s why:
Group B is totally undesirable, because it’s the group for transphobics and people who just don’t give a shit about other people’s needs.
Group C is for people who commit a faux pas and, instead of taking responsibility for their mistake, make it about them and their needs. They’re embarrassed and need reassurance that I’m not mad, or that I still think they’re a good person. I don’t necessarily get mad at people for misgendering me, and I don’t necessarily think someone’s a bad person for using the wrong pronouns for me. I do get frustrated when I’m put in the position of having to focus on how you feel, because how you feel isn’t really the issue in that particular moment.
Group D is for people who are working on getting it right but sometimes get tripped up, but who want to deal with their mistake without making it worse or bigger.
What to do if you mess up my pronouns
So, if you’re someone who wants to do right by me but sometimes messes up, here are some things you can do:
- If you catch yourself right away, correct yourself and move on. “Jake got me started watching Doctor Who when she described the Weeping Angels–sorry, when he described the Weeping Angels–and now I wear Doctor Who underpants every day.”
- If you realize you used the wrong pronouns but it’s too late to correct yourself mid-sentence, find a way to use the correct pronouns as soon as possible. That looks like this:
You: Jake got me started watching Doctor Who when she described the Weeping Angels and now I wear Doctor Who underpants every day.
Me: I can’t believe you just told this entire group that you’re wearing Doctor Who underpants.
You: Jake’s acting like he doesn’t have five pairs of Doctor Who underpants at home.
- If you use the wrong pronouns for me and either don’t realize your mistake at the time or are told by someone else later that you screwed up, make sure to use correct pronouns for me the very next time we’re hanging out. This is how you make it clear that you don’t belong in Group B.
- If you hear someone else use the wrong pronouns for me, it would help me out if you could make sure to use the right pronouns as quickly as possible. Most people catch on pretty quickly, but if someone doesn’t seem to get it, could you have a conversation with them later, when I’m not around? That conversation might go like this:
You: Hey, I wanted to let you know that Jake uses he/him/his pronouns.
Them: OH MY GOD I USED THE WRONG PRONOUNS I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THAT JESUS CHRIST I NEED TO GO APOLOGIZE IMMEDIATELY *marches toward me*
You: Wait wait wait, I don’t think it’s a big deal and what I know about Jake is that the easiest way to fix this is to just use the right pronouns next time you talk to him.
Them: OH MY GOD I’M THE WORST I HATE MYSELF BUH I SUCK WE HAD A TRANS PERSON AT THE LAST SQUARE DANCE CLUB I WAS IN AND I NEVER SCREWED UP AND I’M A HORRIBLE PERSON
You: Okayyyy well I’m gonna go dance this next tip. Do you dance lead or follow?
Just so you know, though, the conversation might go a little more like this:
You: Hey, I wanted to let you know that Jake uses he/him/his pronouns.
Them: Whatever, I can’t be expected to remember those pronouns. The transgenders expect everybody to bend over backwards for them.
That’s what transphobia looks like sometimes. If you’re willing to stand up to it, that saves me the trouble later. Of course, standing up to transphobia is a complicated, difficult matter–and one that’s maybe better saved for a different blog post.