Sunday School: On Pronouning


Sometimes I accidentally misgender trans* people despite knowing their preferred pronouns. And then I do it again after being corrected! It’s embarrassing to me, but presumably even worse for them. How do I get out of the habit as quickly as possible? –a grue

Damn, kid, I feel you on this one. One of my dearest friends from high school transitioned after college, and I still occasionally misgendered him in my head until probably sometime last year. When someone you know well transitions, unless you are very, very gifted at both compartmentalizing and thinking before you speak (and believe me, I am neither), you are going to screw up pronouns. Deal with it.

But, since you asked, here are the things that helped me ditch the “she” when I was talking about my buddy.

1. Minimize pronoun use.

This is obviously not a long-term or foolproof strategy, because pronouns are a pretty big part of naturalistic speech, but if your friend’s chosen name is an obvious gender-flip from the one they were born with, you can cheat a little by using that name as much as possible. When you’re out being sociable with a group of people that includes your friend, and you’re talking about them, don’t just indicate them with a pronoun and an indicative gesture. Use their name. When you’ve established that a conversation is about Aaron and not Amelia, you’re more likely to say “he” instead of “she,” and whomever you’re talking to will reinforce it.

2. Rewrite your reminisces.

“Oh, yeah, he and I go way back. We did some epic shit in high school.”

The reason you have trouble using the right pronouns now is because you formed your initial conception of your trans friends when they were using the wrong ones. Brains are assholes like that. But one of the ways you can trick your brain into not being a jerk is by inserting your here-and-now friend, and their proper gender/pronouns, into your memories of them before they transitioned. Practice telling stories of your adventures with your friend with the gender script switched–if possible, with family or other friends who know neither the story nor the person. It’s low-pressure, and provided you introduce the character of your friend using the correct name and pronouns, your audience probably won’t notice if you make any slip-ups, because their brains are assholes, too.

3. Spend time with them one-on-one.

Provided that your friends know that you accept them and are trying to respect their identities–which I trust they do, if screwing up pronouns before has made you obviously embarrassed–the best environment for working on the expression of that respect is with just the two of you. If the two of you are on a casual outing without anyone else you know, you can let your friend’s gender speak for itself and just follow their lead. Again, it’s low-pressure practice. If you do mess up, it won’t be in front of anyone who’s of consequence to either of you, so you don’t have to worry about long-term social ramifications for your friend, and it will probably be less stressful for both of you if they have to correct you.

4. Lay off the self-flagellation.

You could be the greatest trans ally in the world and still screw this up, grue. It’s hard to get this shit right 100% of the time when you live in a rigidly gendered culture, and your trans friends probably know that better than anyone. You’ll get it right, but it’s going to take time, and unless you have a very specific personality type, beating yourself up over it isn’t going to help.

Commentariat, do any of you have other useful strategies?

If you have a question for Sunday School, HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT.

Featured image from this odd page of grue macros. Also, here is a fan Dinosaur Comic about the grue paradox that made me lol.

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  1. My strategy is to practice, honestly. When someone tells me to uses a new set of pronouns or a new name, I take some time to visualize them and repeat name-prounoun-name-pronoun for a while. Not really long sessions, but I do it for a few days to a week, until their new name and/or pronoun feels natural in my mind.

  2. Perhaps I am odd in that I don’t get too upset when people I knew before transition miss pronoun me, they just get a dirty look, usually apologise and we move on. What really upsets me is when people I have only known since transition do it and that hurts, but I am often too cowardly to pick them up on it, I probably should start…

  3. My advice is both practice and thinking before one speaks. It’s *hard*, I know, but it’s the easiest and most effective solution. Success breeds success, so a little extra effort in the beginning will pay off rather quickly.

  4. i second/third the advice to practice. if you’re having trouble with getting someone’s name right, too, other types of reinforcement may help, like changing someone’s entry in your phone / email address book. also agree that mentally drilling yourself when you’re with them (looking at them and thinking, e.g., “Mary… she… Mary… she”) may help, even if you feel silly doing it.

  5. I’m starting to think we need a gender-neutral pronoun. I know earlier attempts to introduce the same has failed. But think about it. Now we have the Internet and global skeptism/feminism community. Maybe it is about time we made a serious attempt to agree on and introduce one common gender neutral pronoun? That would make a lot of things easier.

  6. We have one! It is singular “they”!

    And if anyone tells you that singular “they” is not grammatically correct, tell them that if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for you, and also that grammar prescriptivism is for squares.

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