THE Q: One of my best friends has clearly begun the process of transitioning. They haven’t come out as trans, but they’re now dressing in a conventionally feminine style and have started changing the name they use when they sign off in emails. But, it's not something we've talked about yet.
I’m scared of offending them or saying the wrong thing, but I have so many questions! At what point do I start using a different pronoun? And, what do I do if I make a mistake — for example, if I accidentally refer to them by their birth name? Should I take it upon myself to ensure that other people in our circle use the right language, or should I wait and follow my friend’s lead? I really want my friend to feel supported and safe, but I’m totally out of my element. — Confused In Seattle
THE A: English, the mighty language of Shakespeare, the Brontës, and Aubrey Graham, is incredibly flawed. I mean, there's not even a word for the terrible anxiety you feel when you see someone begin to respond to your text (goddamn iPhone ellipses) and then mysteriously stop. And, unfortunately, our pronouns suck. That (artificial) idea of just two genders is built in. (Other languages do share this trait, but not all of them, especially non-Western ones. The old kingdom of Israel had six officially recognised genders.)
Yet, flawed as it is, it's also incredibly important — especially for someone who’s been inaccurately labeled all their life. One trans* friend calls the first day someone bumped into him and said, "Excuse me, sir" as the happiest of his entire life. That's because, as Sophie Labelle, creator of the incredible comic “Assigned Male," tells us, “Words make things exist.”
So, first off, CIS, good for you. You are 100% correct to assume that this matters and to want to do it right. When you use the right pronoun for a trans* person, you’re affirming their correct gender, and when you use the wrong one, you are invalidating that identity. You only need to look at the recent, tragic death of Leelah Alcorn to have a sad reminder of the damage your refusal to acknowledge someone’s true identity can do.
Before we get to your Q, let's run through a couple basics (I imagine that for lots of you, a refresher wouldn't hurt): “Transgender” is an umbrella term that, as defined by GLAAD, is used for “people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.” Like many things of import (electromagnetic radiation, politics, Kanye West albums), gender exists on a spectrum — some trans* people identify as either a man or a woman; others have a fluctuating gender identity or no gender at all and choose to use neutral pronouns like “they,” “them,” and “their.”
Since everyone is different, step one is asking. Have a direct and respectful chat with your friend about which pronouns you should use. “It may be a weird moment, but it is always more welcomed than having to deal with someone who feels anxious about not getting the pronouns right,” advises Labelle. Micah, a non-binary-identified writer, advocate, and educator, refrained from making a big announcement about their transition and preferred more personal interactions. “I didn't really tell anyone when I changed my name and pronouns,” Micah says. “That's why I am appreciative of those friends who noticed and went along, especially those who asked about it.”
When you’re talking pronouns, it’s integral that you also ask your friend how they wish to be referred to in public, since "people may choose to progressively disclose in some circles, yet not others,” adds Micah. Unless you were explicitly told otherwise, it is not your place to disclose someone’s trans* status to anyone, ever. Ever. Doing so is not only disrespectful but also potentially dangerous. But, if someone knows about your friend’s transition and continues to use the wrong name or pronouns, step up to the plate and call that shit out. Correct the mistake, even if your trans* friend wasn’t around to hear it. Use your power and privilege to create a safer space for all trans* people, not only for your friend.
Since there’s no universal trans experience, your friend’s preferences take precedence over any of my herp-derping. But, there are some general rules:
1. Call people by the gender they identify as, regardless of what body they’re in. It’s a matter of basic human decency. And, yes, deliberately misgendering someone is an act of violence.
2. Gender doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s body or presentation — or whether or not they have taken hormones, had surgery, or in any way altered their outward appearance.
3. “You should not ask about their medical transition, or any invasive personal details, unless they bring it up,” says Micah. I doubt you commence every Sunday brunch by asking your friends about the status of their genitals, so refrain from doing the same to a trans* person. It’s dehumanizing and gross. (For a quick master class on this, watch Laverne Cox talking to Wendy Williams.)
4. Transgender is an adjective, not a noun. Your friend is trans* or a transgender person. They are not “a transgender.” "Tranny" is a repulsive slur, "cross-dresser" is inaccurate, "transsexual" is out-of-date, "FTM" and "MTF" are passé. Even better? Just leave the labels out of it. A trans woman and a trans man are just a woman and a man. Which takes us, finally, to...
5. Treat a trans* person like you would any person. Anxiety, guilt, and trepidation aren’t productive and, in the end, can be harmful. To January Hunt, an Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics employee and the inspiration behind OCC’s January Rising Lip Tar, the hardest part of living openly as a trans woman “is when everyone treats you like a disease to be quarantined and to walk on eggshells around.”
To return to your friend, if the first step is listening, the second step is work. Since you’ve known this person by a certain name, it may take a minute to change habits. But, work at it. This is not a small deal — and getting to the point where you’ve internalised a pronoun shift shows you’ve internalised (and validated!) their transition.
And, hey, mistakes happen. “Trans folks who are transitioning are very aware that many people knew them under other names and pronouns, and it's perfectly normal if they slip from time to time,” Sophie explains. “The most important thing to do is to acknowledge your mistake, correct yourself, and apologise — you don't have to make it dramatic, either!” In fact, it’s better if you aren’t dramatic about it — a simple apology and renewed dedication to doing better will suffice.
Although you probably all think of me as some magnanimous, infallible Internet angel who dispenses wisdom with charm and grace, like a white Beyoncé (that’s what you guys think of me, right?), that’s not the case — I’m a cisgendered woman who sometimes gets her genderfluid friend’s pronouns wrong (they/them/their, for the record) or immediately genders people on sight. I’m still learning, and that’s the key, CIS.
January agrees: “A good ally doesn't wait for someone to tell them how to be a good ally; they do their homework and they allow this experience to teach them.” Writing in to this column was certainly a step in the right direction. And, while Sophie, January, and Micah were all gracious enough to answer some questions, you shouldn’t expect your friend or any other trans* person to serve as your very own guidebook. It isn’t their job to educate you on trans* issues or trans* life. “This person is going through a change far more complicated than anyone else will fully understand,” January explains. “So, it is important to not expect them to hold your hand through the process.”
But, it’s gonna be great, CIS. Just writing this question shows that you’re well on the path to being a great ally. Listen to your friend, respect their requests, allow them to direct the language you use, critique any instances of transphobic behaviour within both yourself and your community, and you are sure to have a vibrant relationship with a tremendously courageous person for years to come.