Why it’s hard sometimes: Resistance to pronoun change can have nothing to do with pronouns

Today I’m not responding to a gender-neutral pronoun (GNP) user or ally question but sharing something from my own recent experiences.

Usually I write this blog from the perspective of a GNP user, albeit one who is genuinely compassionate toward allies and others in GNP users’ lives who must make a tough cognitive and verbal transition. This transition, of course, is changing how we use language when talking about a friend, family member, co-worker, loved one, etc. who has requested that we use a new pronoun for them.

As I have been writing for over three years on TIMP, this takes work. Work. Work. Hard work.

The thing is, because it takes work, if someone feels like they don’t want to make the necessary effort on behalf of someone else, the change is very hard and slow, and slip-ups can be many. This is because, in my view, making the effort to change pronouns is kind of like making the effort to no longer tell that ‘funny story’ about someone or use their childhood nickname when they have asked you not to, or to stop talking about/using alcohol, tobacco, drugs, etc. around someone who has just begun their recovery from addiction. Of course these things are different in their content (what they are about). But I don’t believe they are too different in form. They all require that we devote more energy to someone.

All this is to say that I believe that often a persistent resistance to using someone’s new GNP (or new name) can have much less to do with gender/pronouns and much more to do with the relationship in which the request to use new pronouns is made. In several posts (most notably this one) I’ve talked about how there may be other reasons for refusal and resistance to changing pronouns when asked to do so.

Basically, one’s unconscious might be saying “why would I work hard at doing this for you when you never did XYZ for me / weren’t there for me / have been irritating or mean / etc. etc. etc.” at the same time as one’s mouth is she-ing or he-ing someone for whom those pronouns are unwelcome and/or painful.

So, with that preamble, today I’m writing from the perspective of someone trying to change the pronouns I use for someone else. A very dear friend of mine recently came out about a shift in their gender identity, made a pronoun switch, and put this request out to their friends.

The thing is, for many and varied reasons, we had fallen out of touch. I had a lot of sour and sad feelings about our friendship and how our friend dynamic had devolved into one where I offered listening/care and got little to nothing in return. I felt like my own pretty large struggles at the time were unimportant to my friend because they were consumed in what they were going through and unable to give me any air time in our conversations. I had been taking my distance for a year and feeling progressively more down about this strategy because, well, I love my friend I know they were going through a rough time. I wanted to be compassionate but I had run out of energy and was getting, well, just mad.

So when the pronoun request came down…for a good two weeks I did a very, very bad job and mis-pronouned them consistently (never in their presence – we live in different cities). I had mad and sad feelings about the time I had already devoted to this person’s care and well-being and this was – given how I was feeling – the cherry on the sundae. My unconscious was certainly saying “why would I work hard at doing this for you when you never did XYZ for me / weren’t there for me / have been irritating or mean / etc. etc. etc.” while my face was saying the wrong pronoun.

Then I had a birthday, which has always been a special time in our friendship. And I began to miss my friend a lot. I decided I was going to communicate my feelings as kindly and compassionately – but openly and honestly – as I could, and explain why I had drifted away.

So I did. And they were magnificent: so open to how I was feeling and so grateful for the feedback, and articulating all kinds of wonderful things like authentic regret, responsibility, love for me and our history together. It was tough but the best conversation we had had in years.

The minute I put down the phone, I went to share the good news with my partner.

And the change was seamless. I haven’t used the wrong pronoun since.

This is just my own experience, for sure. And I’m sure there are many reasons, including that it’s just plain hard or weird to talk about one person as if they’re two people (re. singular they). But so many people who struggle with a pronoun change are people who GET IT: who have a kind of worldview that is friendly to trans-ness and queerness, and who really, really want to do this right. Who have the tools. And still it doesn’t work. I mean, I write an entire blog on this and, well, I was totally screwing it up.

So this is a call to people who have the know-how or desire but still find themselves unable or unwilling to make the change. Reflect on your relationship with the asker and tend to it as best you can.

Pronouns might be the icing on the poop-cake (sorry), and something pushing you even farther away from a person who you have loved and want to have in your life for a long time to come.

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4 comments

  1. I need help Cuz for me changing from he to she is ok Cuz it DOSENT take anything from me to change pronouns despite appearances to make someone else feel comfortable but some pronouns fucks with my brain and I just can’t use them.Like if someone ask me to call them “they/them” Im just like no.Because in my head “they/them” is mostly plural so EVERYTIME Im about to use it my brain goes “no”.And it’s too complicated and I feel so selfish and Im just like can u just choose between he or she.My problem is just because of the plural notion.Like if I don’t know the person or the gender then my mind goes oh “they/them” but the minute I meet them it goes “he/she” Cuz it feels so weird saying “they” especially if their in the same room Cuz I feel like I’m pretending they don’t exist.Im sure I can learn to get accustom to it if someone guided me with this pronoun!Its worse when it comes to “it” Cuz I feel like I’m disrespecting them!Like Im referring them as not human.I can’t call someone an “it” that’s no even an option Cuz of how I was raise like I’m sorry I’ll constantly feel guilty Cuz in my head Im insulting you.Like your below me.So you think 3rd singular pronoun will work but it’s even WORSE!!invented stuff like “xi/xy” or something is like asking me to suddenly refer to a chair as a “lubenhefer” like no you can’t just invent a word.It nots even about pronouns now it’s just About the language.Like if they was a new universal third singular pronoun that will be fine but everyone has different “new word” and Im like “ok no” Im not referring friend A as “yi” and friend B as “xie”(Im not kidding I’ve seen some request like that and idk of their joking” like how the fuck do you use that?And the thing that fucks me up the most is the “third gender concept” wtf is a third gender supposed to be like!???Im SOOOO confuse.I understand: men/women/gender fluid/agender/gender neutral and Demi-girl and Demi-boy but those range from the women-men spectrum with agender on the side but what the heck is this third gender.Its like your telling me theirs a new COLOR but I don’t see anything.I don’t wanna be mean but I feel like people are taking the “this is how I feel” to far.And I just want to understand I truly do I tried so many time to understand but I get more confuse!

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