I received a question today that covers some familiar ground for people who either use a gender-neutral pronoun, use a pronoun that other people wouldn’t automatically assume at a glance, or even who use a name that our families aren’t used to. Basically, how can we work toward having our pronouns (and names) used with greater consistency (or at all) in our families of origin?
So many people make a migration ‘back home’ for all or part of the winter holiday season. Some transgender and non-binary folks do, too, of course. Some of us ‘go home’ and our families of origin get it so things are okay (on the gender front anyway). Some of us ‘go home’ and become a little or a lot unrecognizable to ourselves while we’re there. Some of us ‘go home’ and don’t leave the house because the town or neighbourhood we grew up in can’t hold us. Some of us ‘go home’ and immediately leave the house because that space can’t hold us either. Some of us can’t ‘go home.’ And some of us ‘go home’ to a climate somewhere in the middle: where the work is uphill and ongoing.
At this time of year, questions like this one are even more common and more pressing:
helloo! so I use they/them pronouns and I’m out to my immediate family. but despite my telling them and correcting them on multiple occasions they still say things like “well you’ll always be my little girl!” or “I may never get your pronouns right”. I know that transitioning is difficult for the family of the trans person as well as the trans person themself, but am I being too lenient with my family? every time they use an incorrect pronoun it’s like a punch in the gut. any advice?
In response, here’s a round-up of all the tips I’ve gathered together over the years on going home with your pronoun situation and being as okay as you possibly can.
1. Get ready. Especially now, whether you’re in the US or Canada, this might be terrible. People everywhere are feeling more license to just say ‘nope’ to using our names and pronouns. So first, decide whether you are into/able to get into the conversation about transgender people being a) real, b) having the right to a pronoun others don’t necessarily understand or seamlessly, unthinkingly apply, or c) having the right to ask others to use our pronouns. If you decide you’d like to have that conversation with family members, get some help from the infographics I’ve created for the No Big Deal Campaign and do some other reading so you’re well-armed. If you decide not to have this conversation, that’s more than okay. But draw your line and stick to your guns: you’re not talking about it. Be prepared to reinforce that boundary by, say, leaving a conversation each time someone brings it up until they stop doing it. Passive resistance. And you can always just pretend your phone vibrated if you don’t feel like saying why you’re leaving. Really – just pick it up and pretend there’s someone there (great tip, Ryan Sallans).
2. Try making a genuine connection with people you love who consistently misgender you. Sit down with them alone, take their hands, look them in the eyes, and tell them how much you appreciate, love and/or care for them. Tell them how much you cherish the holiday memories you have of being with them, and the time you spend together. Then tell them that what they are doing is making it less and less possible for you to spend time with them, and that this makes you very sad. Then invite their questions. Because…
3. …if you want people who know and love you to do this thing – to work at it, remind each other and respond well to reminders – they need to be able to ask questions without feeling like you’ll get mad at them. Maybe you are mad because you wish they already knew or because you wish they did some research. Your anger is valid, AND you have a tactical investment in people meeting your need. Have an outlet for your valid anger (Tumblr, text messages, phoning a friend, etc.) AND be prepared for your genuine connection to work and for a space to be opened up that this family member will step into with their thoughts and questions. Think ahead about what you are asking them to do. For example, when do you need them to use this pronoun? At home with relatives, or also in the grocery store when you head out together for more jellied cranberry sauce and encounter someone from high school or a neighbour you don’t even remember?
4. To give yourself a little break, be ready with some resources and information you can give them right away. You can send them here to TIMP if you like or to the No Big Deal Campaign, or to the other hundreds of wonderful things transgender people and our allies have created for this purpose. You can even do a Google image search of The Gender Book or just download it as a PDF for a donation.
5. Enlist one good ally: someone who is willing to take on the work of (gently, constructively) reminding people when they slip up, and answering some questions. So many people in our lives do this work already because – let’s face it – most often our third-person pronoun (they, ze, hir, etc.) is used when we’re not there. So, officially invite someone on board! Whether it’s a cousin, nibling (niece or nephew alternative), parent, sibling or even a close family friend, get in touch ahead of time and make the big ask. Hook them up with the #nbdcampaign badge online so they can make their allyship known in advance to family and friends on Facebook or other social media. Consider also bringing home your own ally. Often our family members have never even heard other people use our pronoun. I mean, has your family ever heard another person do this and do it right? Maybe not!
6. Consider avoiding whole-family gatherings and do one-on-one hangouts with individual family members instead. In one-on-ones, our own third-person pronouns or names aren’t used that much and misgendering is less likely. You can also more easily remind/correct folks without the added worry that they’ll prioritize face-saving or appearances over hearing you out. Be around early to help your beloved yet serially-misgendering gran or uncle (etc.) with food prep or a grocery run, then clear out for any reason you can think of that will fly. Pretend you might barf. Do what you need to do.
7. It it’ll be cold where you’re going, pack lots of extra warm things (including boring things like sweaters and fun things like mitt or sock warmers or a neoprene balaclava). Put them on. Giggle because you look silly. Go outside. Do something nice. Come back inside after as long as you can stand it and take a long, hot bath with a book. Repeat.
8. Brace for a long game and prioritize self-care over ritual or routine. This is going to take time, and it is a-okay to change how you spend holidays with family. This might mean limiting your exposure, changing what time spent with them looks like (doing activities instead of having mainly meals/conversations), only speaking on the phone right now or, as above, only having one-on-one hangouts.
9. Lastly, anticipate having to tap into resources. Make a check-in pact with a friend who gets you and gets it. Invest in a battery pack for your smartphone so you are never isolated from an online support system. Make trans-positive Tumblr dates with yourself every day for a half hour where you go on a wonderful webquest and read all the things. And ask for help when you need it, including from resources like The Trans Lifeline. Because I need you to live and be okay, and sometimes we aren’t ready for how hard family will be, especially if we think it’ll be okay and then it isn’t.
Now, these suggestions are calibrated for a family context where there is little to no risk of violence. So, here is more excellent practical advice from Ryan Sallans on not ‘going home’ at all if your physical safety isn’t guaranteed there:
Ask a friend if you can spend the holiday with them. Ask the college if you can stay in your residence or another place on campus when some buildings shut down. Ask family members from a different side of the family if you can celebrate the holidays with them. Do anything you can to try to protect yourself from those situations and in the future draw the firm line that the physical attacker does not have access to you or your life. They need to earn the right to have contact with you, and that right cannot be earned unless the violence ends.
With all of this in mind, I hope you have as lovely a winter holiday season as you are able to, that you seize and celebrate the joy that you feel, that you have compassion for yourself and realistic expectations, and that you reach out to say hi if you need to, whether on Tumblr, Twitter or in a comment right here.