family

Let’s talk about the holiday season.

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:

wolfenshire asked…

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.

Full stop.

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.

Warmly,

Lee

We Are They, Episode 2: Morgan

Welcome to the second episode in the new TIMP Series We Are They, where I interview and profile people who have a range of unique relationships with this pronoun. In Episode 1, I interviewed Helene about her decision to raise her kid, Avery, in a gender-open way that includes using singular they as Avery’s pronoun.

In this episode, we meet Morgan. Morgan is a graduate student and university instructor who identifies as non-binary and uses singular they. Interestingly for TIMP purposes, Morgan is also someone whose gender expression has varied considerably over time.

I begin our conversation with a predictable question: why does Morgan use singular they? “I think that it’s the best way of communicating how I feel about myself outwardly,” they reply. “It’s a way of challenging binary genders and a way of carving out space for people like myself – or unlike myself – who also want to move beyond the pronoun that they were assigned at birth.” Although Morgan identifies a political potential of using singular they, for them it’s mainly personal. “It’s tied to how I understood myself when I was younger,” they explain. Although Morgan was assigned a female gender at birth, they experienced their childhood as fairly gender-neutral, from their given names to clothing to toys to their bedroom walls (yellow) to the activities encouraged by their parents. “It’s not to say that everyone has to follow that ‘I’ve known since I was a child!’ narrative. But there was a piece that I think I’d been trying to make sense of.”

Like me, Morgan uses the term ‘non-binary’ to describe their gender identity. I learned about this term from writing this blog and interacting with younger people on Tumblr, and it still feels new. Morgan tells me that they “came to this identity through a process of elimination. Like ‘I’m realizing I don’t identify with gender A, and I don’t identify with gender B.’ So it wasn’t like ‘I do identify with this thing!’ It was just like ‘I don’t identify with those things.’” This resonates. For me, ‘non-binary’ captures my sense that nothing else fits quite right.

“It’s like a sigh.”

At its most ordinary, being mis-pronouned can feel like bumping shoulders with someone on the sidewalk: an interruption in the flow of your day. Morgan beautifully describes the opposite – someone using their pronoun correctly – as being “like a sigh.” Imagine a long, slow exhale as the body begins to relax. “It’s such a relief to have someone use a word that doesn’t just feel jarring every time. Someone recognizing my pronoun is a sign of mutual understanding. In that simple act, it’s a moment of ‘I see you.’”

“I would absolutely be read as a woman right now.”

Being seen, correctly, as non-binary is uncommon for Morgan. I ask them to describe their gender expression these days. They answer quickly and emphatically: “I would absolutely be read as a woman right now. There’s no question.” This hasn’t always been the case. “There are periods in my life where I think I passed as a man in several instances, and then there are moments where I present what, for me, is high femme…” (Morgan raises a self-effacing eyebrow, making me chuckle) “…which is not actually high femme,” they say with a laugh. “Particularly this summer I was just feeling very drawn to feminine presentations.”

When Morgan’s gender expression has been more masculine, they have experienced harassment and violence. In middle school, this included death threats. “At the tender age of 12, you internalize that. So, not only is presenting as feminine how I have felt valued within my platonic, sexual, and romantic relations, but there’s also so much fear in giving that up.” While the privileges of masculinity are commonly acknowledged in LGBTQ communities, Morgan also feels safety and thus a kind of privilege in presenting as feminine.

But the other side of this privilege coin is not being accurately seen. Morgan says they’re generally unrecognizable as non-binary when presenting as feminine. “In fact, I really find that unless I have short hair there will never be a possible reading of me as other than a woman.” Morgan feels that having a more feminine gender expression makes their pronoun harder for others to accept and consistently use. “Especially when that’s the way you’re being read, to ask for a neutral pronoun to be used, I think that people dismiss it a lot more easily than you say people do with yours,” Morgan says, referring to reflections I shared on being a ‘visually’ or perhaps more obviously non-binary person. As my mum might say, I ‘look like a they’ – whatever that means – whereas Morgan doesn’t, at least not right now.

“I feel unworthy of taking up that space or that time.”

Almost every transgender person has to ask our people to work on changing their language and behaviour in some way. For non-binary folks, feeling entitled to others’ hard work can be an ongoing struggle given that we may not have had a ‘transition’ that the cis-gender world can understand. Although Morgan would “absolutely” be read as a woman these days and my gender is read with ambivalence, we are both non-binary transgender people who choose not to pursue any medical intervention. We wonder together how this may affect some non-binary peoples’ sense that our requests – for other people to work on accommodating us – are legitimate. “I don’t know whether I’d call it guilt, but there is definitely something going on where I feel unworthy of taking up that space or that time,” Morgan muses.

Morgan has experienced this in their own family: that ‘binary’ transition takes less effort for folks to understand. Thinking that their dad may not be able to make the requisite changes, Morgan hasn’t come out to him as non-binary, let alone as a singular they user. However, Morgan (consensually) outed their partner to their dad as a transgender man by talking about the partner’s hysterectomy, which their dad seamlessly accepted. I ask Morgan why this positive reaction doesn’t prompt them to come out, too. “This person is making a binary transition from one gender to another,” Morgan replies. “They are doing it by a medical means, therefore it is legitimate,” or seen to be that way. By contrast, Morgan’s own gender “is too far from that. It’s not even comparable in a lot of ways except that it comes from this feeling of ‘I am not this gender and I want to do something about it.’ You see that all the time: those invalidations that come from not taking that normative transition route.”

Invalidation vs. non-validation

Interestingly, Morgan shares that coming out as a singular they user can open them to up to more invalidation than just being she’d all the time. They use the term ‘non-validation’ to describe getting she’d by people who just are not aware that the woman-passing person they see might not identify that way. “I consider it a non-validation if I haven’t made that explicit request. Then it’s just like ‘oh yes, this is just the system of gender that we inhabit.’ Versus ‘I have made this specific request, you have dismissed it in some way and are continuing to use the wrong pronoun,’ which is a different feeling. That feels like an invalidation.”

It just might not be worth it to make the ask when invalidation is so much more sticky- and heavy-feeling than non-validation. “When I’m communicating a pronoun, I’m communicating a pretty intimate way that I feel about myself,” Morgan says. “Especially up against my presentation. It’s not readable. This is actually something that has to do with how I feel in my body and how I feel in relation to other people. I’m disclosing a lot.” Perhaps stating a pronoun preference is, at bottom, always going to be more fraught for people who aren’t visually apparent as non-binary. It’s kind of a big reveal, whereas people usually see me (them) coming.

“When is it emotional labour that I can’t do?”

Unsurprisingly, then, Morgan’s decision to ask people to use their pronoun involves a kind of deliberate cost-benefit analysis. “At what points am I going to really assert myself versus when is it not worth it? When is it emotional labour that I can’t do?” Morgan finds an analogy in their own experience of chemical sensitivity. Deciding whether to come out about their pronoun feels like asking someone not to wear a strong perfume. How bad will it be if this person keeps on doing what they’re doing? Will it mean not hanging out with them anymore, or can Morgan just bear it and get by? If Morgan decides to make the ask, “it always starts with an apology. ‘Oh sorry, I use this, I need this.’ And it shouldn’t have to be about making that other person comfortable but so often it is. And if you don’t do that comfort work you’re seen as…” They trail off, and I suggest a word or two. ‘Killjoy’ doesn’t seem to quite fit this feeling, perhaps because ‘killing’ is too strong. Maybe it’s like stubbing someone else’s toe: not life or death, but unpleasant enough to be avoided, if possible.

The always, the no-go, and the fuzzy middle

After we’ve been talking for an hour or so, I observe that Morgan seems to have compartmentalized their gender life into different zones: where they will always ask for their pronoun to be used, where they won’t bother at all, and the fuzzy middle. Morgan emphatically agrees. In queer or transgender community contexts, Morgan will generally make the ask even though they (and others) still see a lot of transphobia there. In predominantly straight and cis contexts, Morgan usually doesn’t bother, even when people there are long-time friends. “I have found it a really difficult process – especially outside of queer circles – to say ‘actually, I use they’.” Morgan offers that this might be unfair. “I’m making a lot of assumptions about how people will respond to things. I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt.”

I push a little, asking Morgan about the reaction that keeps them from doing so. Their answer leads us to another no-go zone: any clinical setting, particularly those related to mental health. “As a mad-identified person, that’s a point of anxiety for me: that people will say ‘you’re weird!’ I’m worried that those two things will tie into each other, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to negotiate that. One of my diagnoses is borderline personality disorder and with that there’s an actual criterion of ‘confusion or uncertainty around sexual orientation or gender identity.’ It’s already pathologized.” The first time Morgan was being screened for BPD, the psychiatrist asked about their gender identity as if it were a symptom and not a part of their life. “That’s always a fear: that people will think ‘you’re weird, you don’t have any sense of self,’ which is not at all what it is. But my fear of it being read that way, I think, prevents me from really asserting needs that I should be asserting.” Morgan says they are working through this fear in relation to friends, but that the aura of stigma and pathology means they never disclose their pronoun preference in any kind of psychiatric or psychological context.

While Morgan’s ‘always’ and ‘no-go’ zones are mainly personal, the fuzzy middle is political. “The fuzzy middle is work places,” they say. “Places where I feel like ‘this is something you should get used to, and I’m going to massage you into it.’” Morgan’s fuzzy middle includes their mom – who works in education – and their professors. All of these people will encounter non-binary students at some point, and from a position of considerable power. Morgan wants to use their own experiences to prepare these people to do right when the time comes.

Teaching in the university as a non-binary person

Interestingly, as a new university instructor this year, Morgan is now also in a position of power. I’m eager to hear how Morgan’s particular experiences of gender inform their teaching. For example, would Morgan initiate a pronoun go-round on the first day of class? “I’ve grappled with this a lot about whether I should initiate that as a common practice. It’s a big decision about when I assert that as something I want someone to know about me. And I want to be in charge of when I do that.” A go-round might take away someone’s choice to disclose, which can have a range of different consequences.

As a student or an instructor, Morgan tends to come out more often in gender or sexuality studies contexts than in other disciplines. “For example, when I started teaching, in my gender studies syllabus I listed my pronoun but didn’t do that for my other class. It felt safe to do it in the context of people who are familiar with this usage.” As two junior academics, we then recoil together in (silly) horror at the prospect of being mis-gendered by an anonymous student in a horrible end-of-year teaching evaluation. “The idea of being doubly injured in that moment – I just can’t do it. It’s going to be too much!” Through the giggles, I admit to gender-editing student comments in my teaching portfolio as far back as 2011. Neither of us has any idea whether the many professors who write us letters of reference are using our pronoun, let alone using it correctly. The sheer awkwardness of checking makes this impossible to do.

Morgan and I have as many things in common as not, it seems. We’re both white, queer, non-binary, a wee bit silly, and on an academic career path. However, we get very different reactions when we say ‘this is how I identify, and this is the pronoun I use.’ My people are usually awkward but consistently friendly. After all, it’s not like they can’t see it coming (if only in retrospect). But Morgan’s people – even in queer and transgender community – are often in shock. As non-binary transgender people and gender-neutral pronouns continue to emerge and take up space, it’s crucial that policymakers and such don’t use my and other similar experiences as the exemplars to be accommodated. Instead, I hope we can imagine and create a world where anyone’s pronoun is no big deal.

A new TIMP series! WE ARE THEY, Episode 1: Raising Avery

Since its birth five years ago, TIMP has been devoted to answering questions from gender-neutral pronoun users and allies, and sharing resources. Just like singular they is growing and becoming more common, TIMP is evolving. While I’ll continue to respond to new questions and direct askers to questions already answered, today I’m starting a new series of posts that will profile diverse folks who use singular they.

Each episode in the series WE ARE THEY will be based on an interview with someone who uses singular they, either because it’s their personal pronoun or because they use it consistently in other ways. The series aims to share the diversity of singular they usage and users, and how gender-neutral pronouns are making change in the world around us, every day.

The first episode in WE ARE THEY features Helene, her partner Curtis, and Avery, their toddler. Helene sat down with Lee and shared how she and Curtis are raising Avery in a gender-open way, including using singular they as Avery’s pronoun.


WE ARE THEY, Episode 1. Raising Avery

Usually when a person uses singular they, it’s their own decision. As many of us know, this leads to a lot of hard work: coming out, answering questions, correcting other peoples’ mistakes, and sometimes literally fighting for our right to use our chosen pronoun. However, a small but growing number of (brand new) people are singular they users even before they have any awareness of gender at all, let alone of who they would like to be in the gender department. And it’s their parents who are doing this hard work, at least in the beginning.

“We wanted our child to be able to be who they are from the start.”

When they were getting ready to have Avery, Helene and Curtis made the decision to practice gender-open parenting. To the best of their ability, they would get out of the way and provide an open space for Avery to explore. “We wanted our child to be able to be who they are from the start,” Helene explains. “We just didn’t want to put any boundaries or constraints on them gender-wise so they can identify how they will, and play how they will, and dress how they want to. We just thought, why not let them do this from the beginning?” Helene is clear that this isn’t gender-neutral or ‘genderless’ parenting. “Avery has masculine expressions, feminine expressions, andro expressions and who-gives-a-shit expressions,” she says. Gender is very much a part of Avery’s world, but what that looks like depends on the day (and the weather).

Helene and Curtis’ own identities informed their choice to parent in a gender-open way. They both identify as queer, and Curtis as a transgender man. Helene and Curtis were initially puzzled by people – many queer, some transgender – who share their values but chose their baby’s names and pronouns the old fashioned way: based on external genitalia alone. “People say ‘oh, I’d be very supportive if my child was trans but we’re using this pronoun or assuming this gender and I’ll support them if they tell me differently.” Helene and Curtis feel that keeping gender open means not assigning a binary gender to Avery at all until Avery makes up their own mind. But Helene acknowledges that this decision might be less possible for other parents. “They might experience enough scrutiny on their parenting already as a same-sex couple, or perhaps they live in a place where even boys just playing with dolls is seen as transgressive. These real barriers may make some parents fearful, and we understand that.”

“It’s hard to dress a kid to not signify.”

For these parents, an important part of keeping gender open for Avery is the language they use to refer to them. As one of the world’s youngest singular they users (I’ll wager), Avery goes from bus to day care to park to home with Helene and Curtis trying their hardest to ensure that others use Avery’s pronoun. As an infant, Avery had ‘My Pronoun is They’ patches sewn onto their onesies, and it worked. Babies and toddlers are androgynous anyway, usually registering as male unless they have pink outfits, pierced ears, long hair, or bejewelled elastic bands around their little bald heads. As time goes on, Helene and Curtis try to select Avery’s clothing to help others correctly gender them, but “it’s hard to have Avery present in a way that doesn’t indicate gender. Whether it’s clothes or whether it’s Avery’s face or hair, or whether it’s society, people do gender Avery most of the time. Occasionally I’ll have someone ask if Avery is a boy or a girl but most of the time people just assume based on what they see.” Gender-open parenting involves presenting a child who is neither a girl nor a boy as neither, and as Helene observes, “it’s hard to dress a kid to not signify.” This raises an interesting (and impossible) question about singular they users: what do ‘we’ look like?

When a stranger mis-genders Avery (by using he or she instead of they), Helene usually makes the choice to correct them based on whether Avery will see them again. “If we’re walking down the street and someone says ‘what a pretty girl!’ and they keep walking, I don’t say ‘well, ACTUALLY…’ and stop them!” We laugh, agreeing that this might be a bit much. “But if I’m at my playground and I’m talking with another parent, and we’re getting into a more friendly conversation that’s more than hi/bye, I will say ‘yeah that’s my kid. Actually, we’re raising Avery gender-open so we’re using they and them as pronouns and we’re letting Avery decide.’” Without this intervention, Avery is generally called a mixed bag of pronouns, most of them gendered. Helene wonders if the mixed bag could be having the desired effect of gender openness. It’s certainly easier to accept the mixed bag, she says, but it doesn’t change the world, “which isn’t why we’re doing it, but it’s a good benefit.”

“‘I’m just going to say Avery.’”

A main event in many toddler lives is the shift from parental care to extended family or day care. I was eager to know how Helene and Curtis were managing this recent transition now that Helene has returned to work. They’ve experienced a lot of supportive energy from caregivers, as well as a willingness to learn and ask questions. “But even people who know we’re using they/them/their still use a gendered pronoun a lot.” Helene sometimes thinks this is because caregivers see what kind of genitals Avery has, which is something unique about young children who use singular they: that people will have this knowledge and think they know something as a result. She also attributes mis-gendering to a basic unfamiliarity with singular they, and doesn’t feel like it’s malicious. But resistance can take on a more active form: “some people say ‘I’m not going to use they or them. I’m just going to say Avery.’” Although her family’s pronoun usage has improved over time, Helene jokes that the family’s hard work – both remembering and reminding – might be in vain. By the time everyone gets the hang of singular they, Avery might have chosen a binary pronoun! But if Avery later decides to use a different one, will other caregivers be able to go with it? This is a bigger question, and certainly isn’t unique to gender and pronouns. Do we trust any child to make major life-changing decisions for themselves? And is consistency the best evidence that they’re right?

To my mind, the issues around assigning singular they to a baby aren’t always that different from other issues facing new parents. To illustrate, Helene’s cousin was anxious about making a mistake, and issued a heated declaration: “I don’t want a rule book for how to be with Avery!” But are gender choices any more of a ‘rule book’ than other choices? Helene feels they aren’t, because “with every child there is a sense of a rule book. We’re the parents and we get to decide, and for some people that might be about what the child eats or what toys they play with or what words they use.” For some parents, that means tuna only once a month. For Helene and Curtis, that means singular they.

“‘So have they decided yet?’”

While some things may not be unique about raising a child with singular they, other things certainly are. Helene and I spoke about how the ‘I’ll just use your name’ tactic may feel legitimate because adults presume that a child will choose another pronoun, whereas an adult user is thought to have arrived at their ‘true self.’ Each assumption is problematic in its own way. Bravely, Helene wonders whether her and Curtis’ usual response – that Avery will eventually decide who they are – somehow contributes to this problem. And others are eager to know if ‘eventually’ has arrived. “Even my ten year-old neighbour often asks me ‘so have they decided yet?’ Do they know yet? Do you know?’” When answering children, Helene keeps the question open. “With littler kids especially I say ‘I don’t know! Maybe they’re a girl, maybe they’re a boy, maybe they’re both or neither!’ With older people I just say ‘we don’t know, they haven’t told us yet.’ But I don’t often say ‘we don’t know and maybe they’ll use they for the rest of their life.’” As more parents choose this path, it remains to be seen how the yet/eventually narration of children’s singular they usage will affect broader understandings of why folks choose this pronoun.

“‘I just have the one.’”

While I was delighted to hear that, on the whole, Helene and Curtis have had a positive experience of gender-open parenting, it seems like pronouns remain a major hurdle. Sometimes singular they can be funny when it goes wrong. When talking to strangers on the phone, Helene is consistently called on to deny that she has twins. “Early on when I would book a doctor’s appointment, I might say ‘they have a cold’ and the receptionist would reply ‘oh, both of them?’ No. I just have the one.” Starting a phone call with a brief explanation has proven effective over time. Sometimes, though, singular they is just one hurdle too many. When facing things more stressful than the common cold, when their family needs support or access to resources – this is when singular they can become just too heavy to bear. “And at those points sometimes I would just pick a gendered pronoun. Because I couldn’t or didn’t want to deal and so I said ‘forget it – I’m just going to use whatever’ because I needed that help.” And sometimes pronouns just don’t seem to matter at all. “For passports and travel I just do the genitals because that’s already so complicated,” she says.

“It’s so different if a child asks for it themself.”

How about the issue of choice, of who chose this path for Avery? After all, Avery didn’t decide to use singular they, or to present as non-binary. “I’ll put my child in whatever they want to wear as long as it’s safe and appropriate for wherever we’re going,” Helene insists, but until Avery chooses their own gender and pronoun, Helene and Curtis don’t have recourse to the argument that they are defending Avery’s autonomy. “It’s so different if a child asks for it themself,” she says. This is what parents of self-identified queer or transgender children can fall back on when their decisions are challenged. But, as Helene says, “it’s my decision right now. I decide what Avery wears. Sometimes I offer Avery a choice, but Avery doesn’t care.” It seems like other kids don’t care either. Avery’s five year-old cousin routinely escorts Avery around to everyone else on the playground, announcing that “this is my cousin and they’re a they.” Helene offers an explanation for this after taking a moment to choose her words. “When kids aren’t being pushed into a box, they can treat gender in a way that’s not heavy.” Whether singular they is a burden on Avery seems to depend on the environment Avery’s adults create. And so far, it doesn’t seem to be a burden at all.

Still, Helene and I wonder out loud whether gender-open parenting and singular they usage will actually matter, in the end. We both grew up in open-minded families and, like almost everyone else, were raised with a binary pronoun and the assumption that we were cis-gender and heterosexual. For countless adult queer and/or transgender people, we are who we are now in spite of and not because of the context in which we grew up. We laugh, though, when Helene admits her worry that this logic will pan out for Avery, too. “Part of using they/them is allowing Avery to be who they are. And that actually does mean that even if who they are is a right-wing conservative I still have to find a way to respect who they are.” And that’s that.

Listening to Helene, I think about my own future as a parent who is a non-binary transgender person and singular they user, and who shares values with Helene and Curtis. Will my partner and I use singular they for our children as a contingency – until they make up their own minds? Do we need to do this, if our children will have always known about non-binary gender-ness simply because they’re mine? Would gender-open parenting push them ‘the other way,’ in the end? Do I care? I don’t know. And I feel better not knowing when I remember Helene’s wise words as we began winding down our long conversation. “I think people think you have to have everything figured out if you want to do this, but you don’t.”

When mom says no: Parent refusal, continued

Anonymous asked:

Heyo love your blog by the way. So I asked my mother to use my preferred pronoun they/them, coming home from having my close group of friends use it for an entire semester, and she outright refused. Her reasoning was along the lines of: its too much work to change in her head, and when she talks about me to her friends, she doesn’t want to have to explain about this “whole new gender” as if I had made it up. What should I do?

Why thank you, Anonymous! 🙂

First of all, let me say that the college to home transition can be one of the most challenging moments in the life cycle of anyone on the queer or transgender (or politically radical) spectrum, whether gender-neutral pronoun user or no.

It’s tough for parents to send us off and then have us come back so very different than they remember (or fantasize). Quite often negative parent reactions to things like using your pronoun are about regaining control in a dynamic in which they have felt more or less in control until now.

My suggestion is that you take it down to brass tacks with your mother and tell her exactly what you do and do not need her to do: which friends and family members do you care about in terms of knowing your gender? How should she refer to you when you are at the grocery store and run into someone she knows? In my experience, most parents’ worries are about exactly these kinds of practical things and we can help by making our needs very practical. Of course, this is also a way to ‘call their bluff’ and get them to stop hiding behind the practical once their practical concerns have been addressed. At this point, I suggest cultivating another same-age adult in your life who you feel respected by and who might be able to be a safe person for your mother to talk to.

Failing that, you can always send her to TIMP! 🙂

Warmly, and write back if you need to,

Lee

Gender-neutral parenting: Part One

Anonymous asked:

Heya Lee! Love your stuff! My partner and I recently had a kid and we’re using they/them as pronouns until our kid wants to be known by a different pronoun (if they ever do). Lots of our friends are totally on board and make a great effort to use they/them, however family is completely different. They chose to constantly use gendered pronouns and gendered stereotypes. I’ve tried explaining it to them, but they just shout, get angry and transphobic. What can I do?

Hi Anonymous!

Thank you so much for your message and question. Many folks are choosing this route and, I think, encountering similar obstacles. It takes an incredible amount of work and persistence to parent in this way and I have a tremendous respect for you and others who are doing this.

I’m afraid so say that the simple answer is the hardest one: boundaries and consequences. Because you are in a position of parental authority and can advocate for your parenting choices and child’s right, as long as you are not beholden to family members for resources or child care you can enforce boundaries and consequences. People are welcome to ask questions and ask for resources, but if they persist in this behaviour they will not be spending time with your child. It is harsh and heart-breaking, but if you need it to be a (temporary) deal-breaker, perhaps it needs to be. This choice deserves as much respect as the choice to, say, raise your child without eating meat or processed foods. Family members can gripe all they want, but this is not their choice.

Other options are similar to those for GNP users ourselves: engage a go-between or same-age/status ally to field questions and concerns from family members on your behalf to share the load and perhaps be present when you can’t be (e.g., at family gatherings).
I’m looking into the possibility of a guest post with a parent – stay tuned!

Thanks so much,

Lee

Part 2: ‘But they don’t know I know…’ – Outing a gender-neutral pronoun user?

*FOLLOW UP – ORIGINAL POST BELOW*

Anonymous asked:

hello. similarly to a previous asker on this blog, I too have found out that my sister wants to use they/them pronouns from their blog, but also a different name, and I just wanted to say I found your advice to the previous asker useful, but I don’t know what to do about the different name because she is so intensly private about everything and wouldn’t like it if I knew but I no longer know how to refer to them, could you possibly help because I feel awful about mis-naming/prounoun-ing her

Hello there Anonymous.

Firstly, to echo the affirmation I gave to the-little-white-mermaid below, you are a lovely and supportive sibling. No matter how this goes down, they are lucky to have you in their corner.

I think this hinges on whether you at all want to share with your sibling that you know about their pronoun and name preferences. The bottom line is that you don’t want to hurt them by misnaming/misgendering them anymore, but it is also true that your sibling may have their reasons for not wanting to share this information with family members, even ones who are as supportive as you (presuming your sibling knows that you are).

If you are sure that your sibling knows you are in their corner and okay with their identity and needs around that, I’d encourage you to respect their decision for a little longer because they must have a reason. I understand how hard it must be to know you are misgendering them, but they might have a reason for keeping this part of themselves away from family. Do you know what that might be? About your/their relationship in particular, do you both have a history of respecting each other and keeping each other’s secrets?

If you aren’t sure that you sibling knows you are in their corner, can you subtly use Facebook or other social media to post things that are affirming of trans people and/or gender-neutral pronoun use (like my blog)? At least you are indicating that you are interested. Little things like this might create a space for your sibling to open up to you, which can take time.

At bottom, the name issue doesn’t have to be so different from the pronoun issue in this regard; it can be a very similar kind of transition for people and our friends/families.

Hope this helps, and thanks for being awesome!

Lee

the-little-white-mermaid asked:

My sister doesn’t know that I can see her tumblr blog description that describes her as bisexual, agender, “them” pronouns. I want to refer to her as she wants but I also don’t want her to know I know since I don’t actually know who she’s told. How?

Hello the-little-white-mermaid!

Rock on – you are a sensitive and supportive sibling and I truly appreciate your question; I’m sure your sibling would too, if they knew that you are being so careful and conscientious.

Your dilemma seems to be: how do I support my sibling without violating their boundaries? The bare fact fact that you want to act from an affirming place by using their pronouns is, to my mind, an excellent reason for sitting down with your sibling and just coming clean about what you found and how. The very best energy – i.e., how you approach the conversation, with kindness and openness – and best intentions – which you have – can work wonders.

It seems, though, like you’re worried about your sibling’s reaction to you knowing. Without more information about your situation, I can’t be sure why. One reason I can guess at is that your sibling might be an intensely private person who keeps their gender and sexual identities away from family. If this is true, then part of the conversation would hopefully involve you acknowledging that there are reasons why your sibling did not tell you and validating these reasons, or, “I totally get why you wouldn’t want to share this with me and that’s cool.” Make it really clear that you understand why this choice was made, and that you are only bringing it up because you want to make them as comfortable as possible around you. The conversation will also have to address how to behave around other family members, including whether or not you should use your sibling’s chosen pronoun with others.

Another reason for your worry could be the quality and the history relationship you have together. In deciding how to move forward, your best guide will be this relationship. Do you generally support each other in other family issues? Do you ‘share the spotlight’ well in your family gatherings and conversations i.e., do you fight for control or attention of other family members? Do you have a history of trusting each other or breaking each other’s trust? Do you share friends or interests or other common ground? I ask these questions because gender stuff never happens outside of already-existing relationships. The reason why a sibling or a parent might refuse to use one’s pronouns, for example, can be about an old hurt or bad dynamic and not about pronouns at all, in my view (see this). Same thing: the reason why you might be worried or why your conversation might be challenging might be because of your history with your sibling that makes any big conversation challenging, and not because of its topic.

In either case / for either reason (apologies if I’m completely off-base and please feel free to write back), I think it might be helpful to plan the conversation in a way that makes it very different from how you usually interact and spend time with your sibling in order to make it clear that this is different and important. OR, take advance of a fun and familiar ritual that you do together or place you go. These are different tacks, but they both send the message that you are being intentional, thoughtful and caring (more tips here).

Good luck, and take courage from knowing that you are already being a really lovely ally in seeking out resources and asking questions.

Hope that helps,

Lee

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.

Take it down to brass tacks: Connecting “I’m non-binary” and “this is what this means for you”

actualtransjaymerrick asked:

I’m 13 and I want to come out to my family/friends as non binary. My friends I know will be more accepting, but I’m not too sure about my family. My mom tells me that I’m too young to decide my gender/sexuality. It stresses me out..

Hello there actualtransjaymerrick!

This sounds tough and I’m really glad that you got in touch. I think there are many reasons why a parent can react like your mom did – check this out as it may be helpful. In that post I talk about many reasons for parental reactions, including that parents often have trouble feeling like they don’t know about something we know about, or like they don’t know us as well as they think they do. Sometimes this can make them react in difficult ways when their heart might actually be in a better place than their reaction indicates.

More specifically, I can tell you that if my 13 year-old kid told me that they identify as non-binary and want to come out to friends and family, I would probably respond like this: “I am 100% here for you and support you however you would like to live and be recognized by others. Now, I can support you until the cows come home, but let’s talk about your concrete needs in relation to your gender identity. What kind of changes do you want to make / have others make to reflect this? What do you need from me (name, pronoun, do I call you my daughter/son/kid and to whom does this matter for you, do you have new or different clothing, hair, grooming or other gender expression needs)? What do you need from family members (everyone to know and to shift their practices around, or only the people you see often/at all)? Are there some family activities/traditions/etc. that are hard for you or that you don’t want to participate in because they are gendered?What do you need from your school (a big one – see this post for an idea of how gender can play out at school)? Do you want me to talk to your teachers or help you to talk to them, or talk to the front office to have your name/gender changed on the school record? Do you feel like your school is a place for you to be ok? Where might it be unsafe to be out, and what can we do about that? Do you need other supports outside of me and friends, like access to similarly-identified peers?” Yada yada!

I offer this laundry list/monologue because, actualtransjaymerrick, I want to emphasize that most parents have absolutely NO IDEA what non-binary means. Like, ZERO. I do, so I know that this kind of gender shift means very concrete things like clothing, who can/needs to know, whether the teacher or principal needs to have a visit from me, etc. Most people do not. So I strongly suggest that you bring it down to very basic real-life things that you are asking for, and that you prepare for a conversation with your mom by listing the ones that are most and least important to you so that you can give her concrete ideas of what you need from her and from others: what is non-negotiable and what is more flexible.

Lastly, I would also say this to my kid: “I know that, if I turned around some day and said ‘well, I actually feel more like X (insert whatever) these days and less like a genderqueer non-binary trans spectrum person who uses singular they as my pronoun’ that you would do your best to go there with me and accept that people grow and change. And so, I want you to know that I support regardless of whether you feel this way for now or forever.” This is not the same thing as saying “you’re too young” but does recognize that we can and do change. The most powerful and important authority on you and what’s going on with you is YOU yourself. And I think that there is a lot to be said for understanding ourselves as ALWAYS in progress and changing and growing everyday. This most certainly applies to me and I’m 32 soon and some kind of doctor.

I hope this helps, friend. Write back if you need to.

Lee

‘But they don’t know I know…’ – Outing a gender-neutral pronoun user?

the-little-white-mermaid asked:

My sister doesn’t know that I can see her tumblr blog description that describes her as bisexual, agender, “them” pronouns. I want to refer to her as she wants but I also don’t want her to know I know since I don’t actually know who she’s told. How?

Hello the-little-white-mermaid!

Rock on – you are a sensitive and supportive sibling and I truly appreciate your question; I’m sure your sibling would too, if they knew that you are being so careful and conscientious.

Your dilemma seems to be: how do I support my sibling without violating their boundaries? The bare fact fact that you want to act from an affirming place by using their pronouns is, to my mind, an excellent reason for sitting down with your sibling and just coming clean about what you found and how. The very best energy – i.e., how you approach the conversation, with kindness and openness – and best intentions – which you have – can work wonders.

It seems, though, like you’re worried about your sibling’s reaction to you knowing. Without more information about your situation, I can’t be sure why. One reason I can guess at is that your sibling might be an intensely private person who keeps their gender and sexual identities away from family. If this is true, then part of the conversation would hopefully involve you acknowledging that there are reasons why your sibling did not tell you and validating these reasons, or, “I totally get why you wouldn’t want to share this with me and that’s cool.” Make it really clear that you understand why this choice was made, and that you are only bringing it up because you want to make them as comfortable as possible around you. The conversation will also have to address how to behave around other family members, including whether or not you should use your sibling’s chosen pronoun with others.

Another reason for your worry could be the quality and the history of relationship you have together. In deciding how to move forward, your best guide will be this relationship. Do you generally support each other in other family issues? Do you ‘share the spotlight’ well in your family gatherings and conversations i.e., do you fight for control or attention of other family members? Do you have a history of trusting each other or breaking each other’s trust? Do you share friends or interests or other common ground? I ask these questions because gender stuff never happens outside of already-existing relationships. The reason why a sibling or a parent might refuse to use one’s pronouns, for example, can be about an old hurt or bad dynamic and not about pronouns at all, in my view (see this). Same thing: the reason why you might be worried or why your conversation might be challenging might be because of your history with your sibling that makes any big conversation challenging, and not because of its topic.

In either case / for either reason (apologies if I’m completely off-base and please feel free to write back), I think it might be helpful to plan the conversation in a way that makes it very different from how you usually interact and spend time with your sibling in order to make it clear that this is different and important. OR, take advance of a fun and familiar ritual that you do together or place you go. These are different tacks, but they both send the message that you are being intentional, thoughtful and caring (more tips here).

Good luck, and take courage from knowing that you are already being a really lovely ally in seeking out resources and asking questions.

Hope that helps,

Lee

Beyond mummy or daddy: Names for non-binary parents

shecallsmethey asked:

“Question that came about after telling my brother I’m Genderqueer (It still amazes me how well he’s handled all of my coming out moments): Is there a word for parents who go by they/them? Is it up to the parent?”

Hello shecallsmethey!

So glad that your brother is amazing you and is amazing! It’s always lovely to hear about people who are taking things in stride and asking really compelling, thoughtful questions like this one.

There seem to be two secondary questions here: the first is what word can be used to describe someone who parents but who is non-binary, and the second is what can children call their non-binary (or genderqueer, etc.) parent? For the first, I think the word parent is the fairly easy answer, and works here just like partner or spouse (check this out). The much harder question is the second question. What children call their parents (e.g., Mum, Dad, etc.) is of course up to the parent, but getting others onboard if one chooses something out of the ordinary and/or non-gendered will be challenging.

This question is very timely in my own life as I’m getting ever closer to the decision to have children as a non-binary transgender person. What would my kids call me? What might the repercussions be if I am not called Mum, Dad, etc. particularly when my children are little and unable to explain the nuances of my identity to people who are unsure of who I am in relation to my child? Obviously, I imagine strange, awkward or otherwise sad-making situations where my little one is upset because they learn that other people think me, them and our family structure is/are weird. Or, when they learn that other people think I’m not their real parent or something because they don’t call me Mummy or Daddy. I try to move past these things in order to find something my children can call me that I love and they can say, and not just something that would pacify the imaginary chorus of others. It’s tough.

While I don’t have an answer yet, my partner and I have talked about two approaches that feel good to us:

1) Instead of saying “you have a Mum (my partner’s choice) and a TBA” we would say “you have two parents and one is called Mum and one is called TBA,” so making our titles personal and less tied to a particular role. This would require much repetition over time.

2) Getting rid of titles altogether and using our names with our children until something organically arises from their own efforts with language and sticks around long enough to become a nickname. This is how I came by the lovely little name that my nieces and nephew call me: Wizzie (for real).

Both of these will provoke interesting and challenging situations for us and our children, but they feel better than the alternative.

If you are a GNP user or non-binary-identified person or someone who for any reason doesn’t use Mum, Dad, etc. with your children, please let TIMP know whether in comments below or on Tumblr (via non-anonymous or anonymous comments)!

Thanks for the question, shecallsmethey!

Be well,

Lee