practicing

The honest mistake: On being a pronoun beginner

Recently, I Tweeted this little two-part message:

I’m thinking a lot these days about the space in between ‘no big deal’ and enough is enough. Readers likely know that last fall I founded the No Big Deal Campaign. NBD aims to encourage folks who are new to transgender people and issues to go ahead, take the plunge, and use someone’s unfamiliar or unlikely pronoun to the best of their ability.

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Alt text: the NBD Campaign logo with “I’ll use your pronoun, no big deal” and the URL: nbdcampaign.ca.

I founded NBD for many reasons, one of which was the recognition that while many people are willing to do this, the stakes attached to an error have become so high that the consequent fear might prevent people from even trying. What’s worse, I was seeing anti-transgender commentators swaying the public and some in the media with a harmful falsehood: that transgender people and our allies are intent on grievously punishing people for an honest mistake, in pursuit of ideological purity. Incoming protections for transgender people in Canadian federal law have been characterized by some as legislating both purity and punishment. To that, I say:

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Alt text: a Red Pembroke Welsh Corgi being wilfully obtuse with SRSLY in meme font.

As a non-binary transgender person, I need people to try using my pronoun and I know that there will always be a first time, a second time, and so on. I also know that this will necessarily involve mistakes. After all, when transgender people learn that a friend or acquaintance has changed their pronoun, it takes us time to get it right, too. This also means making mistakes. Shattering any false image or goal of perfection is, I believe, essential for producing greater everyday acceptance of gender diversity and reducing anti-transgender microaggression. It can build trust with willing yet nervous folks when we’re real about how, yes, transgender people mispronoun each other sometimes. As a movement, I believe we need to create a space that people want to step into. And while I whole-heartedly embrace the notion – both personally and in my academic work – that intentionality has little to do with the impact of our actions on others, as a teacher I also know that people need their intentionality to matter. Because I am a singular they user, I can say that it does matter: an honest mistake feels like an honest mistake.

However.

The ethic of “no big deal” is not a free pass to keep on making mistakes, over and over again, even honest ones. It’s also not a free pass from consequence. And recalling my Tweets up there, it is no guarantee that you won’t lose a transgender friend or colleague or date or family member if you keep on making that same old (even honest) mistake. When I teach about barriers faced by gender-neutral pronoun (GNP) users (many of which are experienced by transgender people regardless of their pronoun), I explicitly talk about this dynamic even as I work to create a space where mistakes are expected as part of the learning process:

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Alt text: PPT slide on resistance as a barrier faced by gender-neutral pronoun (GNP) users, including invalidation (mis-gendering by people who have been informed of one’s GNP), active refusal (saying no) or passive refusal (just using someone’s name, saying ‘this is too hard,’ or a forget/apologize dynamic that doesn’t change.

As a form of passive refusal to use someone’s pronoun, a forget/apologize dynamic that doesn’t change can be attributable to many things. It could be that a person just doesn’t encounter enough opportunities to practice (the solution being to ask for and seek out opportunities or advice). But people are generally more complicated. If something matters to us, we do our best. We remind ourselves before we see someone that this is something they need (be it a cupcake, an accessible washroom, or freedom from talking about an unpleasant topic). If we continually forget a person’s need, it might help to pay attention to that forgetting and learn that there is something about the need that we don’t understand or agree with. We aren’t convinced that this is legit. We have questions, we need answers.

This is an honest place, a starting place. One can both know that it is a social good to engage with transgender people in a way that respects our gender identities, and be honest that one is a beginner. A beginner is someone who knows that there are things they need to look up, to Google, or to practice. Beginners expect practice and expect their own mistakes. Beginners take pride in improvement over time.

The No Big Deal Campaign is for everyone, but particularly has the beginner in mind. I believe that there must be a place for beginners in any movement to benefit transgender people because transgender people need institutions – and the people who are/in them – to do a better job in relation to our needs. Chances are those people are just beginning to engage with and understand anything to do with transgender anything, and that’s both okay and unavoidable.

So, be a beginner. Occupy that space with your whole heart. Work at it and take pride in getting it right when you do. Have compassion for yourself when you don’t. But like every beginner, know that you aren’t a beginner forever. And if you find yourself still making rookie mistakes long after the fact, be honest with yourself about your own resistance, be curious about where it comes from, and ask a coach.

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Tips on training yourself to change pronouns for someone you care about (or anyone really)

microsuedemouse asked:

“Somebody I love very, very much has made the change to ‘they’ pronouns in the last few months and I can’t seem to learn it fast enough. I’m finally learning to get it right when I write it down, but in casual conversation when I’m not thinking about it the wrong pronouns slip out constantly. I know it’s hurting them a lot and I desperately want to stop. Do you have any tips on learning to train oneself into using the right pronouns?”

Hi microsuedemouse!

Thank you for your brave question! First of all, I just want to say that your loved one is lucky to have someone who is willing to reach out to a stranger for advice, even if sometimes pronouns are hard.

I want to start off by sharing my wise friend’s observation the other day about how pronoun changes affect communities, friends and family members. Basically, we don’t spend much time talking about ourselves in the third person whereas others talk about us all the time. So a new pronoun may actually be more of a shift in practice for others than for a particular gender-neutral pronoun user. Of course, when we are public about our pronoun preference people might regard us differently or prejudicially (at best) but the basic everyday life changes might be felt more by others struggling with language. After all, to me I’m still Lee but I’m now ‘them’ to everyone else. All this is to say that I hear you, and that is one of the reasons why I started this blog.

Your situation is unique, so take what I say with a grain of salt. My tips are in the realm of practice and being mindful i.e., not getting caught up in the flow of a conversation when we can become automatic. This is where trouble lurks in the pronoun change department, and not only there. This is where innate or familiar assumptions unintentionally rule our speech and actions. Witty repartee? Uh oh. Careful one-on-one chat? Probably a better chance of not messing up. Here is what I suggest:

1) Meet up with a friend you share in common with your loved one and practice. Reminisce about times spent together and otherwise talk about them. Exposure makes things much easier.

2) It would also be helpful to practice pausing before you respond to someone else, in any conversation, regardless of why.

3) When you are around people who aren’t your loved one, practice. Use they to refer to a single person, or try to refer to people with names only, etc. You can strike up conversations at the bus stop or at a tea party or wherever you feel comfortable and make this a little project. How long can you go in a conversation without using or needing to use a gendered pronoun? Can you notice when other people use gendered pronouns? How do people react to singular they?

4) Once you have some conscious practice and experimentation under your belt, do a self-audit. When do you make mistakes, or what kinds of structures (questions, off-the-cuff remarks, descriptions) catch you up? How can you remind yourself to be mindful? What are some situations in your life where you need to refer consistently to your loved one in the third person when they’re around? Can you prepare for these in advance, or get ready to use the pausing or conscious listening you’ve practiced?

MOST IMPORTANTLY, try not to worry about seeming fake, preoccupied or overly self-conscious while you are still working on the pronoun change. I feel like your loved one, if they know and feel your support, can probably understand that you need to be a bit stilted or weird as you learn. I personally don’t believe we can expect people to be perfect overnight. That takes a particular set of skills, which we need to develop. Chances are you might have these already but haven’t thought about migrating them over to the gender side of things.

I hope that helps, and keep asking questions!

Lee