pronoun change

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.


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

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:

corgi srsly

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.


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:

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 5.41.25 PM

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.

“But I’m a they!” When your child wants to change their pronoun

Anonyomous asked:

Approximately two months ago, our kindergartner requested that we (their parents) use they/them. Extended family, teachers at school, family friends, etc, have all heard my spouse and I use “they/them” in this context repeatedly, but most have not voluntarily changed their own usage. Do we let these folks know that “they/them” is now the preferred mode, or is this something we should leave up to our child (who is somewhat shy about this issue, but definitely prefers gender-neutral pronouns)?

Hello Anonymous!

First, your child is so very lucky to have you: parents who are willing and able to listen to them, honour their choices, and help them to the best of your abilities.

In response to your question, in my view the decision about whether you should advise others or your child should is something that a) doesn’t have to be set in stone but can change depending on the situation or your/their needs, and b) needs to be an ongoing conversation in which your child makes the decision. It might be useful to talk to your child about how you can support them when they do tell other people. Would they like you to be there, to facilitate or to set up a formal conversation? Would they like you to tell another parent, but let them tell this parent’s child, who could be a new friend? All this is to say, Anonymous, that you have as many tools and options as there are situations in which the need to ‘come out’ will arise.

I’m going to suggest that you check out my posts on coming out as well as resistance, refusal and family. There is a bit of overlap among the tags, but there is a lot there. I also have some posts on practicing singular they that might be helpful for supportive folks who just seem to make mistakes, and one on explaining singular they to someone with little to no knowledge of gender diversity.

And just in case they would be helpful, I’m also going to point out Diane Ehrensaft’s book if you haven’t found it already and the Gender Creative Kids Canada website, as these might be useful.

In the next ten days, I’ll be posting a special post where I interviewed in-depth a parent who is using singular they for their child from birth. Stay tuned!

All the best, and hope this helps,


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.