So, recently you’ve found out some big news about somebody you care about. Maybe they came out to you as transgender and/or non-binary, maybe they’ve told you that they’re changing their name and/or that they’d like to be referred to by a different set of pronouns. Maybe—hopefully!—you want to be supportive of them but you’re worried you’re going to mess up (which is an understandable fear)!
Coming out is hard and the fact that they came out to you is a big deal! You should be proud of them for taking this big step and being honest with you about who they are. Changing the way you think about someone is a process, and you will mess up at some point! However, if you really love and respect this person, you will keep trying, and eventually it will become second nature to you.
As someone who has changed my own name and pronouns, here are some things that I feel are important to keep in mind as you’re getting used to this change.
1. Use the new, correct name and pronouns all the time—even when they’re not there to hear you, even when you’re just thinking about them in your head. This is because the end goal of this process shouldn’t be to retrain yourself to call them a certain thing, it should be to think of them in a certain way. By coming out to you and asking you to use their new name and pronouns, your loved one has shared with you something very real about who they really are. You should be trying to retrain your brain to know them by this name, because it’s their real name—much realer than the one they were being forced to use before.
2. Correct yourself when you get it wrong, even if they don’t say anything. It might be tempting to hope that it just slipped through the cracks and they didn’t notice your mistake. But trust me, they noticed. Being called by the wrong name or pronouns is jarring and painful, but sometimes it’s hard to stand up for yourself and say something.
3. Don’t over-apologize when you mess up! Apologize once, correct yourself, and move on. Apologizing over and over just brings more attention to it than they probably want, and going on and on about how bad you feel for getting it wrong puts pressure on them to comfort you, when this should really be about them and how they feel.
4. Correct other people too! Like I said, it can be very hard to muster the courage to correct people, especially over and over, so having allies in my life who are willing to do that work for me is a godsend. This is a really simple way to take on a little sliver of your loved one’s burden while they’re transitioning. Even a very simple reminder like, “Please don’t forget, Jamey uses they/them pronouns!” can be super helpful and take a lot of pressure off.
5. Be sensitive not to “out” them to people they’re not out to! (This is a caveat to #1 and #4, by the way, because you have to ask them if they’re comfortable with you using their new name and pronouns in front of others.) Coming out is a nerve-racking experience and it’s common not to come out to everyone in your life at once. Outing someone before they’re ready is a terrible, stressful, and sometimes dangerous position to put someone in. Ask who they’re comfortable being out to and be very careful to respect that.
6. Be patient if they change their mind on what they want to be called. It’s really tough to figure out what name and pronouns fit you best and feel the most comfortable without “trying them on” and seeing how it feels when other people use them. Experimentation is an important part of that! If someone changes their name a few times in a row trying to find something that fits, or changes their pronouns but then changes them back, that’s just a natural part of that experimentation.
7. Remember that they’re going through something very personal. Their transition is all about them and what makes them comfortable—not about you and what you think is best. If you don’t think their new name fits them, or if you don’t think the singular they is grammatically correct, or if you think trying to remember their new name and pronouns is too hard… those are all thoughts you should keep to yourself!
Again, coming out is really tough! If your loved one has gathered the strength to come out to you, trust that this is important to them. They know best about what they need to be called to be comfortable and happy. Do your best to put their needs first when it comes to this change and before long, hearing their old name and pronouns will sound almost as wrong to you as it does to them!
Jamey is a non-binary adventurer from Buffalo, NY who wishes they were immortal so they’d have time to visit every coffeeshop in the world. They spend most of their time writing code for Agrilyst (an agtech startup in Brooklyn), doing public speaking & advocacy on the transgender experience, making zines, and thinking about Star Wars. More of their work, pictures of their cats and selfies can be found at www.jameybash.com or on twitter at @jameybash.