“A few weeks ago, my child wrote an email to our family asking us to use they/them pronouns from now on. Their older sister came out as queer many years ago, and I think of myself as ‘with it’ on LGBTQ issues. And yet, I keep messing up and using ‘she’. They haven’t changed their name (which is a very feminine, girl-only name) or appearance. I guess they just don’t seem that different to me, so I’m struggling to make the pronoun switch. Am I missing something?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Araguaney Rodriguez Da Silva
This is such an excellent, honest letter. I appreciate you so much for reaching out and looking for more resources to support your child. So, let’s get to it. There are two parts to your question: one part is about adjusting how we think about kids who don’t identify as a boy or a girl*, and the other part is about the mechanics of switching to using a different pronoun for someone.
First, I love that you wrote “they just don’t seem that different to me” because that’s really the heart of the matter: they are the same child you’ve known and loved for years. Now they are just using different words to refer to themselves, and they are asking you to use pronouns other than the ones you’ve always used for them. This doesn’t mean that they have changed who they are, just that they have finally found the words that most accurately describe who they have always been. The fact that they don’t seem that different to you affirms what many of us have said to our families when coming out: “I’m the same person I’ve always been—you just know a little bit more about it now!” I encourage you to consider that they haven’t changed who they are, and to accept that consciously.
I understand why you might think you are missing something, though. Most people expect a change in someone’s appearance, and eventually a name change, as a result of new pronouns. Those are the stories we see in magazines, and the ones we see on television (on the rare occasions they give a platform to a non-binary person at all). What those stories miss, however, is that the “change” in the person is not a change at all—a new outfit, or even a new name, are just additional parts of coming out. The new outfits, pronouns, and/or name are just the externalization of a truth they carried within themselves all along. In your child’s case, it sounds like going by they/them pronouns is sufficient. This might change in the future, but because none of us can predict that, I’ll stick to addressing your question about pronouns.
Now onto the mechanics of switching pronouns. I think there are three unofficial steps to using a new pronoun for someone:
1. Accept the pronouns
2. Practice the pronouns
3. Practice apologizing
We already talked a bit about accepting someone’s pronouns, but there’s a little more. We need to get rid of the assumption that a feminine name (such as your child’s) belongs only to people who go by “she/her” pronouns—same for masculine names. I know that assumption is a natural one but—as your child shows us—it is a faulty one. As allies, we need to interrupt our assumptions and accept that a name does not define someone’s pronouns—or even their gender. With time, I really do think names will go the way of toys: any person of any gender can have whichever name they want to have.
The next step is practicing the pronouns. Practice on your own. On your way back from dropping off your child (let’s call them “Katie”) at a friend’s house, you can practice out loud to yourself: “I just dropped Katie off, they are going to hang out with their friend. Katie is such a good kid, I love them very much.” Practicing out loud will get your brain and your tongue (muscle memory is a real thing) to align with you and your child’s wishes. You can also practice with another adult that is part of your child’s life, to make sure you can support each other in correcting the pronouns if you slip up, and also to simply normalize using your child’s pronouns with anyone—not only when your child is in the room. My Kid Is Gay has a great piece on they/them pronouns with more examples and other information you might find useful when talking to other adults about your child’s pronouns.
Last, but not least, practice apologizing and correcting yourself. Maybe you have already got this one on lock, but if not, here’s what I suggest: when you slip up in front of your kid, work on holding your own feelings and moving forward with the conversation. A short “I’m sorry, I meant ‘they’” and a continuation of the conversation is the ideal mixture of accountability and normalizing. Often, folks feel a lot of guilt about misgendering someone (meaning, using the wrong pronouns) and apologize profusely, which doesn’t fix the mistake (it happened) and in addition makes a big deal of it in a way that centers the person who messed up, and burdens us with the responsibility to “forgive” the speaker and make it better. Most of us just want to get to wherever the conversation was going, and don’t want the idea of our pronouns being “difficult” re-emphasized by the people who love us the most.
Okay, I lied when I said that was the last thing. I have one more last thing: society is really efficient at making us think that all LGBTQ issues are the same, but that is simply not the case. Having your oldest child come out as queer (which I’m assuming has to do with her sexual orientation and not her gender) is not the same as having your younger child come out as non-binary. I can even tell you from experience: my mom had the most okay time when I came out as queer. She understood I was the same person I had always been, just that I liked other genders now, too. That wasn’t the case when I came out as genderqueer or trans, and with that my new set of pronouns (I, like your younger child, use they/them pronouns!). She desperately held onto my old pronouns from fear that otherwise she would have to deal with “a completely different person.” Gender, like sexual orientation, is just another facet of what makes us, well, us, but the way that it informs language can have a deeper impact and thus throw us for a loop when we are searching for familiarity.
You mention that you think of yourself as “with it” on LGBTQ issues. Something we often forget is that it is one thing to understand something, and another one altogether to experience it. So, I want to encourage you to be kind to yourself while feeling your way through your child growing up. Be patient with yourself if you mess up, and keep practicing. Soon enough the pronouns will come into place automatically and, if you are anything like my mom, you’ll have time to enjoy seeing your child in the same way they’ve always seen themselves.
Finally, if you are interested in connecting with other families with non-binary children, you might want to check out Gender Spectrum’s annual conference for transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive youth and their families. The general Gender Spectrum website is also worth a look, full of resources about and in support of gender-expansive children.
*It might be tempting to use the word “trans” or “transgender” for your child, but because I don’t see in your letter that your child explicitly identifies as that, I’d rather use descriptive terms instead of assigning an identity to them. “Gender creative” and “gender expansive” are also terms people might use instead of “trans.”
Araguaney is a non-binary Venezuelan migrant currently living in Oakland, California. They are a sexual health, reproductive and racial justice educator and facilitator. You can always find them with their dog and baked snacks in tow.