“Hi there! I’m the mom of a 21-year-old trans girl, and I couldn’t love her more! My question is: If I’m telling a story from when my daughter was a kid, before she transitioned, do I use her old name and pronouns, or her current ones? Is it ok to ask her what she prefers? I hope this is an OK question to ask. Help?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Kai River Blevins
Thank you so much for writing in, and for being such a dedicated and compassionate parent! It can be hard sometimes to know if a question can come across the wrong way, especially when it deals with such a sensitive topic, but this is definitely an okay question to ask.
First, I’m going to say something you probably already know: Every transgender person has a different relationship to their birth name and pronouns. Some transgender people experience lots of gender dysphoria around their birth name and pronouns, while others keep their names when they transition. However, your daughter is the only person who can tell you what makes her feel seen and honored for who she truly is.
Second, I think there’s another question here that you should ask your daughter: How public is she about being transgender? This is important because if she doesn’t want anyone to know she is transgender, then there is never a reason to use her birth name and pronouns. And if she is public in any way—whether among her friends and coworkers or as a public activist—it’s important to know if she’s comfortable having that information out there, and to what extent.
For some transgender people, discussing our lives pre-transition—whether or not that includes using birth names and pronouns—is something powerful and intimate. It allows us to communicate to others that there was a time in our lives when we didn’t really understand ourselves, or perhaps we did truly understand ourselves when no one else did.
Personally, when I choose to let people into my life by discussing my transgender identity, I feel empowered. But for me, using my birth name and pronouns is not part of that. It feels like a brick to the stomach when other people use my birth name and pronouns, even when they’re talking about me pre-transition.
This isn’t to say that I don’t discuss my experiences pre-transition, but I do it in a different way. For example, I was raised as a boy. This is a part of my experience that I’m comfortable telling people. But, in light of some recent comments by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, when I explain being raised as a boy, I make sure that people know my experience was not the same as my cisgender peers. I often failed at being a “boy” in ways that others didn’t, and it shaped my childhood in ways that were sometimes painful.
My point is: We, as transgender people, should be dictating how our pre-transition selves are discussed. As a general rule, our birth names and pronouns are not part of that discussion, unless we explicitly choose to use them.
With all of this in mind, here are some suggestions for discussing these questions with your daughter:
Let her know you have a potentially sensitive question to ask her, and let her determine when and where to have the conversation. By approaching her in this way, you’re providing space for her to prepare mentally and emotionally to discuss an intimate topic that may often be brought up without her consent. This might give her the opportunity to set boundaries she may not have been able to consider before, and it will communicate that you respect her ability to live life and engage the world on her terms. Depending on your relationship, this might feel like a silly or awkward way to go about setting aside time to talk, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Ask her the same way you asked us. Seriously! Your question was phrased in a way that demonstrated the compassionate intent rather than just asking to satisfy your curiosity. It was beautiful, and I’m sure she will appreciate it!
Offer to let her think about the answer. Oftentimes, transgender people are asked questions and expected to know the answer. Your daughter may have told you this already, but we’re still figuring stuff out, too! Not having to answer right away will give her time and space to consider how it might feel to know there are times when her birth name and pronouns are being used to refer to her as a child without the pressure of needing to decide on the spot.
It doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.” Your daughter might be okay with her birth name and pronouns being used in front of some people, but not others. For example, she may not want some people to know she’s transgender, for whatever reason. Another scenario might include a relative or family friend who already knows her birth name and pronouns, but who is not affirming of transgender people. In cases like these, your daughter may not want those individuals construing your nuanced understanding of transgender identity as a broad-based approval for them to use her birth names and pronouns whenever they want—whether maliciously or not.
Understand that she may change her mind. After your conversation, she may feel totally fine with you using her birth name, or her birth pronouns, or both. Fast forward a week or a month, and she might say that having her birth name and pronouns used feels invalidating. It might be a painful reminder that the world didn’t recognize her for so many years, or it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to being reminded that she’s not always seen for who she is. If this is the case, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong, or that she’s mad at you. It only means she now understands that having her birth name and pronouns used doesn’t work for her. And that’s totally fine!
I hope this has helped! It’s always difficult to navigate sensitive questions like this, but you are doing a wonderful job. Good luck!
Kai River Blevins is a genderqueer/femme poet, community organizer, and graduate student from western New York who now lives in Salem, Oregon. When Kai isn’t doing homework or writing on their blog, Queer as Life, they love to read, color, cook delicious vegan food, and spend time with their loving partner and adorable fur-child, Sir Reginald, the Earl of Puppydom. Follow them on Twitter @queeraslife