After posting Pronouns 101 and Pronouns 102, I’ve been receiving more questions from readers! Thusfar, the questions I’ve had have been sort of aimed at how do I avoid misgendering people? Which is great, we love that! This is a question I get occasionally, though, and I’ve gotten it from a few different people both before and after I’ve been working on this series. I’ll paraphrase:
I’ve asked (my mom/my boss/my boyfriend/my friend) to use [pronouns] for me, but they just keep messing up. What can I do to make them get better at this?
Short answer: you can’t actually make anyone do anything. You can try and help them out, but ultimately you can’t control other peoples’ actions. You just have to decide how to respond.
That… sounds depressing. This post might be slightly depressing? I’m sorry in advance. I’m going to split into sections that are advice about how to cope, and sections that are my observations about the world based on research and experience, which might inform how you decide to proceed, but I can’t actually give you a step-by-step guide to how to do an impossible thing, so you can know this going in.
I’ll also note, most of my Pronouns 101 series has been aimed at well-meaning cis people and allies so far. This one isn’t. You can still read it if you’re a well-meaning cis ally, just be aware that this isn’t addressed to you, okay? I know it’s hard sometimes but I believe you can utilize your theory of other minds and stuff to make it still informative. Do not @ me though.
Observation 1: a lot of the time, sending a barrage of links and leaving them to it doesn’t go how you think it will
Is my mom going to read a whole book? Is she going to read all of these twenty articles and five podcasts I sent her? And if she does — is that going to fix the problem?
Like, maybe! But it’s not going to reliably fix everything, and it’s definitely not going to work right away. Just as an observation, I’ve seen plenty of people read the books and articles and listen to the podcasts (or, at least, say that they did) and still spend months to years messing up. Whatever is going on with pronouns, just being Aware Of Trans does not seem to reliably fix it.
Advice 1: share concise, curated vetted, practical resources
It’s totally okay to share materials to try and explain what you’re having a hard time putting into words. It’s true that many people seem to have this tendency to respect words that are in print, or come from an “official”-sounding source, rather than just take your word for it. My advice on what to send, though, is this:
- Try to narrow it down to 1–3 sources. Ideally, share one and let them ask you for more.
- Read or listen carefully through the sources before you share them. Make sure you’re sharing sources that you actually agree with!
- Aim more towards practical advice (“how to do better!”) rather than philosophical or ideological advice (“why you shouldn’t misgender your trans child” or whatever).
(Not to plug my own stuff — really, I don’t know if this is any better than other stuff that’s out there — but I’ve heard from a lot of people that my podcast guest spots on Lingthusiasm and Gender Reveal have been helpful towards this end. I also know of A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, which is exactly what it says on the tin.)
Observation 2: if someone is chronically misgendering me, they are also chronically crossing other boundaries I have
I have a difficult time writing these essays without getting personal. But, hypothetically, let’s say I have a friend who came out to their parents as trans. Binary trans, even! She asked her parents to use her chosen name, and to use she/her pronouns to refer to her. Unfortunately, her parents so far (after a couple years now) seem to suck at this. They “mess up” on the phone a lot, even when talking directly to her. Her sibling says that they don’t even really try when she’s out of earshot.
Her parents also do other stuff, though — the pronouns and name issue are part of a larger pattern. If she doesn’t answer a phone call, they text her over and over again, escalating in urgency and guilt and shame until she gives in and drops whatever she’s doing to call back. When they’re in town to visit her, they criticize whatever she orders when they take her out for a meal, telling her that her body size is unhealthy even though she’s asked them to stop talking about this. They comment on all her partner’s facebook posts as a way to try and get her to call them back. They openly talk in front of her about how disappointed they are with her career, even though she really likes her job.
That’s, like, woah. That’s not just pronouns, huh? The pronouns are one thing among many, the unifying theme being this: we know you better than you know yourself. We know better than you what’s good for you. When you resist our advice or contact with us, it’s selfish and disrespectful. You have no right to make choices we don’t approve of.
The pronouns are one thing among many, the unifying theme being this: we know you better than you know yourself. We know better than you what’s good for you. When you resist our advice or contact with us, it’s selfish and disrespectful. You have no right to make choices we don’t approve of.
Advice 2: be observant and alert about your feelings and boundaries
If someone is chronically misgendering you, and you’ve asked them more than once, directly (no hinting!), and they have agreed to try, and they’re still doing it — that might feel like a boundary violation. It might feel similar to me asking someone to please not bring a dog into my house because I’m allergic. It’s my house? Your apologies don’t make my anaphylaxis go away? The fact that I have had to ask more than once seems really unreasonable?
My advice here is to pay attention to any gut feelings you have about why the pronoun thing feels so painful or annoying. If the feeling of hurt is really different when a total stranger misgenders you, versus someone whom you’ve asked multiple times, then that tells you that the problem might actually be that you have asked multiple times!
There are lots of good resources about how to learn your own boundaries, how to communicate them to others, and how to protect them when others don’t respect your stated boundaries. Here’s a couple good guides that I’ve liked, one from Healthline, and another on Psychology Today that’s nice and concise, but there’s many many more out there. This is also something you can absolutely work on in therapy contexts, if that’s something you’re into.
My other advice is to approach pronouns and misgendering with the same attitude as I approach my other boundaries: I have to state the boundary, I have to clearly explain the parameters, and I have to enforce the boundary. That sometimes means that if someone chronically keeps using the wrong pronouns for me, despite me asking over and over for them to stop, I spend less time with them, or distance myself from them in other ways. That’s to protect me from harm, not to “punish” them or set an ultimatum.
This is especially difficult in relationships that are very entangled (parents whose health insurance I’m on?) or have asymmetric power (my supervisor?). It isn’t always possible to enforce perfect boundaries even if you’re really trying, in those situations — but you can still try, and you should still be aware of when the hurt of misgendering is actually a hurt of having your boundaries violated repeatedly.
Observation 3: sometimes people interpret attempts to enforce boundaries as attempts to control their actions
One thing that is utterly bizarre to me is when the family or loved one of a trans person claims that the person’s requests to please stop misgendering them are “controlling” or (as I have been called!) “fascist” or an imposition on their “free speech.” Why is this bizarre? Well, like, frankly, no one’s going to arrest my dad for misgendering me. No one’s going to even stop publishing my senior colleagues who misgender me in print. The only consequences for someone misgendering me are that I will like that person less, and trust them less, and tell them that I like and trust them less.
These consequences — for ignoring my repeatedly-stated boundaries, not for doing something “un-PC” — are incredibly mild interpersonal consequences. But chronic misgenderers really like to claim that we (the chronically misgendered) are exerting some kind of extreme social control over them. It’s weird! It’s also oddly similar to behavior patterns common in certain other types of unhealthy relationships, which is an important point to connect to the issue above. Chronic misgenderers, for some totally random reason, really often seem to also be chronically ignorant of others’ boundaries. (I say ‘ignorant’ here because I’m politely assuming that chronic misgenderers aren’t being intentionally abusive. This is a really polite assumption that I’d like to maintain, for the sake of not getting yelled at online right now.)
What on earth do you do, as a chronically-misgendered person, to combat this?
Advice 3: don’t tell people what to do, just tell them how their actions make you feel
I hate to say it, but the most strategic defense here is I-statements.
Instead of: “You have to stop calling me ‘she,’ I’m not a girl!”
I am trying this: “Whenever you call me ‘she,’ I feel alienated and distanced from you. It makes me really hesitant to answer your phone calls, because talking to you consistently makes me feel depressed.”
And then….. I don’t answer their fucking phone calls.
This obviously depends on context and the type of relationship. For professional colleagues who chronically misgender me, I have had to take a more professional version of this.
Instead of: “Please don’t call me ‘she’ in front of our students”
I tried: “When you use different pronouns for me than the ones I’ve asked students to use for me, I worry they’ll get confused. I am going to need to clarify for the students what’s going on in writing, so that they can refer to me politely when they’re talking with you.”
Not all of this worked. In many cases, this didn’t actually change the person’s behavior. What instead happened was that I told the person my intended action, and then carried out my action as intended. My own actions are the only ones I have control over, and because I ‘warned’ them well ahead of time, they weren’t able to claim that I was acting inappropriately or erratically. (Or, well, they might claim that, but no one has listened, to my knowledge.)
Observation 4: I have a really different feeling about being misgendered now than I did for the first five years I was out and transing. It’s really context-dependent.
This is a common feeling that I hear from a lot of people who get misgendered often!
For me personally, I feel really different being misgendered by strangers versus being misgendered by people who know me personally. Fascinatingly, my opinions have actually switched from what they were five years ago.
My feelings back then were like: okay, I get that my parents have been calling me ‘she’ their whole lives, and it totally makes sense that it’s hard for them to change. What really rattles my gasket is when people who have just met me presume to call me ‘she,’ because they have no history of knowing me as an excuse! Like, come on!
My feelings nowadays are more like: okay, I get that randxs on the street are just sort of trying their best, and they only have so many linguistic strategies at their disposal. I think it’s cool and surprising when a stranger randomly guesses correctly for once, but I get that they’re just guessing, and have no other info to go off of. What REALLY rattles my gasket is when my family, who I’ve been fighting for years about this pronouns thing, keep “””messing up””” in front of me — do they have any idea how frequent these “”little mistakes”” are? Like, come on!
Both of these are extremely reasonable opinions! I’ve heard some variation of both from a lot of people — and some version of contextually-dependent hurt feelings that’s also orthogonal to these. (Examples: “it’s only misgendering if a cis person calls me that” or “it’s not EXACTLY misgendering, I do use multiple sets of pronouns, it just feels weird and bad that everyone defaults to that one” and various other versions of this.)
But, like, okay, these feelings might be kind of complicated or messy and hard to explain, especially to people who are already just kind of baseline not getting it, right? So how much do you try to explain, and how do you talk about it?
Advice 4: pick your battles. Expect that it will change over time
Well, first thing’s first: you don’t have to explain every contour of your feelings about your gender! Explain only what is relevant to the conversation you’re trying to have, and the person you’re trying to have it with.
This is also a point where you want to decide how important it is to have this conversation with a particular person. In the scenarios I talked about above, where I get misgendered by strangers, do I decide to have a whole heart-to-heart with every single diner hostess and barista and bus driver I encounter in my day? God no, that would get exhausting. It’s kind of a personal and intimate conversation to have with someone!
But there’s a fuzzy area that’s Not Total Strangers and also Not Your Bosom Buddies — classmates, neighbors, the person who takes the same bus as me so often that we’ve started making small-talk — where it does make sense to start thinking about whether it would be worth it to try and have The Pronouns Talk with them. That’s a decision that has to be made on a case-by-case basis, and it’s okay to start extremely small. Example:
Classmate to the instructor as I’m getting settled: “Oh, he’s turned the paper in already, it’s on your desk there.”
Me: “Oh, sorry, it’s ‘they,’ not ‘he.’”
(This is an alarming and nerve-wracking thing to have to do, especially the first many times you do it. I’m sorry. I promise you build up a callous there eventually.) My classmate may respond, like, “Oh, sorry, okay,” and not say anything further about it. They may not respond at all. Various things may happen.
Point is — there’s not a specific rule I can give you to decide when you want to try and talk pronouns with someone, but it’s really okay and in fact a stellar idea to be strategic about when you do it. Protect your energy, be polite but straightforward, don’t blame yourself for not speaking up or letting some things go from time to time. It’s not implicit permission for them to misgender you again in the future — it’s you taking care of yourself. That’s important.
Observation 5: your feelings are real. The feelings usually run deeper than the pronouns — the pronouns are a symbol of something else that’s really wrong.
Do you notice that sometimes, when certain people misgender you, you feel WAY more reactive? Do you feel angry, despondent, worthless, or go completely numb and vacant?
That is important information. That information might be your body or your heart telling you that this relationship is important to you, and it hurts more to be misunderstood or have your agency and autonomy ignored. That information might be telling you the opposite — that this relationship is a cage, that you feel trapped in this situation where this person is apparently hell-bent on single-handedly papercutting you to death.
Those reactions often, in my experience, come up when there’s stuff going on that has nothing to do with pronouns. When I’ve been really really sensitive to misgendering in a relationship, it’s often been relationships where my feelings are less important to the other person, or where they feel a strong entitlement to control the direction of the relationship regardless of my wishes. Those have been family, romantic, friendship, and professional relationships, by the way — there’s no rule that only certain kinds of relationships can be unhealthy in that way. The times when I felt most reactive and unstable have been times when I felt like I was dependent on the person, materially or otherwise.
Either way, noticing your emotions and reactions is really important. Pay attention to those feelings.
Advice 5: Honoring your feelings is the best way through. Sometimes you’ll have to cut your losses. No one but you can know when that’s necessary, though
Notice above I’m carefully not using certain words; I’m not using the word “abuse,” or the word “toxic.” That’s because those (and many other) words get tied up in a lot of cultural baggage about what “counts” as abuse, or what “qualifies” as a toxic relationship.
Here’s the thing, though. In a better world, no one will stay in any kind of relationship that they don’t want to be in. Not work relationships, not romantic relationships, not family relationships. People should be connected because they want to be connected, not because of some external forces (guilt, obligation, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, etc.).
If interacting with someone makes you feel like shit, routinely, no matter what you do, you might need to bail. Let me quote unto you the philosopher dasharez0ne:
“IF IT SUCKS… HIT DA BRICKS!! real winners quit”
— da share z0ne
This wisdom is, basically, that you’re allowed to bail on people who chronically don’t honor your boundaries and your autonomy and your right to self-determination. Bailing might be painful, but you’re allowed to bail, is my point. You are the only and final arbiter of who you talk to, who you invest time and mental energy in.
Or, like, well, sort of. Because capitalism is still a thing. If you can safely bail, without threatening your access to healthcare or housing, I guess. You know your needs best.
Am I telling you to just go ahead and like estrange your whole birth family right this week because they messed your pronouns up one to many times? No, that’s not my call! What I’m saying, though, is that this is a real and honest boundary that you get to protect, and it’s morally COMPLETELY FINE to cut people off who are trampling on it over and over again. It’s an option you’re allowed to consider. It’s even an option you’re allowed to tell them about (though, as I said above, I recommend doing it via I-statements as a way of stating a boundary directly). The point is, pay attention to how you feel, and what makes you feel that way, and make actions based on the needs your feelings are telling you about.
Conclusion: Woo this got a little heavy.
Yeah, sorry! Shoot.
Here’s the tl;dr:
- You can’t actually make someone stop misgendering you.
- If someone’s misgendering you over and over, usually the problem isn’t the pronouns/gender, there’s some basic rift going on. It may or may not be fixable.
- You get to learn to set and enforce strong boundaries, and put your time and energy into people who get you and treat you well!
Here’s the good news:
- lots and lots of people out there won’t misgender you. With some time and interpersonal communication and some turnover in your social circle, you absolutely can get to a point where it basically never happens.
- lots and lots of people will get better over time, with practice. Hopefully they can do that practice not in front of you, because they care about your feelings and don’t want to inflict that on you.
- you will feel different stuff over time. The longer you’re here on this space rock with us, the more chances you get to be pleasantly surprised by things being easy and fun and cool. I hope you get lots and lots of those chances!
Thanks for reading!
If you’d like to read more of my writing about pronouns, you might like my other posts on medium!
- a VERY SHORT primer that is aimed at how to do the absolute minimum when you use pronouns about anyone!
- pronouns 101 and pronouns 102 are guides for people who want to get better at using the right pronouns for someone!
- a very short post on why it’s not okay to pressure someone to share their pronouns
- what to do if YOU want to try new pronouns, but aren’t sure you’re trans
- a post about what’s going on when someone uses multiple pronouns