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If You Don’t Know, Err on the Side of “They”, and Other Pronoun Reflections

I was driving in the car sometime last year and I saw that a person in the next lane over was driving recklessly and cut off a few people in front of me.  I said to my daughter, who was 6 years old at the time and was in the back seat, “Wow, he really needs to slow down!”  She replied confidently, “They, Mama.  They really need to slow down.”  I knew instantly that she said this because the car was too far away for us to really see who was driving and she couldn’t determine if the person was a man or a woman.  Furthermore, even if we were closer to the driver and could see them plainly, there’s no way we would be able to know how they identify their gender.  It was a small, innocent comment I had made, but in that moment, I recognized that even I, someone who has studied gender, human sexuality, and culture throughout my life and career, need to be challenged sometimes to be mindful of my language.  As a cisgender woman with the privilege of being recognized easily in my gender expression, I always will have work to do.

Being challenged on my pronoun usage by a 6-year-old brought about a lot of thoughts and feelings for me.  After I was done being a proud mama, I thought about how it was that she was able to recognize this discrepancy in language at such a young age, while many people I know and work with continue to struggle with correcting themselves and others when it comes to pronouns.  When I was a child, no one taught me directly about when to use “he” or “she” to describe a person, it just was something that I picked up on.  Times have changed a great deal in the last few centuries, and even the last few decades.  The important thing that we need to recognize is that what has changed is not the identity of people (because transgender, intersex, non-binary, and cisgender people have always existed in history), but more so the language that the general public now has in challenging the binary system of what we think of as “male” and “female”.  There have always been people throughout history who have used gender neutral language, however, it was not always safe to use that language in the general public (and still is not always safe).  We cannot exist in this binary world.  Almost nothing in the world is binary, and gender is no exception.  I had one conversation with my daughter when she was about four years old and essentially said to her, “If you aren’t sure if someone identifies as a boy or a girl and you aren’t sure if that person likes to use “he” or “she” to describe themselves, just use “they” instead”.  The conversation went on to communicate that “Some people actually don’t think of themselves as either a boy or girl at all and prefer to always use “they/them” or other words to describe themselves, so the best thing to do is just ask the person what their pronouns are”.  It took only one conversation at an early age to make the switch in her mind and open up the possibilities.  It’s a simple concept: if you don’t know, err on the side of “they”.  People do this naturally in everyday language, but somehow it feels more difficult when someone is specifically labeling their own pronouns in a way that feels unexpected or unfamiliar.

I am a family therapist, and I work with many LGBTQ individuals, couples, and families.  I have worked with families in which one person has changed their pronouns and/or gender identity, and often this comes up in the therapy.  While some families show support through catching themselves, apologizing, and correcting themselves when they’ve used the wrong name or pronouns for their child, grandchild, or sibling, other families struggle to make the switch.  For some, it is difficult to make a conscious effort for this change because the pronouns their loved one used to use remind them of history, stories, photos, narratives, and they feel like something is being taken away and that everything needs to be re-written.  This can lead to intense feelings of grief that some are not ready to face.  Some people (especially families, teachers, and friends of children and teens who are transitioning) may believe that these new pronouns are a “phase”, and that they will “grow out of this stage”.  For others, using a loved one’s pronouns feels like a political or values statement and they do not know how to reconcile this internally or even with their religious or cultural institutions (who may have a lot to say about whether transgender or non-binary people even exist – a concept that feels threatening and invalidating to someone who has come out to their family).  In addition, some people might even support their loved one directly when they interact with them in person and use correct pronouns, but when they are in the company of others and their loved one isn’t around, they switch back to old pronouns because they do not know how to talk about it.  It can be a painful experience for people to go through this transition together.  At times, there can be cut-offs that lead to a lot of emotions frozen in time that are difficult to resolve.

Regardless of the reason, the pain that a person feels when they are misgendered, especially by people they care about, is immense and difficult to recover from without active work.  I would challenge those who struggle with making the switch to ask yourselves, “When was the last time that someone accidentally, or purposefully, misgendered or misnamed you? How did it feel? What were you compelled to do to get the other person to correct themselves?”  While some things have changed over time, gender continues to be one of the most significant parts of our personal identity, and certainly is the case in human interactions.  As a society, we need to do the work to release ourselves from the traps that have been set by society and culture to limit our gender expression.  If I was born 100 years ago, I would technically be in a “man’s profession” as a psychologist.  Thankfully, this type of change is possible, and so can our assumptions of how we think about gender expression and identity over time.  The most important things we can do to support our loved ones, colleagues, and friends is to listen and have the capacity to reflect on our own assumptions and accept other people’s truths and identities as fact; it’s not up for debate.  No one is perfect, but we cannot use that as a reason not to do better.  I highly recommend both individual and family or couple’s therapy as an avenue for processing these changes.  When you care about someone, you must do the work you need to do to be a support to them.  Afterall, if kids can rewire their brains to change their language, any adult can certainly do this, and these examples can be set for future generations on how to show up for the ones you love.  It is freeing to let go of what you think you know; give it a try.

Dr. Amanda Rios, Psy.D. 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment, PC 

[email protected]

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