How can I help my family accept my partner?
November 26, 2011 8:36 AM   Subscribe

My family refuses to use the correct pronouns for my partner. What is the best way to approach this?

My girlfriend Jamie and I have been dating for about six months. My family lives out of state, and they have not met her yet. I am early-20's female, and she is as well.

She was born male and is in the early stages of her transition. When referring to her, I use exclusively female pronouns, because this is how she identifies. However, my family (most adamantly, my mother and brother) continue to refer to my partner using male pronouns.

I have tried talking to them about it, and they have expressed that it is just confusing for them, and they will try to remember, but "it's not that big of a deal." I generally correct them when they refer to her as male, and they tend to get very frustrated at my "nitpicking."

I want my girlfriend to meet my family, but I know that it will be hurtful for her if she feels that they don't accept her. How can I bridge the gap between our world and theirs, and make them understand that it is, in fact, "a big deal?"
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (51 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it's likely not the answer you want to hear, but you can't make someone do something. The best you can do is to continually remind your family of your (and presumably your girlfriend's) preference. Whether they actually accede to your preferences is another question entirely.
posted by dfriedman at 8:38 AM on November 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

"You don't get to decide when I'm offended. It is a big deal. Why do you refuse to at least act sorry when you do something that I have told you hurts me?"
posted by Etrigan at 8:39 AM on November 26, 2011 [51 favorites]

Trying using the wrong gender pronouns to refer to your family members so that they can see how annoying it is?
posted by chaiminda at 8:44 AM on November 26, 2011 [18 favorites]

Use the wrong pronoun and/or wrong name when referring to or talking to them. When they complain, shrug and say "It's not a big deal." They're not going to get the point until they experience the problem.

Doing this will not please them, but could get the point across.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:44 AM on November 26, 2011 [11 favorites]

How far are you willing to go to get them to use the correct pronouns?

You say that you generally correct them - what about correcting them every single time? What about ending the conversation and hanging up the phone if they continue to refer to your partner with male pronouns? That would certainly send a strong message that they NEED to use the right pronouns, and it's not just nitpicking.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:45 AM on November 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

This might be a generational and/or regional issue, but you will eventually need to put your foot down about it. It's not cool, and yes, it is a big deal. How this works is that you stand up to them and refuse to back down. Their annoyance is a small price to pay for a little respect.
posted by Gilbert at 8:47 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Whenever they refer to 'him' or 'his' or 'he', look at them with a deeply puzzled expression and ask "Him who? who are you talking about?" Always be pleasant but confused as to who they're talking about.
posted by easily confused at 8:48 AM on November 26, 2011 [27 favorites]

Immediately end the conversation by walking out or hanging up the phone whenever they do it. Explain why only the first time.
posted by The World Famous at 8:53 AM on November 26, 2011 [26 favorites]

This probably depends on the kind of people they are, but if they are merely ignorant of why this is offensive but without real malice, it may actually help if your girlfriend meets them and she corrects them firmly but politely, if they refer to her with the wrong pronoun. It's hard to explain but they may need to actually meet her face to face in order to grok that this isn't just an abstract concept or a nitpicky detail, it involves offending/being rude to an actual person.

Obviously this probably won't work if you suspect they're doing it on purpose because they refuse to accept the idea of a male person transitioning into a female person, or something like that.
posted by katyggls at 8:59 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't make it a battle. Your family is 95% of the way there since they are still talking to you and are willing to talk about your partner and I presume meet them. Gentle reminders and understanding. It's not a battle and it's not a war. It's family life.

Also, actually meeting your partner might go a long way toward correcting this issue.
posted by srboisvert at 9:00 AM on November 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

I have a FTM child whom I still refer to as "she" and by her birth name because she hasn't begun her transition yet (lack of funds mostly). Askme here..

In my opinion, I think people are *being too hard* on others when they demand this sudden change in pronoun usage.

If your family has never met your partner, the change in pronouns will be easier for them after they meet her. But you and your partner also need to to accept the fact that it is difficult for some people to wrap their minds around the fact that "he" has become "she" and they are not being hurtful or not accepting, they simply haven't processed the language. Punishing them is simply making the matter worse.
posted by patheral at 9:05 AM on November 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

In these sorts of circumstances, I believe Dan Savage has suggested cutting off contact until they change their behavior, as it is both rude to your girlfriend and personally hurtful to you, in a way that they refuse to acknowledge.

If you cut off visits/phone calls etc. until they agreed to make a good faith effort to use the correct pronouns, only you would have an idea of how that would resolve itself.
posted by andoatnp at 9:07 AM on November 26, 2011

If they haven't met her yet, and you've only been dating for six months, then have they EVER heard you refer to Jamie with the incorrect pronouns?

If they haven't, and you've only ever used female pronouns when you speak to your family, then they're being deliberately hurtful and they can fuck off. There's no being understanding with them. Cut them down. Be harsh. Show them you mean business.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:19 AM on November 26, 2011 [42 favorites]

Your parents never knew Jaime when she used male pronouns, correct? So this isn't confusing or whatever because they have to remember now to use he. You're not asking your family to use any of the multiple weird sets of made up pronouns (which I will use when asked, but it's really hard work to do that; on the other hand, I don't have trouble being told which set of typical pronouns to use for someone I have never met).

I'd do a stepped approach. Start by correcting them every time. If that doesn't work, you can start referring to them by the wrong pronouns -- this I'd do based on knowing my family, because it's rude in a way the other options aren't, but it has the chance of being very effective. Then end the conversations the first time they use the wrong pronoun. This means you have to hang up the phone or walk away from them every time.

Does your partner know this is a problem? If so, she should be the one to decide whether she wants to meet them knowing they may use the wrong pronouns.
posted by jeather at 9:20 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well of course cutting off contact is an option. But to be honest, I think that's unlikely to actually get you what you want, which is your family respecting your girlfriend and having them meet her, and having a good relationship with your family and your girlfriend. Cutting off contact is way more likely, in my opinion, to just make them that much more entrenched in the idea that you are so unreasonable and nitpicky. Not that you are, but that's probably what they'll think. People just rarely react well to the nuclear option.

No disrespect to Dan Savage, and I fully agree there are some circumstances where cutting off contact is necessary, this doesn't seem like one of them, from what the OP has told us. Unless the OP suspects that they are purposely trying to be hurtful and disrespectful instead of just really failing to understand why this is important.
posted by katyggls at 9:20 AM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Patheral, I don't think this is a 'sudden' change as much it is just 'a change' from the norm. The OP and her girlfriend have only been dating 6 months.

Katyggls, failing to understand why this is important is hurtful and disrespectful.

If a friend or family member corrected me, I'd feel awful (and stupid) and never let it happen again. Your family's lack of respectfulness doesn't seem to stem from forgetfulness as much as it does ignorance and carelessness.

If they have no interest in correcting their behavior, even if only in your presence, I would do the drastic thing of cutting them off from my life until they learned to behave themselves and start giving a shit about the circumstances of my girlfriend's probably-already-a-rollercoaster transition. She needs support, not having to worry about what your folks think of her.
posted by june made him a gemini at 9:23 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

You didn't say what you self-identify as. Do you consider yourself to be a lesbian? If so, is this issue one of your family not quite there yet or in denial of your sexual orientation? It sounds like the only way they'd know Jamie was MTF is if you told them, so you may have accidentally shot yourself in the foot. They may also be deliberate about referring to Jamie as male to try and reinforce the singularly-acceptable (to them) of the female-male relationship model, or deliberately calling Jamie "he" in order to NOT meet him. Think about their motivations before cutting them off or endlessly correcting them.
posted by juniperesque at 9:30 AM on November 26, 2011 [12 favorites]

Worrying about what your SO's family thinks of you is not specific to anybody, it's pretty universal and a darned good reason to want to make this work out. Cutting off contact seems to me to be both incredibly harsh and ultimately self-defeating. Also, this is a six-month-long girlfriend, not a six-year-long spouse. Give 'em some time and some encouragement and yes, put a face to the name.
posted by thinkpiece at 9:32 AM on November 26, 2011

If you are a lesbian, I think that's what's most likely underlying this. PFLAG meetings made all the difference with my parents, both in accepting my sexuality (I'm bi), and the sexuality/gender of others. You can't drag them to a meeting, but you can point them to the website. Here's a (long) PDF about accepting transgendered family and friends.
posted by desjardins at 9:43 AM on November 26, 2011

Another thought - does Jamie pass as female? Can you send your family a picture of the two of you?
posted by desjardins at 9:45 AM on November 26, 2011

You may have to decide at some point what's more important: Your family or the pronoun.

While it's nice to live in a progressive environment, you also have to realize that what you're asking your family to do is a pretty huge 180, a total inversion of every other case they've ever seen in their lives. So part of this may be habit, some of it may be discomfort.

Nevertheless, you might have a family that has no interest in becoming this progressive or accommodating. Does this make them lesser people? Ehhh, maybe. Does it warrant cutting them out of your life? I don't think so. It may be that you just have to grit your teeth and love them for who they are. If they haven't been so drastic as to say "You can never bring your gay life partner into our home!" I can't see turning around and saying "We're never talking to you again until you get your pronouns in order".
posted by GilloD at 9:49 AM on November 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you've always used female pronouns, then how did your family ever come up with the usage of male pronouns? Out of thin air?
posted by maurreen at 9:49 AM on November 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

I would definitely suggest against using incorrect pronouns in reference to other people your family is talking about. In my head, I can see that transpiring in such a way to where you look childish (they'll know what you're trying to do, and it won't affect them because it just isn't the same), and your point will not be made. I'm in all-favour of what 'The World Famous' suggested: to walk out or remove yourself from the conversation whenever they use the incorrect pronoun purposefully. This gets the point across and informs everyone in the room that you will not tolerate such offensive gestures. If they believe you're being too sensitive - well, that's not really their decision to make. That's yours.
posted by Evernix at 9:55 AM on November 26, 2011

Yeah, something about this seems to be about more than "forgetting". I have occasionally slipped up and referred to Chaz Bono as "she", because I'm old enough to remember when he was a little girl, being brought out onstage at the end of the Sonny and Cher show. (Although now that I've seen him fully transitioned on Dancing With The Stars, I haven't slipped up since.) But your parents don't have any history with your girlfriend, so I think there's something more to it. Perhaps your parents don't admit to any of their friends that you are gay/bi, and so they use the male pronoun when speaking to their friends about your relationship? And then when they talk to you, they're so used to using male pronouns, they forget to switch to female. I would ask them about this.

No matter how progressive you are intellectually, it's sometimes still tricky to process when it happens within your own family.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:01 AM on November 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

"It's important to me. It's important to her. It's important to us. I don't have to justify why, just like I don't have to justify my love for her, or my love for you. You don't get to decide which names or which words to use to refer to my partner, she does; that is her right as a person. And if you continue to use the wrong words, I can only assume that you want to hurt me, hurt her and hurt us. And I won't be around people who want to hurt us. This is important, and if you forget again I will delete your email, hang up the phone, or walk out the door because it is that important. Do you understand?"

And be prepared to follow through.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:06 AM on November 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I don't have experience with this particular family problem. I would only note in reading this thread that it's worth remembering that you came to this question asking for ways to "bridge the gap." Much of the advice given here doesn't address that; instead, people are suggesting ways to get your family to "come around." Those are two different things, and I'd suggest to you that it's usually much easier—and a more-often successful proposition—to meet people halfway than it is to coax, coerce, or bludgeon others into seeing the world through your lens. Figure out what's most important and prioritize that (a happy relationship with your entire family, partner and all?) and then work on how to achieve your secondary priorities without rocking that boat so hard and so fast that it capsizes.

I don't think your problem needs to be formulated as an "either/or" proposition. You didn't phrase it that way: Your question, at least to me, reads as if you're seeking a holistic solution. There might be merit to suggesting that you mock family members in fire-with-fire fashion (e.g., use the wrong pronouns for them), or that you lay down an ultimatum, but I'd gently note that those tactics don't seem to jibe with the angle of advice you requested. I'd just keep that in mind, is all. Good luck and happy holidays.
posted by red clover at 10:17 AM on November 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

"You don't get to decide when I'm offended. It is a big deal. Why do you refuse to at least act sorry when you do something that I have told you hurts me?"

I had this fight a few times over an ex who was transitioning, and boy do I wish this is the approach I had taken.

Now, I'd add that that includes taking people at their word when they say they're trying to get it right. Even if it looks like they're not trying, you may as well assume that they are, because it lets you frame things in a less "fuck you" sort of way and it keeps you from getting into an argument with someone about their mental state. (People don't like being told what they're thinking; and, really, you aren't going to change their mind.)

I think the right message here is, "Look, how would you feel if I kept forgetting your name or your birthday? That's how PARTNER and I feel when you forget her gender."
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:25 AM on November 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

There's always the tactic of explaining to them that they will look like idiots to everyone else if they keep it up. Suppose you invite them to some event/gathering where your and Jamie's friends will be there. Everyone's going to be looking at your family like 'Who are these jerks who can't get with the program?'

I think, though, that it's important that you ask your girlfriend what she thinks you should do. Your family's behaviour poses a problem for both of you, but in different ways. Presumably Jamie would like to meet your family, but it perhaps doesn't feel like a rejection to her in the way it does to you--she doesn't know them after all. Maybe she feels its a priority to meet them at least once, even if that means grinning and bearing pronouns. Maybe that sounds like complete torture and she'd rather avoid them altogether. Maybe inviting them to an event like in the first paragraph, where there's group pressure on them to be polite, is the way to go.
posted by hoyland at 10:47 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

As others have stated, there are multiple routes you can go with this. You can try to continue to be polite, maybe only correct them every now and then... but that usually gets you nowhere. The ONLY way I could get some people to swap over was by being an obnoxious jerk about my pronoun usage. I misgendered them, I corrected them every single time, one of my allies would lightly hit his friends every time they fucked up etc.

It's such a simple thing to do and anyone that gets all "oh but it's so hard" really needs to check their privilege and transphobia. It's not hard. It's respectful. You don't do shit like this to non-trans people, so don't do it to us. This doesn't mean you can't slip up ever, that's understandable... it's the complete resistance to change at all until some arbitrary criteria has been met that is ridiculous. My family jerked me around for a year because my name/gender wasn't legally changed yet, I wasn't on hormones yet, I'd only been on hormones X months, etc. Don't make excuses for yourselves, just try harder to change over. A lot of people who whined about how hard it was to change pronouns/names for me a year ago now barely remember my old name and have apologized for their behaviour.

As a sidenote, my little sister (who is 16) has been standing up for me with my uncle (who has failed to change pronouns yet). They got into an argument about something completely unrelated and my uncle gave her a lecture about respecting "me and your sister". My sister, all puffed up in anger, shouted back "you mean my brother!!!". It was incredibly awesome to hear her do that, even when she was so upset about her own situation. Since then, he has called me by my chosen name very consistently (progress!). Sometimes you need to be disagreeable and argumentative to get the point across.

Anyway, OP, I think you've been given a lot of awesome tactics in this thread. I wanted to thank you for fighting this fight with your family. It means a lot to know there are allies out there.

And I would not advise Jamie meeting your parents right now. I don't see how that's going to do anything good for their relationship as they'll likely be seeking justification of their preconceptions ("oh look at that manly jawline, who are they trying to kid?" and other hurtful comments). If your family doesn't respect your girlfriend, save your girlfriend the trouble of having to deal with their bigotry. In my mind, this parallels with bringing a partner who is a person of colour to meet your parents who are casually racist. Just... no. (Obviously this is her decision moreso than the internet's, but as a trans person I would be so unbelievably uncomfortable to meet my SO's parents and have them call me the wrong pronouns the entire time.)
posted by buteo at 11:04 AM on November 26, 2011 [14 favorites]

I agree with buteo that it doesn't make sense to even try to have your girlfriend meet your family so long as they insist on resisting correct pronouns. Their behavior is even more insulting/puzzling since they never knew your girlfriend before yet because you said she's transgendered they are still refusing to use her preferred pronouns.

You're not nitpicking, you're not "making a big deal" of it, you're being respectful and above all correct! With regards to transitioning, I like to repeat what my boyfriend has said: transitioning is something that happens over a period of years and it's not okay to say someone hasn't transitioned just because they haven't started hormones or they haven't had surgery. If your girlfriend is presenting as female, then female pronouns apply to her.

I don't honestly think that calling your family by the wrong gender is going to get the message across here. They need to be more up front about why they refuse to call your girlfriend "she" and "her." I suspect there's something more than "it's just too hard."
posted by Wuggie Norple at 11:27 AM on November 26, 2011

It's important to make the distinction between supportive with accidental slip-ups and unsupportive, intentional jerk behavior.

I have a friend who's made this transition. I'm totally supportive, because it makes her happy to live life with her chosen gender identity. I always get her name correct. I get the pronouns correct mostly, but sometimes I booger it up. It's not an insult; it's not a lack of support - it's a screw up on my part and I try to get it correct.

Once they meet, you'll know what you're dealing with in terms of support. After meeting someone it's much easier to keep the gender pronouns correct. They go from being a theoretical transgender person to a real person. It all gets much easier when they meet she as a she.

Let your partner know they you support her even if your family does not. Then let them meet and see if it sorts itself out. You may be pleasantly surprised. If not, then you can consider non-contact options.
posted by 26.2 at 11:28 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

How much does your family know about trans stuff? Probably not a lot. Even some of my queer friends in San Francisco are pretty uneducated/uninformed, which helps foster insensitivity about pronouns and other stuff (or maybe, education and information can breed sensitivity in people who are generally caring and well-meaning.)

Can you give them some good basic resources about this stuff? (I wish I could suggest some, but I can't think of anything. A friend of mine is working on a free downloadable e-book, partly because that niche needs to be filled, but it won't be done until January.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:38 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I meant to add a link to this book: Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones. Unfortunately it is out of print and a 3rd edition may or may not be forthcoming, but you might be able to find it in a library or the library of your local GLBT center.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 11:48 AM on November 26, 2011

insert "I'm woman who changed sex 25 years ago...blah blah blah... disclaimer here

It is a big deal I can assure you. And almost certainly, when your parent's do this it is hurting your girlfriend. Probably more than you can relate to , possibly more than she wants to tell you about. How your deal with that hurt will, to a large degree, determine the future prospects of your relationship. Man up. Have a nice to the point conversation with your parents about this behavior and what is going to mean to your future dealings with them Either you're a couple , partners in life and you stand up for each other - or you're not.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 11:49 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

It may seem tempting to introduce your girlfriend to your family in order to bring them around to respecting her as the woman that she is. Please do not do this (unless it is your girlfriend's idea and she knows what she is getting in to). If you introduce your girlfriend to your family now, while they are still intentionally disrespecting her gender identity, it will poison the relationship that she may have with them in the future. You mention that you know that their willful misgendering of your girlfriend will be hurtful to her. As someone who is beginning her transition, I'm sure she has enough hurtful comments going on in her life right now. She will remember each and every one of these hurtful comments and who they came from. Years down the road, you (and she) do not want a primary part of her mental association with your family to be the hurtful comments that they made before they came around to respecting her as a woman and as your girlfriend. This is something that you need to deal with before introducing them.

Perhaps instead of just correcting them and allowing them to deflect, have an extended conversation on the subject. Don't have the conversation just after they use an incorrect pronoun, initiate it yourself at a time when you are able to talk for awhile (in person if possible, but if you won't be seeing them for awhile, do it on the phone ASAP).

A starting point: "Hey family, I love and respect you guys. Of course, you are an important part of my life and I want to share other important parts of my life with you. I assume that you also want me to share important parts of my life with you. My relationship with Jamie is an increasingly important part of my life. I [love/care deeply for] Jamie and I know that you all will get along great with her. I'd love to introduce you to her and bring her to family functions, but I can't do that if you continue to ignore her identity as a woman. I know that you aren't terribly used to interacting with trans people, and that's okay. I don't expect you to accept this concept seamlessly, but I do expect you to try. I know that you don't think it's a huge deal to use the wrong pronouns for Jamie, but for you to deny her identity is a huge deal to me and to her. I'd love to see you all getting along as well as I know you can, but I am not going to bring Jamie into what will be a hurtful situation for her if you continue to disrespect her identity. She is a woman. She identifies as a woman. It may be a hard pill for you and many others to swallow, but I need you to try. Can you agree to try to respect Jamie as a woman and as my girlfriend? I know this is all a little confusing, so I got together some resources with information about trans issues. There's a lot more info out there. Please ask me any questions that you have about any of this—I want to help you to understand and to accept my relationship."

Do you have some trans 101-type resources to give them? If not, memail me, I'll find some for you.
posted by cheerwine at 12:02 PM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I think it's childishly cruel to persist in using the wrong pronouns. I've had people in my life do this to someone - not me - because they resented the transition and felt that only someone who was not a serious, grown-up person would want to do something as frivolous, degenerate and ridiculous as transition. They very clearly "slipped" with the pronouns as a way of showing that they did not accept the transition. (And I've occasionally misgendered friends during the transition process - I know it can happen no matter how supportive you are consciously trying to be. But persistent misgendering is a disgrace.)

I have had some success with praise, though it killed me to do so. When they used the correct pronouns the first time, I gave a big speech about how great it was that they were doing this thing, and a lot of people unlike them were just mean old sticks-in-the-mud who wouldn't care enough to use the right pronouns. And repeated shorter versions of that speech at intervals until now we mostly get the right pronouns and I think the underlying attitude has changed.

I do not, personally, think that someone should be handed a big fat cookie just for not being a transphobic jackass, so it annoyed me no end to be doling them out. But I was not in a social position with these people to tell them what to do.
posted by Frowner at 12:08 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

What Buteo and Poet_Lariat said so hard!

There's a big distinction that I think some people in this thread are missing between folks who have a hard time switching when someone they're close to transitions (they still need to fix it right away, but it's somewhat understandable), and what your parents seem to be doing, which is apparently asserting that they get to decide what a trans person's "real" gender is. As you describe the situation, I don't think they're forgetting, I think they're asserting "yeah, but not really" about your partner being female.

I really suggest you don't expose your girlfriend to that. This is ugly, and I hope your folks are better than this, but there's a way some people have of looking at trans women especially where they're sort of looking for signs of maleness. The pronoun thing makes me think your family will be doing that hard. It's already tough to meet a partner's family, don't make her be the bigger person over something so hurtful at the same time. Consider also that their behavior might out her in a public situation.

I think it might be a bigger issue than this relationship - what does this say about your family's respect for your sexuality? If you two marry in a state where you don't have full marriage rights will they correct you when you say you're married (people have done this to me)? It is a basic facet of respect for other people to use the terms they give us for themselves and their relationships, not to size them up and make our own judgements. This suggests your parents might not be there yet with you, not just with your partner.

If I were you I would not misgender them, but I would never let it slide. I would correct them every single time, and I would express to them how sad it was that I couldn't introduce Jamie to them because they couldn't be trusted to behave respectfully. I would also limit the amount of time I spent with them myself, for my own sanity and to demonstrate that I didn't feel comfortable with their attempts to overide reality. I don't believe there's any middleground, and there's no education to be done here, not at this point. It's an issue of manners and respect for other adults self-determination.

Good luck, please feel free to memail me and I'll tell you more about where I'm coming from.
posted by crabintheocean at 12:14 PM on November 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

If they truly are honestly just spacing out, I think that meeting your girlfriend will help solidify who she is in their minds, and put everything into proper context for them. I would give them the benefit of the doubt until they meet. If, once they meet, they still call her with the wrong pronoun, then it would seem that it goes a bit deeper, and then I would start taking some of the stronger advice mentioned above.
posted by Vaike at 12:46 PM on November 26, 2011

It doesn't cost them anything to get it right. But its expensive everytime they get it wrong. You lose respect for them each time they get it wrong, and it drives a wedge between you.

I think you could just tell them that.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:21 PM on November 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

I believe Dan Savage has suggested cutting off contact until they change their behavior, as it is both rude to your girlfriend and personally hurtful to you

As someone who has dated two transpeople long-term, this is a horrible idea. Both transpeople broke up with me and guess what? My family didn't break up with me. They're still around. Said transpeople aren't. Everyone is sure their relationships are going to be forever, but in reality it ain't often so. Don't cut off relations with your family.

My parents are crazy-religious, and my mother still tells me every year I'm going to hell. However, she did come around to pronouns on the transpeople I was dating with constant reminding. Just keep gently and politely correcting your parents. If they complain about nitpicking, just ignore it.

What I hear you saying here without actually saying it is that you love your girlfriend and you want to protect her from an often cruel and unfair world. You *cannot* do this. The desire to do so is important to a respectful relationship, in my opinion, but if you actually start protecting her from reality, that's going to be bad for both of you.

She will experience prejudice, and more than that, ignorance and confusion. People often engage in magical thinking: this person feels female/male/whatever, so everyone else will automatically see them as they see themselves (or as I see them). Your parents are old. I'm not saying your mental faculties automatically fail as you get older, just that previous generations (and often newer generations) have no experience with this. They're acting on subconscious cues (this person has a strong forehead, five o'clock shadow, whatever) or prejudice that's been forming over a lifetime, or both. Be firm, be gentle, and do not expect quick change. I realize your parents haven't met her yet, so they're not yet dealing with visuals, but I think the above is helpful in general.

Support your girlfriend when she is sad. But don't try to shield her from the reality that she looks different, at least for now, and that she will have to develop a thick skin if she doesn't already have one, and do some of her own polite educating and sometimes not-so-polite standing up for herself. Once she's transitioned, she may choose to "pass" and that's her choice, but until then...and while people like your parents know, you have to deal with it.

And chew on this: I ended up feeling used in my relationships, used for my support during my partners' transitions, and then feeling thrown away like trash when they didn't "need" me anymore. Don't be me. Also, my "partners" dont' even speak to me, much less send me birthday presents. My family does, in spite of their religious mania and their intolerance of my "lifestyle." We muddle along in spite of our differences.
posted by thelastcamel at 2:05 PM on November 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I can't tell if your family is generally trying, and messing up sometimes, or if they're not really using the proper pronoun ever. If they are trying, that seems most important to me. Even well-intentioned folks can make this mistake at times.

If they use the proper pronoun nine times out of ten, and you correct them those times, I can see why it might get tiresome to them, especially if they catch themselves. The "no big deal" stuff *might* mean, to them, "I'm trying to do this properly, and once in a while I make a mistake. Please don't be completely exasperated with me once in a while when I make a mistake."

I'm not saying this isn't a big issue for Jamie, but what I'm wondering is if they are making a genuine effort or not.

But I have no idea of the tone of their mistakes and the tone of your corrections of those mistakes.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:14 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

It may seem tempting to introduce your girlfriend to your family in order to bring them around to respecting her as the woman that she is. Please do not do this (unless it is your girlfriend's idea and she knows what she is getting in to). If you introduce your girlfriend to your family now, while they are still intentionally disrespecting her gender identity, it will poison the relationship that she may have with them in the future.

Actually, I think proximity and exposure are both great ideas for bringing your family around to accepting your girlfriend and to accepting her gender identity. However, if the relationship doesn't last, it may poison your parents by confirmation bias. In other words, "We thought those types of relationships couldn't last..." Not that there's much you can do about that, since you can't realistically predict the future.

Just keep doing what you're doing: talking about your partner and correcting the pronoun thing, albeit gently. I will note that when I was new to gender stuff with my friends half a lifetime ago, I occasionally screwed up and used the wrong pronoun, and my profound guilt and shame made me resent people pointing it out. Do you think this might be the issue with your family complaining about your "nitpicking?" Just throwin' it out there.
posted by thelastcamel at 2:14 PM on November 26, 2011

I'm trying to figure out how this sort of thing is just some casual mistake.

You - "So Mom, I was telling my girlfriend Jamie... "
Mom - "Oh, you mean your BOYFRIEND Jamie"

Really? Your mom and your brother just happen to innocently yet consistently 'forget' your partners gender, your sexuality and which gender you usually date? I honestly can't parse that as anything other than breathtakingly rude.

They can't even pretend it's some big source of confusion because your girlfriend doesn't 'pass' - they never met when she was identifying as male! Does your family often have trouble correctly identifying people by their gender presentation?

No. This is a straight up bullshit reality-denying ongoing judgmental insult and you are under no obligation to let it go or subject your partner to it.

Tell them one last time that Jamie is a woman, identifies as female and expects to be recognized as such. And if they can't afford you, Jamie and your relationship that simple basic human courtesy than it's a shame but you're not putting up with it. Leave, hang up the phone, whatever you need to do to enforce that message.

It is truly their loss if they can't come to terms with this, and I'm really sorry you're dealing with this. Let's hope it's just a phase.
posted by Space Kitty at 3:42 PM on November 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm trying to figure out how this sort of thing is just some casual mistake.

Space Kitty, I am (perhaps too charitably) wondering if goes like this (because the original poster said pronouns specifically):

OP: Dad, I can't wait for you to meet Jamie next month.
Dad: Me neither. What kind of food does he I mean she like to eat so we can stock the fridge?
posted by bluedaisy at 4:18 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hope you're right, bluedaisy. Maybe it's just pronoun trouble. It's just hard to understand where the confusion comes from when anonymous has never used male pronouns when talking about Jamie to her family. This isn't a situation where they've known someone as a male for years and it's taking time to adjust to new information.

Jamie was introduced as a woman and the OP's family refuses to acknowledge that. How many people need six months worth of reminders not to call their daughter or sisters girlfriend 'he?'

Where I come from that's a message.

Passive-aggressive is my family of origin's first language, so YMMV.
posted by Space Kitty at 5:48 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Space Kitty - the OP did say pronouns were the issue.

OP, you've got different takes on the issue. You can moderate your response on whether you think is aggressive misuse or simple error.
posted by 26.2 at 6:09 PM on November 26, 2011

Space Kitty, I suspect you are probably right about this. However, we do not actually know that Jamie was introduced to the family as female. OP says Jamie is in the "early stages," which seems to me that it's possible Jamie was originally introduced (not in person, since the family has met Jamie in person) as the poster's boyfriend. The OP also says that the two have been dating for six months, but perhaps Jamie was a friend before that, and known to the family as a male buddy.

Honestly, if Jamie was identifying as female when the OP first mentioned her to the family, I'm not sure the family needed to hear that Jamie was MTF. This might be a case of a person oversharing with a family. Sure, the family should get on board--but given that they've never met Jamie, everything they know about her comes directly from the OP.

I also wonder if the lesbian issue is at play here--if the OP has always identified as straight and then started dating Jamie the boy, I can see why the family might be having a hard time with, "My boyfriend is now a woman!" If the family hasn't much thought about transgender issues before, it might take them a while to get used to it. That's why I think intent is relevant.

But, eh, my take on this could be all wrong. I just tossed all this out there because I hadn't seen this perspective represented in earlier comments.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:22 PM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I believe Dan Savage has suggested

Savage is wrong more often than he is right, and even the "it gets better" program, while surely well-intentioned, is informed by his own quite narrow privileged white male artsy/liberal world view. In the pronoun conflict case his position amounts to "if I slam the door and make a dramatic enough exit, everyone will immediately cater to me because I'm so important." It may well be that the Savage circle trembles in fear at his frown, but his life is wildly atypical.

I don't think you should cut off your family unless every other possible approach has failed and you are prepared actually to remain alienated from your family for a lifetime. In the meantime I think you might accomplish the most with a "more in sorrow than anger" approach: "Mother, it is a big deal to me, because in every way that matters Jamie is a woman, and when you say it doesn't matter, it feels to me as if you're saying my relationship with Jamie doesn't matter. It does matter to me, very much, because she is dear to me, as dear to me as you and Dad are. It hurts me when you call her "he" because it makes me think you don't care that I love Jamie." And so forth.

This speech obviously has to be tailored to the individual, but the outline is: I know you don't want to hurt me, but you are hurting me, and I am asking you not to hurt me.

Best of luck with this: I hope I'm not being too optimistic about your family's intentions, but I do think it's best to start from the position that what is perceived as cruelty is actually carelessness, pending strong concrete proof that it's really malicious.
posted by La Cieca at 8:45 PM on November 26, 2011

Maybe if we set aside the trans issue it would help demonstrate why I think this is more than just a simple mistake. What if your mother and brother, after six solid months of reminders, still consistently called your current partner by your ex's name?

Would you expect them to say that it's just too confusing for them to remember? They'd try, but it's not a big deal and you're just nitpicking? Of course not. It's common courtesy to remember how someone identifies themselves.

I don't see why this gets a free pass.

I don't want to monopolize the conversation so I'm bowing out now. I wish the OP the best of luck in resolving this as quickly and painlessly as possible.
posted by Space Kitty at 9:35 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

If they're doing it adamantly instead of occasionally, then you're not going to help yourself by making them realize it's a big deal. They do realize it's a big deal already, that's why they're doing it. They're making a not very subtle point.

You are eventually going to have to make a big choice here, so you may as well start by making small choices. I suggest this:

"Family, I've explained countless times that it's necessary for you to refer to Jamie as a female since that's what she is. You've refused to do so. But I can't sit here / stay on the phone and listen to you disrespect her. So in the future, if you refer to her in a disrespectful manner, I will leave / end the conversation."

And then do it. "I've asked you not to be disrespectful to Jamie when speaking to me." Then get up and walk out or hang up. Don't argue, don't plead. Simply make the choice that you won't hear them say those things.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:25 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Treat others as you would wish to be treated. And since your family keeps misgendering your partner, OP, perhaps you can start misgendering them. It's not necessarily my personal path of preference, but it is the least "volatile" (and I say this with the fullest possible ire).

For those who feel comfortable in their identities as "man" or "woman" or are used to primarily identifying people based on external characteristics and expectation of what "men" and "women" look like, please know that being misgendered can feel like getting slugged in the face. Repeatedly. So when the OP's family keeps misgendering their partner, it's like watching their mum and brother repeatedly slug their partner in the face. If a family member physically did that to your partner, you wouldn't stand there and watch or try to be "gentle and understanding" about their inability to keep their fists out of your partner's face, would you? You'd wrestle them the hell off, and ignore the moans of "it's so haaaaaard!"

@OP - in reality, I think that you need to start preparing yourself to cut your family off if they don't start using the proper pronouns. They have refused to acknowledge a critical part of your partner's identity; by extension, they are also denying a part of your own. That's an awfully cruel thing to do to anyone.

Good luck.
posted by Ashen at 5:10 PM on November 27, 2011

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