Transgender pronouns in stories
December 28, 2016 7:23 PM   Subscribe

I know two transgender people. In both cases, I knew them when their gender presentation was their birth gender, and I know them now, when they have corrected their gender presentation. When I tell a story to a third person, and that story is about the past, what pronouns should I use?

I always, always use the person's correct pronouns when I'm talking about something that occurred after their gender presentation changed. It's the past I get confused about.

Here's an example. One of the people is a cousin I grew up with, who is a trans man. Sometimes, I want to tell someone a story like 'Oh, this one time when I was a kid, my cousin and I went to the store, and [she/he] did a really funny thing." Which pronoun should I use? The one that was appropriate for the gender my cousin was born with or the one he is now? Sometimes the stories don't make sense if I use he -- I'm a woman, and there's one story I sometimes want to tell about going to the pool with my cousin and something funny that happened in the changing room -- it would be super weird to say "he" in that story. But I also don't want to stop in the middle of the story and explain that my cousin is a trans man -- that feels inappropriate, because I'm not trying to tell that story.

I understand that I can choose to not tell these particular stories. But that would be disrespectful -- my cousin is a really important part of my life, and we all tell stories about stuff that happened in the past. Please help me tell these stories in a respectful way.
posted by OrangeDisk to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For the specific instance of your cousin who you are close to, I would ask him if he has a preference.
posted by phunniemee at 7:26 PM on December 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here are the rules of thumb I follow personally:
1. always use correct (i.e. current) pronouns, even when talking about the past.
2. if that makes the story too confusing, consider that it's a story you shouldn't be telling to someone who doesn't know they are trans, because you will be outing them however you tell it, which isn't polite, and may even endanger their safety.
3. the pronoun 'they' can come in handy sometimes.
4. if you are close to the person, you can ask.
posted by lollusc at 7:30 PM on December 28, 2016 [43 favorites]

Best answer: Several of my transgender or genderfluid friends prefer "they" in these situations. As in, "my cousin went to the store and they did a really funny thing."

I agree with asking the people in question but in the absence of being able to do so, "they" may serve as a respectful choice until you can.
posted by _Mona_ at 7:34 PM on December 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a fellow transman, my suggestion would be to either ask him directly or use 'they'.
posted by stubbehtail at 8:07 PM on December 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nthing that this is really something you need to ask your cousin, not us. It's up to him how open he wants to be with his trans status.
posted by zebra at 9:02 PM on December 28, 2016

Best answer: My transgender friend wishes to be referred to in her current gender. She feels she's always been a "she" even when she presented differently.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:38 PM on December 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Note that the singular they has been used in English since the 14th century and Shakespeare used it.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:40 PM on December 28, 2016

Response by poster: I understand that I need to ask my cousin this. My example may have been misleading, since it is clear that I have a close relationship with my cousin. Would your advice be the same if I was not as close to the person?
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:03 AM on December 29, 2016

Best answer: I have the same issue orangedisk. In my case it's my sister. I guess one question I would have is how open your cousin is about being trans*. My sister is an activist so if I ever have a situation where the story would be odd if I used her real gender as opposed to what she was assigned at birth then I casually insert "my sister is trans " and move on with the story. I noted the activism because her name comes up as trans* in media but if your cousin isn't as open then the approach may need to be different. Otherwise like you I use lived pronouns to refer to the past. Also like you with your cousin I am close to my sister. I skip stories with some people but otherwise these are stories from my life too and several times it has helped others to understand that being trans* does not necessarily mean losing your family etc. But yes, talk to your cousin. I once asked my sister how she wanted me to discuss her being trans* with my kids and she said 'you're good at it. Whatever you decide"
posted by biggreenplant at 5:01 AM on December 29, 2016

Best answer: lollusc's answer applies to everyone, including people with whom you're not close

As a general rule, I would not ask the preference of someone you're not close to as there's this big overtone of "hey trans person, you have an obligation to make me as a cis person feel good [and I'm going to pretend I'm doing you a favor while making you expend energy on my feelings]". Use their current pronoun, tell a different story if doing so is obviously going to out them. In reality it's not that cut and dry, but unless you truly have a good understanding of your relationship with someone and understand how out they are and to whom, it's pretty likely that the fact your cousin/friend/acquaintance is trans and what pronoun they were using when the story took place is not nearly as relevant as you think it is.
posted by hoyland at 5:16 AM on December 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

The answer really is to ask the person their preference. If you're uncomfortable doing that, or aren't able to do that for whatever reason, don't tell a story that could potentially out that person. The privacy of a trans person supersedes your desire to tell a story about them.
posted by zebra at 6:11 AM on December 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

My rule of thumb is always use current pronoun. Because it's not relevant to the story 99% what their presented gender was in most stories I'm going to tell.

Maybe that means I might mislead someone, vaguely, about a thing that they would never have a point of reference for. But that seems like a small price to pay for respecting someone's identity and not outing them casually to strangers.
posted by French Fry at 6:33 AM on December 29, 2016

Best answer: I'm a trans man and I completely agree with lollusc and zebra. Why does the story really need to be told if gender is important to it? "To be funny or cool" are not good enough reasons. The only examples I can think of are a legal deposition or someone has a gun to your head. Use "he" or "they" and if the story doesn't make sense with those, don't tell it.
posted by AFABulous at 6:33 AM on December 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Like, if I wasn't particularly close to someone and they did this, I would drop them like a hot potato if they outed me for no reason. If I was close to them, I'd have a Very Serious Conversation.
posted by AFABulous at 6:34 AM on December 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Trans woman here. I would be *furious* if someone did not use my current (and correct!) pronouns when telling stories about me during childhood. People who know about my history would know what's up; people who don't simply do not need to have that information revealed by someone who isn't me.

I can nev er shake the feeling that folks who do engage in this behavior have ulterior motives.I have heard a number of people--often parents or older relatives--who tell stories like that and justify it with, "Well, so and so was a [insert gender] then". This justification comes across as a passive-aggressive way to assert dominance over someone's life story. I mean, childhood is often a super painful--and sometimes traumatic--time for trans people--why would one want to continually be bring that up?
posted by Excommunicated Cardinal at 7:20 AM on December 29, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: In terms of people I knew before transition, one of my closest friends from middle school and high school came out as trans when we were in our 20s. I often have occasion to tell stories about him from when I thought of him as "she", and I also used to have this question.

However, over time I've felt less of a 'need' to tell these stories, and it's also rolled off my tongue more organically to refer to him by he in the past too. Really, there are very few stories about him that require a "she" pronoun to make sense, (none really) and I don't feel the need to invoke his previous pronouns in public because it feels like the gender part of his story is not my story to tell. I mean, most stories about my friend are not really gendered - it's pretty easy to talk about our high school teachers or our wacky, youthful hijinks without invoking the wrong pronoun.

Now and then maybe I'll be alone with him and we are sharing old stories and in that context sure we acknowledge that he used to be called she but that's really different because I'm not deciding for him how to talk to other people about him.
posted by latkes at 7:44 AM on December 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The one that was appropriate for the gender my cousin was born with or the one he is now?

This strikes me as an odd question. You seem to think that your cousin was a girl, and his transition changed his gender, instead of confirming the gender that he always was. Could that be part of your confusion over which pronoun to use?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:00 AM on December 29, 2016 [8 favorites]

When I tell a story to a third person, and that story is about the past, what pronouns should I use?

I will suggest that when you tell stories to a third party, the pronouns you need to primarily use are I and ME. "When I and (someone I knew) did this thing..." instead of "When my cousin did this thing..."

Telling stories about people you know to third parties can easily be considered gossip. For many people, such gossip is potentially downright dangerous.

The fact that you asked this question implies that you tell a lot of stories about people you know. I will suggest you rethink how you relate to people and stop talking so much about folks you know. You may think it is just making small talk or something, but it can really do a lot of harm.

If you need to think this hard about something that is supposed to be a casual, harmless activity, very often the answer is "Just don't do it at all because it really isn't a casual, harmless activity."
posted by Michele in California at 4:58 PM on December 29, 2016

Response by poster: I'm trying very hard not to threadsit, but I do have to say: I find it hard to understand how telling a story about something I did when I was 8 years old is gossiping. Telling our stories is how we relate to one another as humans. Yes, my cousin was part of that story, but honestly -- who doesn't tell stories about things they did when they were 8?

I really appreciate all the comments in this thread. They have helped me very much understand this issue and myself.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:22 PM on December 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

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