Help me help an ally be an ally?
March 23, 2021 6:10 PM   Subscribe

My mom (71yo) can't seem to wrap her brain around using my friend's "new" name & pronouns, even after 7 years. Help me help her make this happen?

My dear lifelong friend transitioned ~7 years ago. My mother, a kind & caring person, can not keep this in her head for the length of a sentence. I have lost patience with repeated gentle correction & redirection and have sometimes been snippy & rude with my mother about this, which doesn't help.

Factors that might be making this harder:
  1. Mom saw friend regularly in our home in previous decades, but hasn't seen them regularly since the transition.
  2. Mom, while 100% emotionally ready to support, has no real sense of why this matters to get right outside of Friend's presence, & there are no apparent consequences to failing repeatedly.
  3. Mom has the privilege of using good intentions as defense, and I haven't been able to really get to "intent vs. impact" without kinda going on the offensive.
Can you suggest resources that I can share with my mom to help her make this leap? Either "tips to help rewire pronoun/name habits", or perhaps "here is why it matters to make an active effort to relearn pronouns & names, even if it's hard."

Please assume that mom is willing in good faith to get this right, and that this isn't some passive-aggressive resistance thing. I told her after our last talk that I was going to look for some resources to help us work together on this, and she's on board. The reason this even comes up is that Mom cares & asks about how Friend is doing.

Alternatively, can you suggest resources for me, to be a better ally by helping other allies along the path & not being a snarky jerk when Mom gets it wrong for the 14th time in 2 minutes?
posted by jeffjon to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Without seeming demonstrative, could you do a quick language exercise with her, a couple 10-15 min sessions of flashing a photo of your friend by smartphone, then asking her to repeat the pronouns? Maybe switch it up with other friends? While reminding her how important it is to this person, and how culture/context changes.

She clearly cares, it seems like it has more to do with the way she organizes other information, rather than anything discriminative, of course.
posted by firstdaffodils at 6:30 PM on March 23, 2021

Every time mom says the deadname, just say 'I don't know who that is. Who are you talking about?'. Force her to say the new name. The more your mom says it and uses the new pronouns, the more she'll get used to it. Do not acknowledge that you have any clue who [deadname] is.
posted by hydra77 at 6:31 PM on March 23, 2021 [12 favorites]

If you assume good faith, and given your mother's age, can you rule out a long- or short-term memory issue?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:39 PM on March 23, 2021 [13 favorites]

Did your mom change her surname if/when she got married? Can you draw a comparison between what it would mean if someone kept using her maiden name, and how it could be hurtful if, for instance, they were doing it to passive-aggressively express disapproval about the marriage?

She's not meaning to be passive-aggressive I hope, but it might help to point out that some people are deliberately mean about name and pronoun changes, so it's a sensitive area... and thus extra-important for people who ARE cool with gender affirmation to actually get names and pronouns right- it expresses support in a tangible way.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:41 PM on March 23, 2021 [36 favorites]

Yeah really pointing out that using a deadname is incredibly hurtful - and then only responding to the person's proper name might help.
posted by leslies at 7:02 PM on March 23, 2021

Ask her to practice the name. It is pretty hard to learn to say the name, and the correct pronouns; she grew up when this was something incredibly rare. Mom, I brought a picture of Sam, can we practice using Sam's name? It's really a big deal to Sam, and it's really bad etiquette to use the deadname. And literally practice, addressing the photo, and referring to Sam correctly, using pronouns. Repetition is how habits are learned/ changed, and this exercise will help make the point that this is a serious thing. Praise her when she gets it right. Rewards are powerful at changing behavior.

For you, think of this mostly as behavior change, assume good will. The analogy to name change at marriage may help. Explain that names are a really critical part of identity, that Sam has gone through a significant and serious process and deserves to be called by their name, that it's very much about respect and recognizing Sam for who they truly are.

She's Not There by Jenny Boylan is a well-written account of transition. If your Mom is a reader, it might be useful.
posted by theora55 at 7:27 PM on March 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

tips to help rewire pronoun/name habits

Do you have a pet? I think we should be using they/them pronouns for pets for this sort of reason. It gives people practice with thinking about pronouns. The pet doesn't care if you get it wrong, but there's still a right answer. We can't ask a pet for their pronouns.
posted by aniola at 7:37 PM on March 23, 2021

One technique I've heard of is to set off an air horn each time someone uses the wrong pronoun. Might be therapeutic for you, anyway....

Maybe your mom would benefit from hearing about the harm of using incorrect pronouns from trans people directly. YouTube would probably be a good place to find this. Here is a short video in which a guy vents about how much it stresses him out when the pharmacist unwittingly calls him by his old name. It's possible to find stories of more severe harm as well. You'll know best what sort of presenter will be most likely to get through to your mom. This might not be enough to help her understand the importance of getting pronouns right even in the absence of the trans person, though.

You could point out to her that she's very likely to use the wrong pronouns next time she sees your friend if she doesn't practice using the right words all the time. Also, when she uses the wrong words while speaking to you, she is forcing you to either correct her or be complicit in the rejection of your friend's identity. That is unkind to you. Obviously that's not the most important reason to get it right, but it explains why you are frustrated with her.

Does your friend use they/them pronouns? I have noticed that many supportive people struggle to make those a habit, more so than with switching binary pronouns. I think it helps to have them modeled in some sort of media, such as a tv show or a YouTube channel, that can be consumed regularly until it "clicks."
posted by Comet Bug at 9:41 PM on March 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Does your mom have any recent pictures of your friend? Give her a few pictures of your friend (and you) and have her practice every time she sees friend. If her memories of friend are pre-transition and decades old, she needs to see friend now. Not only learn new pronouns, but update her visual memory.
posted by AugustWest at 9:55 PM on March 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

I believe I got this tip from a PFLAG resource and it really, really helped me when someone that I'm close to transitioned. They recommended writing about that person using the correct name and pronouns, and I believe that actually handwriting it, as I'm a prolific journaler, made it even more solid in my mind. So I would write [name] told me she's going to stop at Target before she goes to work," or literally just anything to practice. It worked really well and I haven't had issues with tripping up on name or pronouns.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 12:39 AM on March 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

They/them is harder to adapt to as it's still a lot less common. A friend gave her stuffed toy they/them pronouns and writes about them on FB. It's surprisingly helpful for practice.

Adapting to name changes on marriage is a good example to use. How does she remember and keep track of those name changes?

I find other people's transition difficult. I just don't adapt quickly naturally. The key I've found is to make a concerted effort to transition them inside my mind, including making sure I have a post-transition visual image of them. Once they are in their right gender in my head, using the right name and pronouns in real life is substantially easier.

Last, an if you're desperate tip: if pronouns are not sticking, concentrate on always using the friend's name rather than any pronoun at all. It is a long way from perfect but it does have the silver lining of reinforcing the name change.
posted by plonkee at 3:48 AM on March 24, 2021

Seconding Augustwest and fairlynearlyready about practice with visual and tactile elements to update the ingrained memories. I would use a recent photo but also a pre-transition photo as one of the hardest things for me was to use the new name and pronouns when talking about the past. Ask her to keep the photos where she can see them daily and practice talking to or about them: "That's (new name), I remember the time (pronoun)..."
Letting her practice when you are not there is kind to both of you. If she wants to get it right but struggles, the pressure and embarrassment of getting it wrong and being corrected is not a nice feeling.
posted by evilmomlady at 4:13 AM on March 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Your mom also lived through the Miss/Mrs/Ms years - my mom did too; she uses Mrs and I get the sense she doesn't totally 'get' why some married women insist so strongly on Ms, but she does try to get peoples' titles correct. Same story with Dr., where she really makes a point especially with women. Depends on your mom's attitudes, but this might be a relatable touchpoint if you haven't been down that road already.
posted by heyforfour at 4:13 AM on March 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Context: I am trans. I also intensely dislike the term 'deadname' (and, in particular, its use by cis people), which is both a request re language to use and context in that it's a pretty good bet my relationship to my old name is not what trans 101 tells you.

I wonder if you focus is misplaced here. Does your friend care? (For me, personally, "parents of lifelong friends that I rarely actually see" are firmly in the category of people where it's just not worth the effort to care what name or pronouns they use unless it's potentially putting me in danger. They aren't in the "gets a pass" category, though.) Is focusing on names and pronouns the most useful contribution you could be making in your mother's relationship to trans people/the concept of us? For example, there's a serious push underway from the right in the US to use trans people as a wedge issue to animate their base. We are still in a place culturally where "protecting women's sport" or "protecting children" seems like good reasoning to harm children. If you get your mother to a place where she convinces a single person that this is transphobic bullshit, that huge, regardless of how mangled names or pronouns get in the process.
posted by hoyland at 5:54 AM on March 24, 2021 [31 favorites]

I think the best thing you can do is ask your friend what they'd like you to do. They know your mother, they know you, and they may prefer to focus their own/their allies' energies on people who they still see/know in their own life.

It's fair to ask people to unlearn/relearn things late in life, but (speaking as an old mom) your mother still pictures a 10-year-old kid when you talk about your friend, and you're asking a lot for her to replace that Polaroid with an abstract image of an adult she hasn't seen in many years, and never post-transition. These are clearly two people who you care about a lot, and who shared a chapter of life once upon a time. Maybe a reunion is overdue, especially since you say your mom cares/asks about them. (But only if your friend is equally interested because they like your mom, not to be a teaching tool - that's not remotely their job.)

I can't tell you how much I love it when my son stops by and has with him one of those kids from middle school who I haven't seen in years and who I still picture with braces. I love hearing their glory-days stories and laughter and hindsight insights, and seeing their shared affection ... it warms my heart and brings back my nurturing side and I practically chase them around the house offering sandwiches like the grandma in Bad Santa. But most importantly, after those visits/new shared experiences, my memory of that kid is updated and the next time my son mentions their name, I picture the adult I drank a beer with last month, not the kid who drank CapriSuns decades ago.
posted by headnsouth at 6:10 AM on March 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

While the air horn solution may seem satisfying, I would go with a gentler option.

When I was going through this with my 76 year old mother, the suggestion that my therapist made that actually worked really well was to create a non-verbal signal, in our case I would raise my hand, for when my mom would get my name wrong. This has the benefit of your not having to stop conversation and also not having the temptation to come up with a snarky remark. You just raise your hand and wait until your mom notices, and don't move on until she's realized her mistake. This make take a little time the first few times, but eventually it sinks in.

Now, for your situation this may not come up enough to be effective, but at least it's another option to try.
posted by Shellybeans at 6:56 AM on March 24, 2021

I have medical issues that make learning new things incredibly difficult, in that I need to devote enormous amounts of energy to make it happen and even then it doesn't always work. I need to stop and think about what college my own son attends, and he's been there three years, I have visited there on multiple occasions, and I pay its bills! Hopefully some of these ideas will help it sink in for her, but please keep in mind that it really might not be possible for her.
posted by metasarah at 7:00 AM on March 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

Photos seem like a great practice aid. If you've got a recent one of you and Friend that you could post on Mom's fridge and label "Jeffjon and Friend!" maybe that's something that would help?

I'm not sure that asking Friend their feelings/for help is the right route - many of my trans friends seem to generally feel that they don't need to know if someone is using the wrong name when they're not around, it would just stress them out. Obviously cannot speak for everyone there, just an anecdote.
posted by february at 7:38 AM on March 24, 2021

Does she have memory issues in other areas of her life?
posted by wwax at 8:26 AM on March 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

For just chatting around with old folks, constant gentle reminders are fine, as always.

If you want to make old folks re-learn contemporary pronouns, it depends on how receptive they are.
posted by ovvl at 7:25 PM on March 24, 2021

This Twitter thread made me think of this post again: full of people's relatives who don't quite get it but are trying anyways. Thought you might like to hear about other folks who it doesn't come easy to, and also about how much people appreciate the effort. Hope you and your mom are doing well :)
posted by february at 6:28 AM on April 2, 2021

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