Help with Gender
May 12, 2022 1:56 PM   Subscribe

I have a transgender friend who is now male but I originally met and knew as female. I keep calling him, her and I am embarrassed and feel ignorant every time. Sometimes I remember but sometimes, I don't. How can I remember and not disrespect him? Is it just a matter of repeating to myself the correct gender whenever I think of them?
posted by CollectiveMind to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is it just a matter of repeating to myself the correct gender whenever I think of them?

helped me. also saying, "sorry i mispronouned you" sincerely.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:00 PM on May 12 [8 favorites]


It's just practice, and the more frequent the sooner it will become natural. If you have a kind and trustworthy friend, get them to call or text you every day to ask you something about Friend so you can practice talking about them with the correct pronouns.

I had a friend pick a new name and I had a hell of a time getting it to stick in my brain. Making new memories that used that name actively was more useful than mentally reminding myself. I had to say it out loud, a lot.
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:06 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Is it just a matter of repeating to myself the correct gender whenever I think of them?

As a trans man: yes. Just practice it. I've had this with other trans friends and people have done it with me in turn. You might go through a slightly awkward overly sincere phase of making sure you get it right, but once you're used to it, it'll get easier. Also, if his pronouns are he/him, don't default to they/them because it's easier to remember. Try and use what he wants you to use.

The one thing I'll add as a request: please, please don't make a big deal out of it if you forget. It's so tiresome when cis friends mess up and then spend ages apologising or acting distraught over it, so I have to end up comforting them (ugh) and reassuring them that it's okay, which is super awkward and makes me feel so much worse than if they'd just carried on normally. Most trans folks are used to getting misgendered and we won't bite your head off or dissolve into tears if you get it wrong once or twice. All you need to do is say "whoops, sorry, I meant to say "he" there". Don't try and explain why, don't make a fuss, just apologise and do better next time.
posted by fight or flight at 2:15 PM on May 12 [57 favorites]


Best metaphor I heard from my various trans friends is comparing it to stepping on toes. Some people are clumsy or have two left feet, especially when they're learning a new dance move. It's annoying for a moment but, forgivable and not the end of the world. Some lucky or effortful people can learn a new dance immediately and spin circles around you. If someone steps on your toes every time they meet you, and months later they're still apologizing, you can tell they're not even trying. If someone steps on your toes and spendd ten minutes agonizing about what an idiot they are, that is actually more annoying than the step. If someone looks you in the eye and steps on your toes with a smirk, they may not learn to be polite until they've been punched in the face.
posted by panhopticon at 2:19 PM on May 12 [24 favorites]


The thing that helped me a lot was commiting to immediately use three correct pronouns in response to the incorrect pronoun.

"She - sorry, he - was pretty amazing! I saw him do the thing. Then I saw him do the other thing. He's incredible."

You're basically trying to rewire neural pathways: practice helps.
posted by corb at 2:19 PM on May 12 [27 favorites]


Do you have a pet or a teddy bear you can tell lots and lots of stories to about your friend for a while? Basically you need to practice this a lot to reroute your brains heuristics but you also really need to find a way to make this something you do in your own time without making it up to your friend to say "it's okay" when you keep making the mistake.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 2:24 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


As a trans person: yes, it's just practice. Maybe make a point of it to tell more stories about him to other people. Or you could even ask someone to practice with you (ideally someone who is not a mutual acquaintance).

Agree with others who say not to make a big deal of it in the moment. Just correct yourself and move on. If he corrects you, thank him (better than apologizing, which sort of requires him to tell you it's ok) and move on. Basically, don't make it his problem to solve or emotional burden to bear.
posted by lunasol at 2:27 PM on May 12 [14 favorites]


It can be helpful to note if there are patterns. For myself, I see I get tripped up if I'm talking about someone in the past, when I knew them under other assumptions. I don't seem to have trouble with the present or future, but, if I start telling a story from childhood or even the past, my brain seems to have those stories wired a different way. I just try to practice it and hope I'll eventually get it right. It works better when I see the person a lot and it's harder when it's someone I knew years ago. Case in point: I haven't met the person in a Humans of New York story from yesterday, but I had no problem at all updating their name or pronouns.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:34 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Yes, it’s practice and time. It takes time and repetition to fully kick your brain’s default gears over into the new correct words, even when you sincerely want to get it right 100% of the time. Correct quickly and move on when you fuck it up, and if you see an opportunity to practice getting it right, take it. The longer you know your friend as a man, the more automatic it will become to think of him and refer to him that way. Right now it’s new; with a bit of time it will just become another familiar fact about your friend.
posted by Stacey at 2:37 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Do you have his photo and contact info linked in your phone? The everyday repetition of seeing someone's name, face, and gender presentation on a screen should help.
posted by knotty knots at 2:38 PM on May 12 [5 favorites]


Yes, practice. I find it helpful to practice by myself and to actively picture someone as their current self. You really, really need to transition someone in your own mind and then it will come much easier when you're talking with them or about them.
posted by plonkee at 2:41 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


When I met my partner they were using she/her pronouns and now uses they/them. I'm also on the spectrum, and I experience a lot of anxiety around messing up in social situations. This might be particular to us and not everyone; when I was first learning to use their new pronouns I would get very apologetic (to the point of being annoying) so I now limit myself to an "oops, sorry" then repeat the sentence with the correct pronouns.

I also had a lot of success with repeatedly mentally referring to them by the correct pronoun, and also speaking sentences out loud to the mirror as practice.
posted by Jarcat at 3:14 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Train your brain. At home alone, say the right things out loud. "This is my friend Joe, he's an elephant trainer. Have you met Joe? I know him from racecar driving school. Let me ask Joe about that, he researched buying a new mattress last year." Feel free to make big conversational gestures, stand up and sit down, dance to the radio, vacuum, and/or other physical movement as this seems to help people get facts into longer-term memory when studying.

Also write the same kind of phrases - try both handwriting and typing, as they both have slightly different learning wiring. Feel free to also doodle or draw it too, as some people make strong visual memories.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:30 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Suggestion: when you're alone, talk out loud about your friend. It doesn't need to be interesting. "I saw Friend yesterday. I told him 'you look great' and he said that he's been working out. He likes the gym near his apartment, and he's feeling really fit and healthy these days."

The more you practice, the more easily the right pronouns will come to you when you're speaking.
posted by Lexica at 3:34 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


One way to think about this is that your friend has secretly been a man the whole time; you (and he) just didn't realize it yet when you first knew him. When thinking about him in the past, realize that it was just him in (inadvertent) disguise.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:00 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Practice talking to yourself about the person. Load up a photo, sit in front of it, and say, OUT LOUD, "This is my friend Tom. HE has brown hair. HE is wearing jeans. HE likes sushi. I met HIM in college. When Tom and I were in college, HE gave me rides in HIS car. etc" Do that for 2 minutes every day for a week (set a timer! Put it on your calendar! Invest actual commitment in learning) and you should have way fewer slips.

When you do make a slip, don't make a big deal of your reasons, or how hard his gender is for you, and don't make a huge production of apologizing and forcing him to soothe you. If you make it a big burden, he is forced to reassure you and that's not fair or fun. Obligate him as little as possible in your journey - don't make it his problem or put extra labour or discomfort on him.

Maybe you could quickly correct yourself by saying, "OH - he. Thank you for being so patient!" - something BRIEF and upbeat that does not center yourself - and then continue on with a pleasant interaction. And spend extra time that night practicing.

If someone else corrects you, say "thank you!" in an emotionally-regulated way, then repeat the sentence correctly - "She was over there ... Oh thanks! HE was over there."

I would also consider sending him a treat (edible bouquet?) with a note like "Hi Tom, I wanted to send a treat to say sorry I haven't mastered your pronouns yet, and to thank you for being so gracious and patient as I get it together. I really care about you and respect you, and I promise I'll get better. Here's my equivalent of a swear jar for slipping up all week, please enjoy, I love ya!"
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:24 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I agree with others who have said that oral and written practice helps, that updating your friend's name and picture and so on in your contacts/address book will help, and that it will get easier over time.

I'll also say that, for me, it's gotten easier as more people I know have changed their names and pronouns, and as I've dealt with institutions and places in my life changing their names. I think that because I get practice more frequently and in more contexts, I have gotten better at the skill of, as I'm about to refer to someone or someplace, double-checking that I'm using the updated name/pronoun.

Are the other people you're talking with also respecting his pronouns? Does that make a difference in whether you accidentally misgender your friend?
posted by brainwane at 4:30 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


(If you send a treat, don't deliver it in person because then the person has to reassure you that no, they're not mad at you, yes, it's ok, etc. Do it in a non-face-to-face way so they're not "put on the spot" to soothe you.)
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:31 PM on May 12


Oh yeah, I am non-binary and people get my pronouns wrong literally constantly and a treat/apology would really make me cringe and feel so weird, but you know your friend better than I do. Maybe that's his thing! But from my perspective: just practice and apologize and move on when you slip up. Mistakes happen but if you practice you will get better at it and then they will happen less often. Also, thanks for working on this for your friend. The people in my life who cared to get it right did all eventually get it right, in part because of practicing, and I'm sure you will too.
posted by twelve cent archie at 4:41 PM on May 12 [9 favorites]


The very next time you misgender your friend, do a headsmack, and say I'm so, so sorry; I'm genuinely working on it.

Practice. In the mirror or with a picture of your friend. It's my friend Rob. He is a Socialist, he lives on Main St., he is a paralegal, his birthday is in August, his dog's name is Ruff, etc. try 3 minutes every day.
posted by theora55 at 4:56 PM on May 12


Using gender neutral pronouns such as 'they/them' might help while you're getting used to using the right pronouns! I've also been using them more generally to refer to people in the interest of being more gender inclusive and placing less emphasis on people's genders.
posted by doomsyrup at 5:05 PM on May 12


Using gender neutral pronouns such as 'they/them' might help while you're getting used to using the right pronouns!

I want to gently recommend against this — many binary trans people aren’t super thrilled about being referred to as they/them if they use binary pronouns and the speaker is aware of that.

If you don’t know what pronouns to use, they/them is (generally) fine! And getting in the habit of using they/them more liberally, instead of assuming she or he, is great. But if you DO know what pronouns the person uses, put your effort into using those!

Speaking out loud to yourself, a few minutes a day, making up sentences about your friend to practice the pronouns is really helpful in my experience.
posted by mekily at 7:49 PM on May 12 [11 favorites]


If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun for your friend in front of another person (if you're introducing him and then mentioning something about him), I'd just quickly correct myself and move on - don't make a big deal out of it by smacking your forehead or whatever.

If it's just the two of you alone, then it's not really going to come up - offhand I can't think of any reason to use a third-person plural when you're one-on-one.
posted by Umami Dearest at 8:51 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


I fall on the past spectrum. It's just not right to make an old friend try to rewrite their memories all ex post facto like to match the present. If I ran around with Mary and she got chased and bit by a dog.... that's not going to change into running around with Mark and he got bit by a dog when it happened years ago and it's burnt into my brain as a favorite many times told story. My memories are not an Ad-Lib fill in the blanks and move on thing, they are mine. You have the near past and present and future. Now you just go with it and make more memories, the new ones will be Mary and she (or whatever). A decent friend shouldn't give you grief over remembering things the way they happened and wouldn't ask you to try and rewrite your memories of times past.

Now you just have new memories with Mark and the thing he did. Don't worry about the occasional slippage, just let the new memories bleed back a bit into the past. They might worm their way down deep, they may not. It probably depends on how long you've been friends, how many memories you have together, and how friends you are into the future. Don't over think it. Keep making new memories . Old memories, blurry memories, new memories. Should be fine. Sometimes the new he is so so so like the old she that you mess up. Just move on. Sorta depends on how long and how close you've been and still are friends.
The one thing I'll add as a request: please, please don't make a big deal out of it if you forget. It's so tiresome when cis friends mess up and then spend ages apologising or acting distraught over it, so I have to end up comforting them (ugh) and reassuring them that it's okay, which is super awkward and makes me feel so much worse than if they'd just carried on normally.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:05 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: Thank you. These are all great suggestions and I'll be practicing all of them.
posted by CollectiveMind at 12:06 AM on May 13


I fall on the past spectrum. It's just not right to make an old friend try to rewrite their memories all ex post facto like to match the present.

I can see why you might feel that way, but I think it's much better to avoid offending or outing an old friend than to insist on the sanctity of my memories.
posted by plonkee at 1:27 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


Using gender neutral pronouns such as 'they/them' might help while you're getting used to using the right pronouns!

Please don't do this.
posted by june_dodecahedron at 4:25 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


+1 on don't use they/them unless the person uses they/them. Pronouns are pronouns. They/them isn't a neutral middle ground for most people. I know people who do this to me because they feel awkward about acknowledging me as a man and yes, it is obvious and yes, it is hurtful.

Also please don't send an edible bouquet or any treat to apologise. Not only is it way over the top and forces the other person to take on the emotional burden of your guilt, but it might also potentially out them to their family/colleagues without their consent.

Just apologise. Once. Thank him for correcting you if he does so. Treat him like a human being instead of a walking social lesson and resume your conversation.
posted by fight or flight at 4:45 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


I have two recommendations that have more to do with you than with your friend.

The first one is that, whenever anyone corrects you, you can say "thank you" instead of "sorry". It's equally polite, and it evokes good feelings (gratitude) instead of bad ones (contrition). So the reinforcement is positive on both the corrected and the correctee. By the way, this also applies to learning languages and getting your pronounciation corrected, etc.

The second is that, if you catch yourself misgendering your friend, a way to create a positive reinforcement is to congratulate yourself for noticing. No "damn, I messed up again", but "aha, here I am noticing that I did it again, good thing I noticed".

Perhaps because I'm an immigrant living my life in my second language, but I've found that often, when I misgender someone, I react exactly the same way as when I mispronounce a word or get the grammar wrong. I simply rewind the last couple of words and try again with the right expression, as if I'm editing the stream of words in real time. People do this all the time anyway, right?

Finally, nthing the "practice frequent utterances that you're likely to stumble on" piece of advice as well. Language, like many other human practices, is also a habit, andNW stumble on" piece of advice as well. Language, like many other human practices, is also a habit, and habits are built out of repetition. habits are built out of repetition.
posted by kandinski at 4:53 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


One little thing you can do: wrong once, right twice.

If you're getting it wrong, don't correct yourself once, giving you a 1:1 wrong/right ratio, but twice, reinforcing the physical movement and association.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 7:16 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


The first time I tried to use they/them (with a person who prefers they/them) absolutely killed me. The way I finally got there was to stop using pronouns for them entirely — "Ty isn’t here, Ty is out shopping." "Ty is enjoying Ty’s classes this quarter."

I’m pretty sure it was the automatic trip every time I would normally use a pronoun that let me adopt the correct ones in a couple of weeks. Ty being very mellow definitely helped the process along.

Transgender has always been much easier for me. My position is that I’ve just been using the wrong pronouns from the beginning. Mark has always been male, I just didn’t know it. It’s not an accurate representation of the complexities of being transgender, but thinking of it that way makes the pronouns easy.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:01 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I fall on the past spectrum. It's just not right to make an old friend try to rewrite their memories all ex post facto like to match the present.

Decades ago, and a few years after we met, one of my close friends announced that her name was no longer "Katie", it was "Kat". When I think back to things we did together before then, I think of her as Kat, not Katie. It's not that hard.

Also, speaking as someone whose pronouns are not the ones people assume when they see me, if you recognize that you've used the wrong pronouns for me please don't do a headsmack or send a flower/fruit arrangement or anything like that. Just say "oh, sorry, I meant [proper term]" and move on.
posted by Lexica at 11:46 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


If I ran around with Mary and she got chased and bit by a dog.... that's not going to change into running around with Mark and he got bit by a dog when it happened years ago and it's burnt into my brain as a favorite many times told story.

Your memory isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. You were running around with Mark, who at the time you thought was Mary. This sort of post facto editing goes on all the time as we learn new context for past memories. Oftentimes it’s a gift that allows us to completely relive experiences with a new perspective.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:32 PM on May 13


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