1 – If you are not sure of someone’s preferred pronouns, start by avoiding using any to refer to that person. If you have friends or colleagues in common, try asking one of those people if they know what pronouns to use. If you are getting to know this person, try asking them directly.
I struggle with communicating my pronouns to new people. Meeting a group of new people is really stressful for me, because I don’t want to make an announcement, and the barrier for correcting people feels even higher (see my previous post for some of the internal debate I have around correcting people). It is easiest when a friend refers to me with the correct pronouns as a model for others to follow, so I don’t have to say anything about it.
2 – Someone in your life just came out to you as trans* and has asked everyone to start using a different name and pronouns. Naturally, this will take some getting used to. Make a little bit of time to practice. If you are alone somewhere, picture them in your mind and say a sentence referring to them correctly out loud. Refer to them in your head from time to time as you walk from one place to another. It will get easier. Even I have had to do this for myself, as well as for friends of mine.
3 – In addition to practicing with words, if your brain perceives your friend to be a different gender than they’ve told you, you can work on changing that perception for your particular friend. Imagine them as you know them, and focus on the ways they express their true gender – give your brain new cues to latch onto. You can do this at the same time you are practicing their new name and pronouns – during a commute, while eating a meal, brushing your teeth, snatched moments here and there. Easy. Updated to add: See this post for more details about gender perception and changing it for someone.
4 – You will get it wrong at first. When you do, correct yourself immediately, and don’t draw any further attention to it. Ex: “Oh that pineapple is hers. His.” “I love his sweater! I mean her sweater – I love her sweater!” “He – they – really wanted a donut, so I got one for them.” Understand that your inevitable mess ups will likely be upsetting to your friend on some level, which is valid, and a real part of their experience. Do your best. If the incident felt particularly egregious, such as messing up in front of new friends or strangers, or if you’ve found that you’ve messed it up many times in a short period of time, consider taking your friend aside at some later point and apologizing, in a setting removed from the incident. Understand that your friend is aware that these things take time, is reminded of that daily, and is already practicing a great deal of patience with a lot of people.
I have noticed that when someone asks me to be patient, it feels as though they are telling me that their difficulty with my pronouns is in some way more challenging and important than my experience of being frequently misgendered. I already understand that it takes time and feels unnatural at first. I am already being patient with people frequently getting it wrong for a variety of reasons – I expect this. People get it wrong, and it sucks a lot for me, but I also know that it is inevitable. This does not make my pain any less valid. Trust that if you are making an effort, I will appreciate it.
Know, also, that this is not some weird optional thing I have chosen to do and am imposing on you unnecessarily – I am living out as transgender because it is a fundamental part of who I am and is necessary for me to live a full life. I have asked folks to use a new name and pronouns because I have to. I appreciate all the help I can get in a world that tells me I should be someone I’m not because it’s easier for everyone else.
5 – If you have been asked to use less common pronouns, such as ‘they, their, them’ or ‘ze, zir’, you may feel uncomfortable, it may feel harder, but someone else’s pronouns are not up to you. The English language does not have a single, common neutral set of pronouns that are accepted on the same level as the he/she pronouns. This is not your trans* friend’s fault, and it’s not your fault, either, and we do the best we can. But, do you know how the English language can *get* a set of commonly accepted neutral pronouns? By a bunch of people starting to use them commonly! Be the change! Any educating you can do of other people around new pronouns is the work of a good advocate and ally, whom we always need more of. I promise that your discomfort with new pronouns is less than the discomfort your friend probably feels being misgendered. And again, practice in your head – see point 2.
6 – Be patient with yourself, and with your trans* friend. Pronouns are hard. This stuff is hard. Hang in there. If you’re genuinely trying, then we’re on the same team.
Huge thanks to all who do this work. Keep it up! 🙂