What do to if you use the wrong pronouns for me

By | August 7, 2016

Update, 8/10/16: I’ve received a few requests to use this blog post in workplace trainings or classrooms. I’m delighted that people are finding my writing useful, and I’d be thrilled if people circulated it to others who might find it helpful. I’ve converted this post into Word documents–one that retains all the original content, and one with the content reshaped and the curse words removed, for people who work or teach in contexts where swearing is inappropriate. Two requests: 1. If you do use this writing, could you make sure to cite me? 2. Could you drop me a line and let me know what you did and how it went? I’d love to hear what folks are doing out there in the world.

Hi, I’m transgender. I use he/him/his pronouns. Some people have trouble remembering to use those pronouns because when they look at me their brain says “that’s a she/her/hers” and sometimes the wrong pronouns pop out on accident.

I’m going to give you some advice on what to do if you use the wrong pronouns for me. Please remember that I don’t speak for all transgender people, and you shouldn’t assume that what works for me will work for any other trans person you encounter.

Things to remember

  1. You’re not the first one to call me by the wrong pronouns. I’m not telling you this to let you off the hook, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind as you think about what to do next. Relatedly,
  2. Your emotional response to what you did is not the same as my emotional response. If you like me or care about me, or if you’re someone who wants to do right by trans people in general, misgendering me (i.e., using the wrong pronouns for me) is going to feel embarrassing and mortifying. You might be super mad at yourself. You might feel anxious and nervous about what to do to recover. But I’m most likely not mortified. I’m most likely not super mad at you. Believe me, I’m aware that it’s hard to remember my pronouns. Believe me, I know that lots of really wonderful people screw up sometimes–I’ve had lots of experience with getting misgendered. Relatedly,
  3. I’m probably feeling guilty and disappointed. I feel guilty for asking people to do something for me that’s hard for them to remember to do, and I feel disappointed because I like you and want to have an easy and comfortable experience interacting with you. I also feel disappointed because I spend a lot of time holding my breath, waiting for the next time someone screws up my pronouns but hoping that next time doesn’t come.
  4. I tend to cluster people into categories based on how they deal with my gender identity. I don’t know if other trans people do this. Here are the basic groups I cluster people into:

A. People who basically never have trouble remembering my pronouns: “This is my friend Jake. He’s only been square dancing for ten months and he already dances plus!”

B. People who basically never use the correct pronouns for me: “Jacob’s here to pick up her cat and pay her bill. She’s such a good cat mom.”

C. People who sometimes screw up my pronouns and make a big deal out of it every time it happens: “I was just telling Jake that she needs to–OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE I JUST DID THAT I’VE BEEN PRACTICING AND I NEVER GET IT WRONG WHEN I TALK ABOUT YOU TO OTHER PEOPLE GODDAMMIT I’M SUCH AN ASSHOLE”

D. People who sometimes screw up my pronouns, correct themselves, and move on. “I was just telling Jake that she needs to–sorry, that he needs to see the new Ghostbusters movie because he’ll find it hilarious.”

I would like to suggest that if you’re not someone who falls into group A (most people don’t, and that’s okay, really), you should work on being someone who belongs in group D. Here’s why:

Group B is totally undesirable, because it’s the group for transphobics and people who just don’t give a shit about other people’s needs.

Group C is for people who commit a faux pas and, instead of taking responsibility for their mistake, make it about them and their needs. They’re embarrassed and need reassurance that I’m not mad, or that I still think they’re a good person. I don’t necessarily get mad at people for misgendering me, and I don’t necessarily think someone’s a bad person for using the wrong pronouns for me. I do get frustrated when I’m put in the position of having to focus on how you feel, because how you feel isn’t really the issue in that particular moment.

Group D is for people who are working on getting it right but sometimes get tripped up, but who want to deal with their mistake without making it worse or bigger.

What to do if you mess up my pronouns

So, if you’re someone who wants to do right by me but sometimes messes up, here are some things you can do:

  • If you catch yourself right away, correct yourself and move on. “Jake got me started watching Doctor Who when she described the Weeping Angels–sorry, when he described the Weeping Angels–and now I wear Doctor Who underpants every day.”

 

  • If you realize you used the wrong pronouns but it’s too late to correct yourself mid-sentence, find a way to use the correct pronouns as soon as possible. That looks like this:

You: Jake got me started watching Doctor Who when she described the Weeping Angels and now I wear Doctor Who underpants every day.

Me: I can’t believe you just told this entire group that you’re wearing Doctor Who underpants.

You: Jake’s acting like he doesn’t have five pairs of Doctor Who underpants at home.

  • If you use the wrong pronouns for me and either don’t realize your mistake at the time or are told by someone else later that you screwed up, make sure to use correct pronouns for me the very next time we’re hanging out. This is how you make it clear that you don’t belong in Group B.
  • If you hear someone else use the wrong pronouns for me, it would help me out if you could make sure to use the right pronouns as quickly as possible. Most people catch on pretty quickly, but if someone doesn’t seem to get it, could you have a conversation with them later, when I’m not around? That conversation might go like this:

You: Hey, I wanted to let you know that Jake uses he/him/his pronouns.

Them: OH MY GOD I USED THE WRONG PRONOUNS I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THAT JESUS CHRIST I NEED TO GO APOLOGIZE IMMEDIATELY *marches toward me*

You: Wait wait wait, I don’t think it’s a big deal and what I know about Jake is that the easiest way to fix this is to just use the right pronouns next time you talk to him.

Them: OH MY GOD I’M THE WORST I HATE MYSELF BUH I SUCK WE HAD A TRANS PERSON AT THE LAST SQUARE DANCE CLUB I WAS IN AND I NEVER SCREWED UP AND I’M A HORRIBLE PERSON

You: Okayyyy well I’m gonna go dance this next tip. Do you dance lead or follow?

Just so you know, though, the conversation might go a little more like this:

You: Hey, I wanted to let you know that Jake uses he/him/his pronouns.

Them: Whatever, I can’t be expected to remember those pronouns. The transgenders expect everybody to bend over backwards for them.

That’s what transphobia looks like sometimes. If you’re willing to stand up to it, that saves me the trouble later. Of course, standing up to transphobia is a complicated, difficult matter–and one that’s maybe better saved for a different blog post.

22 thoughts on “What do to if you use the wrong pronouns for me

  1. Robin

    So, how does one handle it when (1) talking to someone who doesn’t KNOW the transgender person’s pronoun preferences and may doesn’t even know that the person IS trans? I think it would/could be confusing to such a person, e.g., if the preferred singular pronoun is “they.” Especially when the gender is not the subject of conversation and stopping to discuss the pronouns would distract from the current topic. Thenm, (2) what if someone else who knows the trans-person “corrects” you? I’ve been saying, “Well, I know that X doesn’t know about Y’s gender OR pronoun preferences and I thought it would be confusing and distracting, so I just used the usual pronoun referring to Y’s gender presentation.”
    (3) BUT, what if Y sees theirself as non-genders or both-gendered? Then perhaps there is not any pronoun referring to gender presentation, but X would STILL be confused…..I particularly have trouble, when the preferred pronoun is “they” and the situation would be confused by implying a plural subject.

  2. Shodo

    I sure would like to have a singular non-gendered pronoun so this would all be easier.
    Back in the 1970’s we talked about that but never got it. But this is a lot more painful than that was. Could we start something, please?

  3. Wing

    This post made my heart leap with joy. Thank you! <3

  4. Prof A

    I second the first poster’s question. I’m a college professor and I really want to treat my students respectfully. There are a lot of them and only one of me, so I often mess up names. I think it would be super uncomfortable to be put on the spot in class, though, eg, “Ms Jones, you have a question?” “Actually, Prof., it’s Mr Jones.”

    It would be awesome if the person sent me a short email, eg, “Dear Prof, I’m really looking forward to a great semester! Sincerely, Mr Kay Jones.” But, I know emailing your professor is terrifying to many students. I’m grateful for any advice.

  5. Regan B.

    @Prof A,
    Great question! At the beginning of the term, do you hand out a syllabus, with a general outline of what your intentions and expectations are for the class? If so, consider granting a tiny bit of credit to students who email you with their preferred name (which *often* doesn’t mesh with what their name is legally, and can be a much scoffed at request) is, and what their preferred pronouns are. Your “Mister Kay Brown” might actually prefer they/them/their pronouns and has a visceral reaction to the name Kay, and would love the opportunity to instead be called Kale. Or Alex. Or Frisco…or whatever. Lots of students have no idea that gender is even a thing.

    I was a stellar biology student at university, was happily slogging my way through school, all puffed up and preening and proud to have learned so much and…. And then I moved up here to Western Washington, and let me tell you something, this land is an education all on its own. I know and have always known less than Jon Snow. All I’ve actually ever learned was to acknowledge that fact with slightly more grace than a toddler. 😀

  6. eila

    @Prof A,
    One thought would be just to ask. You say you’re not great with names, so maybe this happens already (without the gender context) – “Sorry, I’m not great with names, can you remind me of your name?”

    Just add pronouns – if someone asks a question and you don’t remember their name/pronouns, just switch that line to: “Sorry, I’m not great with names, can you remind me what name and pronouns you use?”

    If you decide to go this route, be very diligent about *consistently* asking every student for pronouns along with their name. Trans and gender non-conforming people usually appreciate if we’re asked for our pronouns when someone is unsure, but most people(trans or cis) don’t like to be singled out in front of a crowd. Especially 18-21 year old people in late adolescence, and especially trans people being singled out for not conforming to cisgender norms and beauty standards.

  7. Jacob Post author

    I was recently at a conference keynote where the speaker invited audience questions. When she called on audience members, she said things like “Sir, what’s your question?” or “Yes, the woman in the back.” It meant I was definitely NOT going to raise my hand, because I didn’t want the risk of my gender turning into a thing. I don’t think this is an uncommon strategy for trans folks in group settings, whether the setting is a conference or a classroom or any other kind of gathering.

    The cool thing is that most of the time, there’s really no reason to name people’s gender. I always recommend avoiding “Mr.” and “Ms.” altogether, and to use different language for calling on students. And I always provide my students with lots of chances to tell me their pronouns–admittedly, this is probably easier for me to do because I start every semester by telling students that my name and pronouns don’t match what the university lists for me.

    One more note: I’m not a fan of requiring students to announce their pronouns when they introduce themselves. I think it puts a lot of extra pressure on trans folks, and it requires them to make a decision about whether it’s safe to disclose their gender identity to people they may not know well. Instead, I notify students that I’ll be using “they/them/theirs” unless they tell me otherwise. The vast majority of my students are perfectly comfortable telling me that they prefer “she/her/hers” or “he/him/his.” Some students forget to name their pronouns, probably because they’ve never had to worry about people misgendering them. The first time I say something like “Jack just explained their frustration with the reading,” Jack realizes he needs to tell me that he uses different pronouns. He corrects me, I say “thank you–So, Jack just explained his frustration with the reading,” and we all move on.

    I like this approach because it normalizes negotiation over pronoun use and moves some of the burden onto non-trans people. I don’t know if this would work for everyone, but it’s working well for me.

  8. Xiǎo

    Jacob, I really like your solution for Prof A. As a person who is not entirely confident in my gender identity, I would appreciate the opportunity to not be gendered or have to declare my preferred pronouns. While pronouns are inherently public, my ongoing questioning of my gender identity is really private. I also think this is a great strategy for group discussions. I was at a workshop the other day where they had everyone go around and introduce themselves with their name and preferred pronouns. It was really awkward when they got to me. Telling the group to use they for everyone unless someone has said otherwise would have allowed me to quietly just leave my pronouns out when giving my name instead of forcing me to make a choice or drawing attention to it.

    Using they/them/theirs for everyone is great as a teacher, since you can state your intentions upfront, but it can be more complicated in social situations. For example, if you’re talking to a trans person who is obviously presenting female, but is visibly trans, using “they” could be hurtful, since they have no way of knowing that you use “they” for everyone. Thoughts?

  9. MissK

    I got those asking about a purely singular non-gendered or binary pronoun: I though that was what Ze was for? I’ve seen it being used for/by some people for a couple of years. However, I have not used it since generally my buddies prefer the use of them/they/their

  10. woodstockdc

    Per your conference question: this bugs me because it’s so easy to get around:

    “In the back, blond hair, red shirt…your question?”

    “Right here, row three, with the blazer. What did you want to ask?”

    The second person singular is pretty useful in this regard. :)

    I would also like to add that using they/them/theirs for singular, *known* individuals is really hard for some gender conforming people. We grew up being taught that they is a plural pronoun. “Look, there are the Bobsie twins. Let’s invite them to dinner.”

    And yes, *known* is the key here so please don’t drag out they “well, everyone already uses ‘they’ when the gender of someone isn’t known.” Yes, people do that. Yes, it’s irritating. But for most people it’s a substitute in lieu of a known binary designation.

    Being asked to do the cognitive work to reconcile something we know is plural with one person standing in front of us when there are multiple potential systems of singular, genderless pronouns out there makes it seem like the trans community just doesn’t want to do any work at all to get what it wants (genderless pronouns) and is foisting all that work off on the rest of us (we have to deal with the plural/singular cognitive dissonance *in addition* to having to deal with the “wait, this person isn’t on the gender binary scale?” cognitive dissonance).

  11. mx

    Hi, I am one of those irritating people who uses non-binary pronouns. My partner also uses them, but a different set than I do. Here is what I have found:

    “They/them” is MUCH more natural/easy for people to slip into over ze or ey or other variants. I generally use they/them, which I don’t love, but people remember it more easily than they remember my preferred version–and either way, it results in me not being misgendered, so it’s fine with me.

    I agree that they/them isn’t always the best, but as someone who has been using this for years now, I can tell you that *in practice* people are far more likely to use it correctly than anything else. This is not a matter of “the trans community doesn’t want to do work”, it’s a matter of cis people making it difficult for us to do what we’d like. Cis people do not want to learn multiple systems of gender-neutral pronouns, and if you say otherwise, congratulations because you know far different cis people than I or many other non-binary people do. It is extremely, extremely tiresome to correct pronouns constantly, so maybe ask your fellow cis people to pay more attention and respect a person’s pronouns as they would a person’s name.

  12. Cait

    Thank you for writing this. As a cis person, I have had some wobbles breaking my binary habits, and am trying to continue educating myself so I can be a better friend. I’ve discussed my question with some of my non-binary friends and none of us have come up with a good solution — in English, alternative pronouns are an easy solution, but in languages with more ubiquitous gendering of everything, like Spanish (which I spend a lot of time speaking), I’m not sure how to be inclusive or neutral. For instance, my friends who use alternative pronouns are from the United States and New Zealand. My boyfriend is Peruvian, and it’s impossible to mention my friends without gendering them unless I stick to first-name-as-pronoun and avoid adjectives entirely. The one place I’ve lived that seems more inclusive is Thailand, which also has a linguistic binary but more gender fluidity, and everyone I knew chose to use the masculine or feminine form depending on which was closer to their identity, but still within a binary structure. This seems culturally accepted and appropriate there but potentially limiting or offensive if used as a model. Do you have any thoughts or resources that might be helpful for approaching inclusivity in non-English languages? Thank you so much!

  13. Char

    @Cait:
    For now, switch between masculine and feminine where possible! In writing we have Latin@ and Latinx type things, but I can see how that could be similar to ze/xe pronouns and be difficult to change/explain/get used to. Ask your friends and ask online (in Spanish) for nonbinary people’s opinions on places like Facebook or tumblr or twitter–they’ll have some more native insight for a more long-term solution.

  14. Brussels manager

    Thanks Jacob, I particularly liked the suggestions on how to proceed after a faux pas.

    It’s interesting how similar the feelings and reactions are to when I’m introduced as Spanish when I’ve repeatedly said I consider myself Catalan.

    Or when people prefer to be called by a certain name (e.g. Patrick and not Pat) and others disregard this.

    Thanks again

  15. K

    @mx

    “Cis people do not want to learn multiple systems of gender-neutral pronouns”
    PEOPLE do not want to learn multiple systems of gender-neutral pronouns, and why should they when they shouldn’t have to? You say “they/them isn’t always the best,” but you don’t explain why. I am non-binary and this obsession with trying to create another gender-neutral pronoun when there already is one drives me nuts.

  16. Jack

    What do you do when you accidentally misgendering your own partner? I did this the other day and I feel awful about it. It’s not the same as any old friend–if I accidentally did that to another trans or nb person I would do the quick apology and correction. But with my PARTNER, it feels so much more loaded, personal, embarrassing and shameful. Especially when I virtually haven’t fucked it up at all in the past. And when I’m not even cis, so I get how it feels. I don’t know why but I can’t stop feeling mad at myself about it. My partner is over it, and I can’t seem to get there too.

  17. Dan Hickey

    Jake–
    Thanks. That was super super helpful. I fancy myself a D working ton the A while fighting absentmindednes. Hope its true.

    Here is a question that came up recently. I have relationships with several people who I I care about (including you) who I have known long enough to have used multiple pronouns appropriately. When referring to that individual in the past (when one pronoun was appropriate at the time) is it appropriate to use that prior pronoun and or name when speaking in the past tense. these are not trivial distinctions because they come up formally when writing letters of recommendation and informally when people just call and ask for informal references.

    For example, it comes out as “When she was working with Henry Jenkins at MIT she did some pretty interesting stuff, but she pivoted significantly during doctoral work and now Jake is doing some interesting work with his collaborator in Colorado.

  18. Jacob McWilliams

    Hi Dan,
    I think the rules vary depending on the person, but in my view the general guide should be this: Avoid doing anything that outs the person as anything other than the gender they currently identify as. That’s true even if you’re talking about times when the person used different pronouns.

    That might look like this:
    “When he was working with Henry Jenkins he did some pretty interesting stuff, but he pivoted significantly during doctoral work and now he’s doing some interesting work with his collaborator in Colorado.”

  19. bri

    Hi there, So I’ve been working with some teenagers who are currently transitioning, and I have on a couple of occasions used the wrong pronouns. I immediately feel bad about it, but did not apologize and correct myself b/c we were in large group setting and I didn’t want them to feel more embarrassed by my mistake. I am going to be more conscientious of the way I address these individuals but probably won’t bring them aside to apologize, rather show them through further interactions that I respect their gender identities. Do you think this is an ok way to handle this situation? Thanks for your advice

  20. June

    Hi Jacob,

    Thank you for your post.
    I have a friend who is cis but it’s important to recognize non-conforming gender identities via using the people’s preferred pronouns.
    He slips up somewhat frequently though, when we are out in public, and here’s why:
    He grew up in Tennessee where it is (was?) a norm to use “sir/ma’am”. He told me he would get paddled in school or at home if he didn’t use “sir” and “ma’am” when speaking to elders and even sometimes strangers. Today at a coffee shop he delivered a “thank you, sir” and the person responded by saying “I don’t go by ‘sir'”. He apologized and moved on quickly (group D style) but he spent a long time hashing it out with me later and kind of beat himself up about it.
    I told him he did the right thing by apologizing and not publicly dwelling on it but I do see that from his perspective, this would be a hard habit to break when it is ingrained in this particularly violent way. Any thoughts or tips?

  21. DIANA DUPREE

    My granddaughter is living with her boyfriend who is transgender. I really like “him” but I have said “she” a few times and now both of them won’t talk to me. I didn’t do it on purpose. I feel terrible but don’t understand why he is so upset with me. I am fine with it but have really tried to do and say the right thing. It’s new to me but I’m really trying. Help!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.