Happy Pride, everyone! I’m Sarah and my pronouns are she/her. I’m a white queer cisgender woman and parent of two teen boys, who loves someone who is transgender. Someones, actually. My older son was assigned female at birth and came out as trans around age twelve. Part of my work in the world is supporting the parents and families of transgender youth. Since you are here, reading Miles’ blog, I’m going to assume that you also love someone who is trans. After all, to know Miles is to love him. 🙂 Originally, my intention in writing this was to have a little chat about the importance of pronouns and how best to support and stand with the trans people in your life. You know, a Pride-related PSA.
However. Before we get there…
It’s impossible to talk about things like pronouns and being misgendered without acknowledging the wider context of systemic racism, transphobia, and misogyny in our culture and institutions, and the ongoing violence against Black people, trans people, and especially Black trans women.
Here’s a quick run-down of facts, figures and resources:
- Trans people have always existed. Throughout recorded history and around the world, understandings and experiences of gender have always been fluid and expansive.
- In the US, trans people have always been marginalized and discriminated against by law. Anti-trans legislation (“bathroom bills”, medical restrictions, etc) across states and municipalities has been rampant, and not just during the Trump era. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to extend Title VII to protect gay and trans people in the workplace is one bright spot in an otherwise discriminatory legal landscape.
- Trans people face disproportionate amounts of violence and discrimination in the US and internationally. Even with what is known and recorded, data is scarce due to misgendering and safety concerns of those reporting. For trans folks who are BIPOC, rates of violence are exponentially worse.
- Black trans women continue to be murdered at alarming rates in the US. The Human Rights Campaign calls it an epidemic. Again, the numbers are likely much higher because trans murders are often misreported.
A week ago, Miles and I watched the new Netflix documentary, Disclosure, a trans-directed and trans-produced film that looks at the history of transgender representation in film and television. Watching it, we had to press the pause button many times, exclaiming how this part and that part were total a-ha moments for us both. One repeated refrain throughout the film, spoken in different ways by several interviewees, has stayed with me ever since: the notion that the more trans people are seen, the more violence they face. A quote from the film:
The more positive the representation we have, the more confident our community becomes, and the more confident our community becomes, the more danger we are in.
Laverne Cox, a producer and on-screen participant in the film, spoke in a podcast interview about the fact that anti-trans legislation coupled with the violence that trans people face is, at its core, an effort to erase trans people all together. To combat this erasure, she says,
“…yes, we need public policies in place, the police need to be defunded…but, we’ve had a Civil Rights Act since 1964, and racism still exists. So the work, the deep, deep work is each and every one of us interrogating the ways in which we’ve internalized white supremacy, the ways in which we’ve internalized transphobia and sexism and misogyny and how we may perpetuate that.
This internal work is, to me, utterly essential. More of Ms. Laverne’s brilliance:
The work of coming to critical consciousness…[is that] of doing the internal work and holding ourselves accountable…Then we have to treat each other better interpersonally, then we have to change ideology, then we have to change institutions, and these things can all happen simultaneously.
So here’s the thing. ALL OF THESE THINGS CAN HAPPEN SIMULTANEOUSLY. Which means! Even if you don’t personally understand what it means to be trans…you can still choose to support the trans people in your life while you’re learning. You can still choose to learn while you’re out in the streets protesting in support of Black trans lives. You can still protest while you’re putting in the effort with your trans friends. Above all, you can do all these things while you’re doing your internal interrogation work. It’s not a linear process.
And you can also screw up and make mistakes! It’s ok!
Which brings me back to pronouns. Among the trans youth I work with, the number one thing they find most painful on a day-to-day basis is being misgendered (being referred to by the wrong pronouns) and deadnamed (being called by their birth name). Let’s be clear about this: trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary folks have the right to be called by whatever name and pronouns feel right to them. If we can remember to call someone Liz and not Elizabeth, if we can ask for and remember the correct pronouns of the neighbor’s dog, we can respect trans folks’ name and pronouns.
Let’s also be clear: even if there’s no ill intent, misgendering and deadnaming someone is an act of violence. To be polite, I could call this a microaggression. Being called by the wrong pronouns is not the same as being physically assaulted for being visibly trans (though misgendering is often used as a weapon by perpetrators of anti-trans violence and the media as well). However, I’m going to have to stand my ground on this one. To repeatedly misgender someone, even unconsciously, is to say my discomfort and/or laziness is more important than your personhood. To be repeatedly misgendered is to hear you don’t see me or care enough to make an effort. Misgendering is erasure and erasure of someone’s full humanity is inherently violent.
Here’s the good news: to support our trans loved ones by not misgendering them, all we need to do is make an effort. That’s it! A continued, good faith effort. Here’s how:
- If you don’t know, ask. Don’t know or forgot someone’s pronouns? It’s ok to ask what name or pronouns they use.
- Yes, “they” is a singular pronoun. If you struggle with getting this one, practice calling your pet by they/them pronouns.
- Just keep trying. Again, it’s the continued effort that counts, not getting it right all the time. Be open to gentle correction, but remember that it’s up to you to make this shift. Try not to expect your trans loved one to keep reminding you.
- If you mess up, just correct yourself and keep it moving. Making a big deal of mistakes just causes unwanted attention and gets in the way of conversation.
Side note: for most trans folks, being constantly misgendered – by their friends, family, or the world at large – only increases their gender dysphoria. However, the flip-side is pretty sweet. For most trans folks, the experience of hearing their correct name and pronouns – especially from people who know and love them – gives them a feeling of gender EUPHORIA. Look: the world fails to meet trans folks half way, or even a quarter of the way, every day. So, be someone who bridges that gap. Offer euphoria, not dysphoria!
Like you, I am extremely blessed to know and love and be loved by some extraordinary humans of trans experience. My son Dylan has taught me more than he’ll ever know about what it looks like to claim and live one’s truth. It is an honor and privilege to be his – and my younger son’s – mom. Finding love with Miles has been the gift of my life and I’ve discovered more of myself through loving him than I previously knew existed. At the same time, it should not even matter whether or not I have trans people in my life. It is my baseline responsibility as a cisgender person to do the work of educating myself, so as not to perpetuate violence.
In honor of Pride’s radical, riotous roots, let’s love our people as best we can. Let’s stand with and donate to Black trans women and femmes. Let’s learn from and fight alongside them, because systems of oppression threaten the humanity of us ALL. Let’s continue to do the work of decolonizing our minds and hearts. And, let’s be ok with making mistakes along the way. Effort, not perfection.
PS: Please reach out to me with any gender-related questions or for further educational resources. I’m happy to do that emotional labor so that Miles doesn’t have to.
PPS: Miles uses he/him pronouns.