A reader writes: “I am 15 years old and I just started my sophomore year of high school. I also came out as genderqueer a couple of weeks ago. To make it easier on people, I chose one set of pronouns and I give people little cheat sheets with my pronouns.
“My mom seems to be really supportive, but as it turns out, she is refusing to use my pronouns (subjective: e/ey, objective: em, possessive: eir/eirs, reflexive: emself) because she doesn’t want to memorize them, and she also thinks that they’re awkward and that nobody’s going to understand what it is she’s talking about. My dad and brother pretend that nothing is different.
“My teachers are really cool about it, but so far they haven’t used any pronouns at all. My closest friends are mocking me a bit, and my friends still use the female pronouns and occasionally remember that I’m genderqueer and ask me what my pronouns are.
“My sensei, with whom I talked the most extensively about my gender identity, is just as nice as he was before I came out, but he consistently uses the female pronouns. I still haven’t had the guts to find out why – I am planning to do that soon.
“So this is pretty much my situation. Everyone I came out to is okay with my identity, but they call me she. Although I understand that this is very new to everybody and that my pronouns are unfamiliar, I have this feeling that people really aren’t even trying. Am I asking for too much? Do you have any suggestions on what I should/should not do?”
Pronouns are probably the most difficult part of being trans or genderqueer, or being in another situation where they might change. What I have found as a trans person transitioning from female to male is that the name came far earlier and with much more ease to others than the pronouns did.
Most people had no problem calling me Matt, and there was very little “slippage.” However, the changeover to “he” was much slower and much more aggravating – particularly for me. Friends would say, “Matt’s driving. She says she’s got enough room.” Or “Matt wants to come eat with us. She’ll be ready in a minute.”
I had less patience than I should have, and there were times when I threw little temper tantrums that I now regret. But if it was this difficult for people to switch from one commonly used pronoun to another, it will be infinitely more difficult for people to switch to uncommon pronouns that they have never used before and are completely unfamiliar with.
To be totally honest, I have a really hard time with gender-neutral pronouns. It’s not that I have negative feelings about them. It’s just that I was raised in a generation where “he” and “she” were the only options, and no one had ever heard of “ze,” “nu,” “e,” “ey,” or anything like them.
Very early in my transition, I was given the honor of introducing Leslie Feinberg at a conference. I was all jittery anyway, because Feinberg was one of my idols, and I had no idea what pronoun to use. Feinberg could tell I was nervous – I was falling all over myself just to meet hir. I said, “What pronoun do you want me to use?” Ze said, “What pronoun do you want to use?” I said, “Well, I think of you as he.” Ze said, “Then use he.” Thank you, Leslie!
While we can’t all be as patient or as gracious as Feinberg, I think that we sometimes have to give people a break – particularly if they’re trying. But it does sound to me as if your family, friends, and associates probably aren’t trying too hard.
The problem is that you can’t make them say or do anything. They have to want to be respectful of you. When you’re an adult, you can sever ties with anyone who refuses to respect your identity, including the use of correct name and pronouns. In some cities and states, legal action can be taken against an employer for not complying or not requiring the workforce to comply. But as a minor, it is more difficult.
It is hard to sever ties with your family, and you probably don’t want to. There’s a slim possibility (probably slim to none), depending on where you live, that school personnel could be in violation of a law or district policy if they are intentionally misgendering you, but it sounds as if they are using no pronoun at all, so it might be hard to prove intent.
It is also possible (although not probable) that your friends could be in violation of a school bullying policy for intentionally misgendering you or teasing you. But you might not want to take it that far at this point, and again, you are not coming from a position of power. There are some trans people who will not even sympathize as they struggle to get people to use the correct gendered pronoun.
But there a few things you can do:
> You can have a one-on-one talk with your mother, each of your teachers, and each of your friends to let them know how important this is to you and why. You can talk to them about how they would feel if they were misgendered. You can ask sincerely for them to respect you and your identity as you respect them and theirs.
> You can find a new group of friends who will respect your identity and not make fun of you. As you move through high school and into college or into the world, you will find more people who identify in similar ways and who are open to respecting your wishes for your pronouns and other language.
> You can refuse to answer to incorrect pronouns. You can pretend you don’t hear the people who are misgendering you, and when they call you on it, you can say, “Oh, were you talking to (or about) me? I didn’t realize that, because you said ‘she,’ and that’s not what I go by.”
> You can try to get one friend on your side – someone who will always use the correct pronouns and will correct others when they don’t. Often, if one person starts using your preferred pronouns, others will step in line (this might not work with your family or teachers).
> You can become an activist for gender-neutral pronouns. You can ask to write an article (or several) for the school newspaper. You can join the school GSA or LGBT Alliance, if there is one, and create flyers or speak at an assembly. You can take your activism outside of your school and write a letter to the local newspaper or put up YouTube videos or start a blog.
Regardless of what you do, you might not succeed in getting people to use your correct pronouns, but you can help plant the seed for future generations. You can start exposing people to gender-neutral pronouns now, so that in the future, “he” and “she” won’t be seen as the only logical choices.
This is a tough one, and I wish you the best of luck. I’m hoping that readers have more thoughts and suggestions, so I turn it over to them.
(Ask Matts are backed up. I’m trying to take them is the order that they are received. If you have written to me, I have it and will post it. Thanks for your patience.)