Sunday, November 30, 2008

The ol' pronoun glitch

Went to a friend's birthday party last night. Then to dinner after the party. All lovely.

Except that at some point during the dinner, someone called me "he." Corrected herself, but didn't exactly apologise.

I knew, before we left the house, that someone was going to call me by the wrong pronoun, because someone always calls me by the wrong pronoun.

This little slip-up happens virtually every time I am out with friends from Colby College, where I have worked for 20 years now. I know full well that most of these slip-ups are unconscious, and not intended as hurtful.

But they hurt, maybe because they are unconscious.

The ol pronoun slip is an issue we've talked about ad nauseum, over at MHB/community, as well as on my own site. I'm not trying to plow any new ground here. I understand the reasons people mess up, sometimes, and I accept that most people who do so mean well, most of the time.

But it still hurts, god dammit.

I'm always left to simmer quietly, to try to get over it, or to forgive whoever the miscreant might be. But I'm always the one simmering; no one else ever seems angered on my behalf; no one else ever seems to even notice these slips, or even care.

I'm almost seven years post-op, almost ten years from when my transition began. I pass pretty seamlessly-- for whatever that's worth--in most situations. So what is this about?

The idea that I will have to keep getting he'd, and I will have to keep forgiving, into my fifties and sixties and seventies drives me up the fuckin' wall.


laycette said...

Hi Jenny,

Yeah that does suck.
My sister's husband who knew me previously about 7 years ago as well, still stuffs up the pronouns and 'accidentally' occasionally calls me by my previous name, and it just isn't acceptable. My policy now is to embarrass them back - it's their mistake, and seven years is waaaay log enough for a person to get their head around a concept. So don't be too hard on yourself for being all out of forgiveness. Once or twice is fine, understandable, and an honest mistake, and if they apologise and actually make an effort, fine. But it is clear after this long that they have not, so it's not good enough, and you deserve better respect. We do. So a curt reminder, and of the time it has been now, in front of the peers they think they 'speak for' in voicing their underground prejudice, will probably make it clear what side of the etiquette fence their "forgetfulness" falls on.

Regards, Grace Abrams

Emily S said...

I understand completely and the more easily one is accepted by society at large, the more painful these slips become.

When I first transitioned, I made it a bit of a joke. I gave everyone three months to get used to it after which they all had to agree that I would kick them (and my joke was that this was extra painful since transitioning allowed me to wear pointy shoes). This broke the ice for most people and those that did break the three month rule did get a very theatrical but very real kick!

With my colleagues and my family this largely worked, but there are still a few people who know me from before that still do it and I've gone past simmering, I make a point about it, when they do it if I can, otherwise as soon after as possible. I won't accept this any more... It's a pure question of courtesy and trying to avoid causing pain, so it's the absolute least I expect.

Yes, it's caused a few arguments and I think I've lost one friend from it (we'll see), but this is important and if this friend can't be bothered to avoid hurting me then I don't want him around me.

. said...

Most definitely... It's important to confront these issues head on, with a serious and firm voice.

People "say" they forget... they don't, they're unwilling to change. Whatever process is needed to persuade them is absolutely necessary to confront.

Susan said...

I don't know, Grace, I'm not so sure it's an issue of getting one's "head around the issue" so much as it is simply a slip of tongue due to having an extended history with the person in question...which, as I read it, seems to be the case in Ms. Boylan's essay. It appears to me that attempting to embarrass someone over it, particularly if it is a brother-in-law/family member/co-worker, would be way more telling of the individual than the person who made the slip up and expecting an apology even more so. Perhaps a more reasonable tact, should the foul occur frequently with a close associate who occasionally misses the pronoun, would be to take the person aside, one-on-one, and explain the issue with emphasis on how important the issue is.

I am an engineer. I have done contract engineering consultancy work on a contract basis for many of the major world wide engineering firms for years. My transition timeline is similar to Ms. Boylan's, and like Jenny, I also pass pretty seamlessly. Rarely does anyone miss the pronoun, but it does happen now and again. And, like the both of you, I get this irritating little internal twitch every time the pronoun is missed, even after all these years. However, it is most infrequent and seems to happen almost exclusively in the “thick of the moment”, in conversation when information exchange and clarity are of the utmost importance, taking a back seat to niceties, for lack of a better word. Amusing is the fact that there have been times when in the same conversation I have been referred to with both the masculine and feminine pronoun by the same individual, giving me the distinct impression the pronoun error was nothing more than a slip of the tongue. I think the reason for the rarity of the error, in my case anyhow, has way more to do with the lack of history I have with my everyday associates than any other single factor. Though I have politely corrected the error on occasion, way, way more often than not, I simply ignore it. Though often said, winning the war is more important than winning the battle.

On a slightly different note, I realized very early on that my friends and family, as accepting as they might like to be, would never truly recognize me as female…regardless of what they referred to me as. It had nothing to do with how feminine I was or wasn’t. It had nothing to do with how well I passed or didn’t. It had nothing to do with how well I blended or didn’t blend into society. In fact, it really didn’t have anything to do with me at all, it was all about their perception, based on years of previous history before I transitioned. I also realized it was unreasonable to expect them to. That was unacceptable; I chose to leave them behind.

Unknown said...

I totally sympathize, Jenny. With me it's my grandmother who has trouble using the correct pronouns. The classic family excuse is that she's 95, but the reality is that I've been transitioned for almost 12 years now, and despite her age she doesn't have a problem remembering similar things about the rest of the family like recent marriages and such.

What keeps me positive despite that is the fact that when I'm in a non-family situation I'm generally well-accepted as a woman (apparently even those who might want to question my gender aren't sure enough I'm not a born woman to venture a public question).

As a result, on the rare occasions that my gender is questioned in public I find that two things are often true:

1. The person questioning my gender has some sort of connection to our community (a trans relative or friend if not trans in some way themselves).

2. The person is in some way insecure about their own gender or their status within that gender (for example, I've found that short men and others who don't meet the "tall, dark, and handsome" stereotype in particular seem especially willing to publicly question the gender of transfolks).

When I'm on the phone (and on the radio) I sound like a guy so in those cases I generally correct the person quickly and defintely when the mistake is made and that usually nips it in the bud.

Véro B said...

I'm sorry this happens to you, Jenny. After all these years, I should think any excuses would be rather weak.

My transition is much newer than yours, but so far slips have been minimal at work, the people who have known me the longest with whom I interact frequently. Since I'm a remote employee, however, this is just at phone meetings.

If I find myself in a situation where I'm with other people who have known me for 20 years or so, it will be interesting to see how that goes. It probably helps that I moved to the other coast and another country 14 years ago. Most people I interact with haven't known me that long, and many never knew me in the Before Time.

I hope you can figure out a way to deal with your situation that lets you feel better instead of being the one to suffer.

Rebecca said...


I certainly feel your pain, and especially since you've been postop for so long. There really is no excuse. I've only been full-time for 6 months, but have decided already that I won't tolerate these "slip-ups" any longer. There is not a single male physical, emotional, or mannerism-related feature about me - so this is their problem, not mine. Normally, a rather loud "SHE" reminder fixes the problem, at the embarrassment of the perpetrator, but I have had some cases where I've had to actually get a little nasty.

One such case was my mother. She was fully supportive from the start, and actually got my new name and gender right from the moment I told her. Until I had FFS - then it was back to the wrong pronoun and name. I reminded her every time, and got the "But I'm so old" and "But you were my so for 38 years" excuses - to which I always reminded her of the 6 months prior that she was getting it right. Finally, I had had it. I very firmly told her that her behavior was at least to some extent intentional in some manner, and was extremely hurtful and unacceptable. I followed this up with an actual threat: "If you can't figure this out immediately, I will simply stop visiting you. Completely." This fixed the problem. Perhaps she will never actually be able to see me for the woman I am. And that hurts, it really does, because her son no longer exists. But that doesn't mean I have to have her inability to accept shoved in my face every 30 seconds.

Honestly, I don't understand why this is so difficult for people. If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it is very likely a duck. Why call it a cat? No doubt even Forrest Gump would get this one right....

Anonymous said...

This is no comfort to you Jenny but it's some small consulation to me. I went full time over two years ago in a small community and the wrong pronouns do indeed hurt.
It's not very comforting to hear that after all this time it still happens to you.

This happens to me at a portrait painting group I belong to. I know most don't mean to hurt me but they knew me before I transitioned.
I knew it would take a long time of correcting them but I figured after two years it would've stopped.

Just when you think you're being accepted as just another woman out pops a "he". I chastised an old friend at the last session so that others nearby could hear. It was so upsetting that I had a hard time keeping the tears in.

I wound up leaving early and the offender came out to my car with tears in his eyes apologizing profusely.

The probelm was I had embarrassed both of us with my audible chastizement and now I feel embarrassed to return. It sucks! It makes me wish to God I wasn't trans.

SuzyQ said...

Yeah it really sucks and is painful.

Mostly it stops with the passage of time but some people, particularly the rigidly religious see it as part of their faith based hate to he us.

Some in the LGBT community do it for ideological reasons. Like the stupidity of the MWMF. I swear that some who identify as transgender are the worst when it come to using something like the phrase "inverted penis" to keep us in our places.

And that is what it is a matter of keeping us in our places, telling us we aren't really women, even if we are long time post-op.

BTW the last person to call me by my former name was my mother, she died in 1992.

I came out and have only used my current name since 1969 so my ID change pre-dates computer every thing.

Far more threatening is what happens to people who transitioned since everything is on computer data bases and they get mail and credit card offers in their former names. Shred that stuff with a cross cut because if it gets taken whole from the trash there can be someone running scams with your former name.

Véro B said...

One brief note: We do not suddenly become women post-op. That is a cissexual misconception. Jenny was a woman before her operation. I am one as I wait for my time to come. If we were not already women (even if not legally) before surgery, we would never have such a procedure performed.

Alicia said...

Hi Jenny:

Even though it seems like such a small slip to them it hurts us with a numbing pain that leaves us feeling empty and depressed deep inside, long after the slip happened. Sometimes it doesn't take much to send us plumetting into a state of depression, and their careless words may be the last straw that does it.

I remember a coworker turned around and called me sir, but didn't correct himself. After I pointed it out to him he trivialized it.

The sad part of this type of thing is that people who knew us from before are going to continue making slip-ups, and those who meet us after the fact and don't know, don't make that mistake.
In some ways that makes me long for stealth someday.

I have an uncle who continually
slips up and I'm determined to
not have anything to do with him, if I can help it. Sometimes we just have to say enough!


edith said...

You cannot force people to believe what you know to be true. It's like going after a horse that runs further away the more you chase it, even if it needs you to care for it.

It's even worse if you are very late transitioner, like myself. The "glacial transition" turns into the "autogynephilic transition". Even from some women born transsexual, who transition early, I've found I have had to endure slurs. I find my reality becoming Janice Raymond's "patriarchal myth" of "male mothering". I don't think my kids see it that way.

I find it so ironic how few I know ever thought of me as "much of a man" till I "transitioned". The one advatage that comes out of being able to observe the stark contrast between the ones who think they know and the ones who really see you for what you are,
is the knowledge that people are blinded by prejudice and their perceptions are absolutely unreliable.

I can't live as a "Secret Agent Man", though, simply because I am not one.

-julia said...

hi Jenny & all,

I would add to what's been said that old acquaintances tendencies to slip up pronouns tends to be negatively correlate with how important they feel it is to see you as the gender you see yourself as.

The people in my life who tried the hardest to get my pronouns right (and who were most apologetic when they did slip up) are the ones who never slip up now. And the people who never apologized back when I first transitioned for slip ups, or who complained about how "hard" it was to use the right pronouns with me - they're the ones who still slip up these days.

I feel that the non-pronoun-slippers have worked hard to truly see me as female (which is why they don't slip). And I think those who do slip still think of me as male on some level and are always translating my gender in a sense (which is why they make mistakes).

just my 2 cents...

best wishes,

Sara said...

Hmmm, yes I agree that pronoun mistakes are painful ... to a point. But look at the bigger picture. You have a job, a family, a home. You aren't prostituting yourself, nor do you inject drugs into your veins everyday to dull the pain of your existence.

I've heard you speak ... you are an intelligent, eloquent speaker and author. If pronouns from colleagues who knew you before transition bother you, then try leaving Maine behind. Teach somewhere else. Try living in the inner city. Leave what you know behind and gather new people and experiences into your life.

Please let's stop complaining about the little things. If you have food, shelter, warmth, and love in your life you are doing fine.

Sara, Washington DC ...

Samantha Shanti said...

Wow, this does indeed suck. Especially since I have no idea how a human being can look at you and NOT see a woman before them. It's just totally beyond me.

My experiences have been to say the least, not the usual ones. First off, I don't think I always pass, but it's been a while since I've had any problems at all.

My poor sister, she had a really close friend who transitioned. Whole nine yards like the rest of us. Regrettably, she gave my sister so much grief if she slipped, it became impossible to be around her. My sister is still kinda hurting over that, and it's been years.

So of course then comes her favorite brother (and really her only brother) who admits he cannot justify the chard anymore and has to stop living someone else's life. I need to live my own, and despite it being, at lest in conventional wisdom, one of life's most difficult paths to take, I move confidently back to the land of my birth.

My poor sister, from the moment I let her know, looks like a comment is about to destroy all life on earth. I'm patient, understanding, try to get her to tell me what's wrong, and the first thing out of her mouth is "I don't care what gender you are, just please don't make me lose you too!"

So not what I was expecting. She reminded me about her friend, and said "I cannot do the whole gender Nazi thing again, and I know you've been dealing with this you whole life, but it's going to take me a while to change. Plus I don't want to give up all the memories, the history we have, and I don't want to have to constantly be stressed about names and pronouns."

I said to her the same thing I'd been saying my whole life, which was "Call me anything you want except late for dinner" and then added "Just as long as you keep calling me. Okay?"

And that as they say is that. She relaxed, we were good, and she just fell into my new name and the right pronouns without a word from me.

As I said, I'm odd woman out in this community. I kept all my old friends and family, and with the exception of my brother who has deep mental health issues who's holding on to a past that never existed, everyone else has been stellar. My other brother and I even joke about it like it's no big thing now, because really it isn't. His wife, my sister-in-law, who has become a good friend of mine, never knew me back then. So anytime the conversation comes up, she get's that confused, deer in the headlights, I'm trying to wrap my mind around it look and says "I'm sorry, but I simply cannot imagine you as a guy. I've tried, and I'm not trying to be mean, just it's impossible to relate to on any level."

Gee, worse things could happen right?

My perspective is I guess somewhat unusual, I did this for me. Really the first and only thing I've done in my life just for me. To be sure, I was way, way more a gender nazi BEFORE I made the crossing because then hearing "SIR" was horrifically painful. Now, I chuckle. There hasn't been a single time in the last four years that I've had to correct anyone, in fact, the rare times it ever happened, I just kept right on with what I was doing and they corrected themselves.

I have to be honest, in some ways, I feel like our community can be our own worst enemy. Some of us obsess over it, stay on alert all the time, waiting to pounce on what could be an honest mistake. Be it harping on women in stealth harming the community, or hyper vigilance...

Wow. What I just said . . .

Hyper Vigilance is one of the many symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Something that as a survivor of domestic violence I'm all to familiar with. I have PTSD. There are things that I'm hyper vigilant about. But I just realized, that maybe, just maybe, "The ol' pronoun glitch" is PTSD?

Yes, this journey can be horrific for many of us. The costs so high, pain so great, we wind up with PTSD? Goodness knows Doctor's have enough trouble dealing with it when the "trauma(s)" responsible are clear and plainly apparent, but what about the ones not so clear?

Wow. I have a totally different view of this now, how it can be for so many of you. Regrettably I have no idea what or how to do about it. PTSD is a nasty bugger. Hyper-vigilance . . . Crap!

See I transitioned to get away from the constant fuss and pain of GID, not get stuck fighting for the rest of my life.

Wow. Jenny, everyone else who still has troubles, pain from this, you have my deepest, heartfelt sympathy, and even, in a way, empathy. It's taken me some work to get there, but I get it now and I'm very sorry.

Oh my, I have some thinking to do. Donna Rose was recently talking about leadership, and the general lack of it, or cohesion in the community. I won'der if this isn't part of it. A form of PTSD that I hadn't thought of, but it makes sense...

Yeah, I'm babbling right? Just call me Brooke...

Gina said...

There are well-intentioned people who, regardless of their acceptance and support of your transition or how well you pass, can't get it right. It's almost like Tourettes; their subconscious blurts out the wrong pronoun. Furthermore, their minds will unknowingly key on anything that has gender dissonance, whether it's one's size, voice, hands, hairline, whatever, and they have to say 'he' if only to quite their confused brain. I do believe they can consciously retrain themselves to cease that behavior, but I also give them some slack since it's not easy. Gender recognition is a complex and, I believe, inborn skill that most people don't even think about. Oddly, I do find that one's voice can profoundly influence misgendering. There is something about a completely female voice coming out of someone's mouth that makes it very hard to use the wrong pronoun... almost as if your brain says, "if they sound wholly female, you may not use 'him' or 'he'". In my anecdotal experience, mtf transitioners with androgynous or male sounding voices get wrong pronouns more often. And yes, after transition, hearing the wrong pronoun can be really upsetting and makes you feel as if your womanhood is being negated... it just sucks.

km said...

Yes, it hurts. And it also hurts to read about people who can say, yeah, i pass seamlessly and i hate it when people mess up the pronouns. I'm happy for you, and all that. But it does remind me of what I'll never have, and that hurts.

As for the people who know us, though... I think that for some, it might really be close to impossible for them to get it right every time, like it'd be impossible to learn to speak a language with native fluency and no accent if you started at age forty. It's disappointing when they slip, but I wouldn't let that interfere with a relationship with someone I cared about, and who cared about me.

Unknown said...


In my experiance pronoun slip-ups have very little to do with passing or how excepting the person is. It's simply a language problem. I am trans. I have a friend who is trans and passes just fine. I am as sensitive to the issue as anyone, but at least in my mind... Have slipped up.

It has to do with the context of the conversation. If we are talking with her, and her wife about their kids, let's say... Your tongue wants to say "husband" after "wife" and "father" after "mother" and the associated pronouns automatically follow... It, for me has nothing to do with passing or validation.

Karymé said...

I work with a transwoman who does not 'pass' as cis and have heard colleagues unintentionally slip and use 'he.' As the partner of a transwoman, I also silently seethe. I try to interject/correct/admonish, but it's not always possible... and if the woman in question were there, I would certainly not presume to speak out on her behalf because she might not want 'saving' or attention called to the issue etc.

So... I guess my point is: sometimes supporters don't know how to support best or express that support but that doesn't mean it's just you seething. The whole party might be also seething on your behalf at whoever just made an ass of him/herself.