Cis-gender, transgender, agender, non-binary, genderqueer. These are big and scary words. Worse, their use is seemingly fluid, and what was perfectly acceptable yesterday is suddenly offensive today. Some of the people who use these terms are remarkably forgiving when we make mistakes, but some aggressively enforce their ‘correct’ use at all times. All of these factors combine to make the topic of gender a seeming minefield of political correctness over what is a seemingly trivial thing that has only very recently become a prominent issue. The easiest thing by far is to avoid talking about non-standard gender topics entirely, right? After all, this wasn’t an issue when we were growing up.
Why is it so important now all of a sudden?
There has been an explosion in growth of studies being done on transgender and gender non-conforming folks. At the same time, we’ve opened our eyes as a society to the groups of people who have been historically oppressed, excluded, marginalized, and generally disadvantaged. As a result, there is a greater awareness and desire to right these wrongs and create a better, more inclusive society. Transgender and gender non-conforming people already have to deal with the stress of being in the wrong body all day, every day. We owe it to them to not make it even harder for them.
How to show respect for gender pronouns
For me, it’s a question of respect and dignity. I want to raise our kids to show respect for everyone, and I expect our kids to be respected in return. Everyone deserves basic dignity. I don’t think these are controversial expectations. There are some really easy things we can do to provide transgender and gender non-conforming people with more dignity and respect, and the first one is to respect and use their chosen name and pronouns.
Our kids watch everything we do and listen to everything we say. This can sometimes be a great deal of pressure, especially in unfamiliar areas where you are learning too. The good news is that respecting gender pronouns is actually really simple.
You don’t really need to learn about the meaning and intricacies of those big and scary words to respect others. Really, the only thing you need to remember in order to be respectful of a person is to use the pronouns they ask you to and treat them as you would anyone else. If you refer to them as she, and they correct you, just start again and insert the correct pronoun. If you forget and mix it up, just correct yourself and carry on.
Go back and re-read the previous paragraph. I’ve been referring to a person in a non-binary way, using they and them pronouns. I’m willing to bet you had no problem understanding that I was referring to a single imaginary person. Just like learning another language, it’s easier to read or hear than speak. Like anything, it takes practice, and you’ll make mistakes along the way. The important thing is that you’re making an effort. It’s important to note, that this step doesn’t require you to understand what a non-binary person is, or how they can be a gender other than just male or female. It doesn’t require you to ask them any additional questions about any part of their life or anatomy. You’re just substituting one set of pronouns for another.
Show you’re an ally
Another way to respect and include transgender people is to introduce yourself with your pronouns and include them in your email signature and screen names when video conferencing. “Hi, I’m X and I use he/him pronouns” can be a signal to a transgender or gender non-conforming person that they have an ally in the room.
Here are a couple of scenarios you might be familiar with from the “before times.”
- You’re writing an email to someone for work, and need to refer to a third person named Sandy. You’ve never met this person, and have only vague clues about their gender. Your heart beats a bit faster while you type, hoping that you’ve guessed right. Someone replies, letting you know that you guessed wrong. Embarrassed, you thank them for pointing out your mistake and use the correct pronouns from now on. It doesn’t matter if Sandy identifies as a man, a woman, both, neither, something in between, or none of the above. They have a set of pronouns they use for themselves, and it’s just respectful for you to use them.
- Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If a customer, co-worker, friend, or stranger somehow mistook you for a different gender, and you corrected them, how would you feel if they insisted on ignoring you and continued misgendering you for the rest of the conversation? Day? Year? What if there were other people around who knew better but didn’t correct them? It’d be a pretty miserable experience, and you’d probably think they were being a jerk. Now, what if it was your boss? Your teacher? Your parents?
Not everyone gets it. Not everyone is going to understand. That’s okay. The goal here is to lessen the burden of being transgender or gender non-conforming. Respecting names and pronouns is really easy, costs you nothing, and shows that you care.
How does this all relate to kids?
Well, now that we’re becoming more ‘woke’ as a society, more and more kids feel free to express themselves, explore their gender identity and gender expression. It may seem like there are way more now than there were ten or twenty years ago, but it’s much more likely that this is just an illusion caused by kids not having to hide these thoughts and feelings as much as before. It’s critically important that we listen to our kids, and support them when they tell us they don’t feel right. They have so much stress and anxiety right now in general from things they (and we) can’t control. It’s our job as parents to help them navigate the things that can be controlled, like what we call each other. The Human Rights Campaign is a good place to start if you have questions about transgender and gender non-conforming kids.
Gender vs. Sex and why it’s important to teach it early.
When faced with someone whose gender doesn’t align with their biological sex, we have a choice. We can either insist their gender is the same as their sex, no matter what they say, or how they express themselves, or we can respect their identity. Science tells us that when we respect their identity, they are much happier, and less likely to develop serious mental health issues, especially when they are kids and teens. If you’re looking for the science to back up this claim, and more, here’s a great resource.
My experience is that kids are super adaptable, especially when they are younger. Tell a five-year-old that their best friend is actually a girl, and they are likely to have it figured out within a week (if they didn’t already know). It may feel like five is too young to introduce these concepts, but that’s when they are starting to solidify their ideas of gender. If you teach them about gender identity and expression at a young age, they’ll have a much easier time understanding and adapting as they get older and they encounter people who are trans or gender non-conforming.
What if I get something wrong?
I will warn you: no matter how hard you try, no matter how careful you are, you will get something wrong. I am confident that there is something in this post that is wrong, disrespectful to someone, not inclusive enough. That’s okay. We’re all learning. Don’t get discouraged when you make a mistake.
I will leave you with a request. The next time you encounter a situation where someone is using the wrong pronouns or name for someone, correct them. Make the world a bit better and a bit safer for a trans person. They deserve it.
*Today’s Guest Blogger is Paul. Paul is a proud father of two kids, one boy and one transgender-girl