Transgender 101: Pronouns – How you could make a real difference
I still see much misunderstanding around the use of pronouns for transgender people. They’re such a little thing yet to the transgender person it can make or break not only their day, but often much more than that.
I fully understand how it can be confusing. Right from a very early age as we learn to speak we gender those around us according to how they present on the outside. Even a three year old will automatically say ‘he’ or ‘she’ and use them in the correct context. It just comes naturally. So when a transgender person says they’re transitioning and you’ve known that person a while it can feel unnatural to gender them as to how they identify. I won’t lie, I even miss gendered myself occasionally in the early days of my transition!
I went through my childhood with many coping mechanisms in place and one of these was around the female pronouns that were being attached to me. I reasoned with myself, for example, if I was thirsty and wanted to buy a can of coke I’d tell myself ‘Actually, it doesn’t make any difference to me at this very moment in time whether I am male or female and whether the shop assistant calls me Sir or Madam, he or she. I’m not in physical pain because of their chosen pronoun and it makes no difference to my ability to purchase my drink. They’re only words. I’ll get my drink just the same and it will quench my thirst just the same’. To some degree this helped me cope, however in reality this is not how it works. Those little words, Sir, Madam, he or she, actually have a far more impactful and significant meaning to a transgender person than most people could ever contemplate. There’s a vast burden of psychological triggers attached to those words. Every time they hear an incorrect pronoun it‘s a stabbing reminder of the many things that aren’t right for them in life. There’s the possibility of digging up any of the hundreds of negative feelings experienced from living within the wrong identity, and this can trigger feelings of dysphoria, depression and even self harm or suicide. So if a person is already having a bad day and feeling dysphoric, then gets miss gendered, it can amplify those feelings ten-fold. Most of us will have experienced stubbing a toe; if you’re having a good day “ouch” it hurts, but if you’re having a really bad day it can make you crumble and want to burst into tears.
So imagine how amazing it feels to be gendered correctly?
This can be the complete opposite to what I’ve described above and make the person feel on top of the world. Not only does this prevent triggering those stresses but this time the positive psychological impact of such an encounter can be enormous. It has great meaning attached to it, including acceptance from those around them, feeling validated and respected, but above all it shows people care. Not bad for something that doesn’t mean much to the person saying those words and just takes a little thought.
When should you make the switch to new pronouns?
On the whole if a person has identified themselves as transgender the correct pronouns to use from then on are the ones of their preferred gender, but be careful because there are exceptions. Pronouns used should be at the preference of the transgender person themselves. Sometimes people don’t feel ready straight away, perhaps they are waiting for hormones to have brought about enough physical changes that they pass in their preferred gender, or maybe they haven’t had a chance to tell everyone around them yet.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re not sure, you could use gender neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘them’ but if you can it‘s nice to discreetly ask what they’d prefer.
I often hear even the most understanding and supportive people using the wrong pronouns simply because there is confusion as to what is correct. Many people simply don’t realize the impact pronouns have on the transgender person.
There’s another thing of note and that is those who identify as non binary or gender queer etc. This topic could fill another blog but in brief it means that person doesn’t associate themselves with either gender. Often a non binary person will prefer gender neutral pronouns such as ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’, but sometimes they may have a gender which they do prefer. It is up to them and it is respectful to use the pronouns of their choice.
What if I mess up?
Now here’s a great question, as this often happens by accident! Usually the best way to deal with this is to simply correct yourself and carry on without bringing more attention to it. If the person making the error starts making a fuss and is overly apologetic it makes it into a bigger issue than it was initially.
So if someone you know is transitioning, a fantastic thing you could do for them would be to use the pronouns of their preferred gender. Go on…..you’ll make their day!
Interview with Matt Ellison
What made you realize you wanted to become a speaker?
There were a few things that all came together. As a young child at school I discovered how much I loved giving talks and presentations to my class. Most of my classmates would be really nervous but I was always excited. I just really enjoy speaking.
Then when I started teaching as an adult, I soon realized I was in a fantastic position to inspire students and to make a real and positive difference in all areas of their lives. I loved the way that teaching enabled me to do this, however I then realized those opportunities are even greater as a speaker.
Then lastly since deciding to transition from female to male I have become very passionate about the topic and am excited to help others have a better understanding. Transition has taught me a lot. It wasn’t all easy, but it’s certainly been the most life affirming and amazing journey one could ever imagine. So I get to do something I love while educating, inspiring and helping others.
How much does humor factor into your keynotes and other speaking engagements?
What a great question. We can usually find a light-hearted side to life and that was something I actually made use of to cope with some awkward moments during my transition that might otherwise have been difficult or even traumatic. Bringing humor into a talk at an appropriate moment certainly helps me to connect and engage with the audience. And it certainly lets me know they’re still awake!
Why should clients use you for their next event?
What I offer is unique, current, interesting, educating and inspiring. Transgender issues are a hot topic in today’s world. Although society has recently become more accepting, things are still very new and a greater understanding can be facilitated.
I can educate on transgender issues from a social, medical, legal, psychological or moral point of view, depending on the client’s requirements.
I truly believe my life experience has relevance to everyone, and the strategies I developed can be applied to all areas of professional and personal life. I survived living in the wrong identity for years, and took tough decisions to make fundamental changes in my life that could have lost me everything. I broke down my barriers and learnt to cope with major challenges both during and after my transition. These strategies can help others transform their life situation and realize the person they really are.
I educate and entertain, with a story you’ve not heard before, and won’t forget in a hurry!
What are your biggest goals in your life or career currently?
My biggest goal at present is to make a real difference by reaching out to more and more people through my public speaking. I want to give as many people as possible a very positive and memorable experience around meeting a transgender person. I relish the opportunity to entertain, educate, and really change the way individuals, organizations and businesses think about many things including, but not limited to, transgender issues.
Oh, and a personal goal? I want to learn to sing better.
Who or what inspires you most?
I’m inspired by people who faced with adversity, and despite the odds against them, keep going and keep fighting, making a real difference in this world. Especially those who can do all this with a smile on their face.
What’s something you should never ask a transgender person?
Definitely a big no-no is ‘What was your previous name?’