Today is “Transgender Day of Remembrance” — honoring those lost to anti-transgender violence.
The threat of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse is all too common in the LGBTQ community. However, stigma and fear continue to put gender diverse individuals at risk.
Each year around this time, I see more questions about supporting transgender or gender diverse individuals during their transition. The most common questions center on how to handle past vs. present tense for names and pronouns. They ask about using the “old” name or pronouns when referencing something that pre-dates their transition.
Excellent question! The answer is — it depends.
First, a few things. We now understand gender as a spectrum, rather than a ‘male or female’ binary. Most people are aware of their gender from early childhood. This is different from the mechanics of going to the bathroom, or determination of reproductive organs. Gender is a fundamental aspect of one’s identity; something that cannot be undone by redirecting a child to the “right” section of a clothing department.
If this internal sense of gender is aligned with the one assigned at birth, that person is considered ‘cisgender’. When these are not aligned, their gender is more diverse than an either / or checkbox. While not an exhaustive list, other points on the spectrum include transgender, non-binary, gender variant, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, and gender queer.
It’s important to also understand that gender and sexual orientation are completely separate, unrelated concepts. One’s gender or gender expression is not an indication of their attraction (gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.).
When someone transitions from their assigned gender, a first step is often a name change and being referenced by different pronouns. Depending on the person, their earlier name might be referred to as a ‘dead name’. Essentially, that name belongs to who they were, and not who they are.
Keep in mind, growing up as gender variant in an unsupportive environment can be extremely damaging. The trauma and abuse that results from social redirecting is devastating. For some people, transitioning is not only about reclaiming their actual gender. It can also be defining one’s self away from an identity that was never really entirely “them”. Calling someone by their ‘dead name’ or misgendering them (using inaccurate pronouns, for example) is never acceptable.
Once someone decides to transition, be respectful of the new name and pronouns.
This is important and is one of the best ways to be visibly supportive. Practice using the name and pronouns in conversation. If you accidently use the wrong one, apologize and start practicing again. Again, hearing their ‘dead name’ and inaccurate pronouns are extremely painful. Do what you need to in order to make it seamless.
Now for the big question — past and present tense. Transitioning from an assigned gender is exceptionally personal and the journey is unique to every person who takes it.
Generally, it is not ok to refer to someone using a previous name or pronouns. For parents, family members, and long-time friends this adjustment can be very difficult. Recalling memories, then overwriting them with new names and pronouns takes a great deal of effort. Practice, practice, practice. It’s surprisingly helpful to look through old picture albums while using their name and pronouns. This builds the connection between those memories and the person today.
That said, some people chose to use old names or pronouns when referring to their past as part of the transitioning process. Typically, this occurs with people transitioning later in adulthood. If your relationship is healthy and very close, ask which they would prefer. When unsure, use the new names and pronouns.
Last, it’s important to remain aware of where the person is “out.” People can come out and transition at home, but choose not to disclose at work or school. If a close friend or relative comes out to you, it is generally acceptable to ask if they are comfortable with using the names and pronouns in public, school, extended family, etc. For coworkers or casual acquaintances who transition, it is not acceptable to ask or share outside of the group being disclosed.
Deciding to transition from an assigned gender can be an intimidating and liberating process. Support the people in your life, respect their humanity, and continue to educate yourself. Trust me, it saves lives.
Originally published on Medium. Republished with permission.
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