explaining why pronouns are important

oliver's picture

I've been out to my mother as genderqueer/FTM femme for about 3 months and we've been talking about it quite a lot, but she still refuses to use my preferred pronouns.
In our last talk, I finally set it as a boundary for me.

"I can tell you're trying to help me, and that you're trying to understand and that's awesome. But if you want to help me, this is how to do it. I really do need you to call me by either "he" or "they". It's not just a want, it's a need".

Aaaand it didn't go well. She still refuses to do it. Say's "it's belittling me" and that "it's like calling a horse a mule!". Also she's saying a lot of generally transphobic/malephobic things... so the pronouns aren't the only issue.

Also she cried a lot. She thinks I hate her and that I want to cut her out of my life.

I'm trying to explain to the rest of the family how this is unacceptable and they're all like, "oh she's just stubborn, give her time".

But I've given her time. We've been talking about trans stuff (without me being out) for over a year. And it's not like she's religiously against it, she's gay friendly and all... she just sees the trans thing as completely different.

It all feels like too little too late.

Pronouns are kind of the bare minimum needed for her to be respectful when talking to me.
Me setting these boundaries is about me trying to keep her in my life, but nobody else in my family seems to see it that way. They all seem to think I'm taking this way too fast or expecting too much from her. For me, this is the only way to still talk to her and stay healthy.

I can't seem to explain how bad it feels when she calls me a "she". I mean, I've told them that I blacked out at Thanksgiving (no alcohol, no drugs) but they still see it as a minor matter.

what do you think? am I way out of line here? anyone else with experience dealing with transphobic parents? is this just one of those things that cis people can't understand?

MaddieJoy's picture

You are completely in line.

You are completely in line. If you feel you're a "he" or a "they," then that's what you are. Your mom needs to respect that.
You might try leaving her alone for a while, then writing her a letter that clearly and simply outlines what you need from her as far as pronouns, etc. I know that sounds like a help columnisty thing to say but sometimes when you're having a conversation you can get turned around or confuse people. Also try PFLAG, they have a helpful little PDF with all of the polite ways to refer to trans people which might help her understand.
It's definitely not just something "cis people can't understand!" I'm a cisgendered girl and I try to be really concious of these issues, so I think it may just be your mom's personality type. It's not really fair to you, but I'd just keep being patient and reminding her gently when she uses the wrong pronouns. Unfortunately you can't control what people say!

"It's a helluva start, knowing what makes you happy."
--Lucille Ball

oliver's picture

thanks :D

that means a lot, especially coming from a cis person. <3

I just get so frustrated sometimes when I'm unable to communicate how important this stuff is. Sometimes I feel like its only my trans* friends who get it. So, thank you.

I've tried getting my mom to try PFLAG (there's at least 5 meetings within driving distance) but she refuses.

I think all I can do now is wait it out and hope for the best, as much as I hate to admit it.

jeff's picture


I can see you wanting specific pronouns, but isn't "they" plural?!

I'd refuse to use that one just because of that grammar issue.

"You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks" - Dawes, When My Time Comes (http://youtu.be/Z0FrcTX6hWI)

oliver's picture


As far as I can tell, "they/their/theirs" as a singular pronoun is generally accepted as grammatically correct for all but formal writing. But I'm no grammarian.

I prefer it as a gender neutral pronoun because I've had better luck getting people to adopt it than "ze/hir/hirs". People complain that it's made up and then refuse to use it. Fewer people seem to care about grammar, so I'll take it as the lesser of two evils.

I also have the "he/him/his" option for those who can't palate the singular "they".

I already expend enough energy pronoun correcting, and I like being able to choose my battles when I can. This suits me well enough.

It also just sounds right to me. Since "they/their/theirs" sounds plural, it lends itself well to expression of multiple genders... which I've always found pretty appealing. It also reminds me of the royal we, and I'm not going to say no to being royal.
I mean, I'm already a big queen :)

jeff's picture


From that article: "The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, advises, 'While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.' Many literate people who use the singular they in speech hesitate to do so in writing because of this prejudice. As a result, too, there is a lingering resistance among many editors to allow it."

Well, I am usually employed as an editor who uses the Chicago Manual of Style, so seems like my resistance is well-documented. ;-)

And yeah, the Spivak stuff is even worse.

"You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks" - Dawes, When My Time Comes (http://youtu.be/Z0FrcTX6hWI)

oliver's picture

lols grammar

hah! I admire your commitment to the English language. I know there's no way I'm ever going to understand that much grammar. :D
(just don't tell my granny-in-law, she was an intense Catholic school English teacher... and soon to be a late-vocation nun. She's fine with all the queer stuff, but I think she might kill me if she knew I didn't care that much about grammar!)

elph's picture

To the best I'm capable of recalling...

I do not think I've ever encountered "they/their/theirs" employed as a singular reference... not even as an error!

The only possible exception would be when referencing "everyone/everybody" where plural pronouns are currently becoming more acceptable!

jeff's picture


You can use it as an indefinite singular antecedent if you don't want to modify it with he or she: "Whoever is above 18, whether they want to or not, should send me naked photos."

Some companies prefer that language, since it gets you around the clunky "he or she," or even worse, just "he," stuff, but some NEVER let you do that.

"You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks" - Dawes, When My Time Comes (http://youtu.be/Z0FrcTX6hWI)

thoughtgoddess's picture

The singular they is

The singular they is becoming more common outside of the informal vernacular, actually! http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/dept-min/pub/legis/n41.html
/has too many linguistics major friends

In regards to your mum, how long have you been out to her? I'm paraphrasing something I saw on a blog a while ago, but think about how long you've had to deal with this within your own head, had to come to terms or imprint it within your own head as the norm. Perhaps if you've been out to her for only a couple weeks she still needs some processing time. I'm not trying to say what she's saying/doing is ok, but that it is perhaps understandable. Maybe let her know that the pronouns are an absolute requirement, and you need her to start working towards using them all the time. If you think it would work better for her personality type, set actual timelines and goals? *shrugs* I know it seems like a lot of work when you're the one going through all this and it seems unfair that you need to help her like this, but unfortunately life tends not to be fair.
And for the record? Asking that your gender be respected is never ever out of line.
Feel free to PM me if you want to talk more :D

jeff's picture


Your link differs from your conclusion about it. It says:

"Consider using the third-person pronouns "they", "their", "them", "themselves" or "theirs" to refer to a singular indefinite noun, to avoid the unnatural language that results from repeating the noun. -- which is the same as my example above ("Whoever is above 18, whether they want to or not, should send me naked photos."), whereby 'they' is modifying 'whoever.'

Do not use "they" to refer to a definite singular noun. -- which is what is being suggested in this thread.

When they say the singular they is gaining ground, it means that my sentence would previously have been "Whoever is above 18, whether he wants to or not, should send me naked photos," but then for more gender inclusion would have been updated to "Whoever is above 18, whether he or she wants to or not, should send me naked photos." Now, you can use they. So, when it says they is gaining ground, it is gaining ground over "he or she," NOT over "he" or "she." Big difference.

By the way, my point here is ultimately NOT about grammar. It is about deciding your comfort requires every other person to change the way they refer to things. It is creating a metric by which you are guaranteeing future discomfort, which I don't support.

Similarly, it is why I don't use the word cisgender, because 99.X% of anything doesn't need a specific label. So, I am against creating roadblocks in people's lives whereby they will only be comfortable if everyone changes. It never works that way.

For example, I like apples, and I only buy organic food. So, when I go to the store, I look for the sign above all the apples that says organic. As organic apples are in the minority, they get the extra word to modify them for people looking for that distinction. Most people buy plain old "apples" so they walk to whatever apples they want and grab them. They don't want to buy "conventional apples," and it makes little sense for me to change the naming convention of all apples, as long as I can find the organic ones.

In speech, that is expressed differently. If my mother was going shopping for me, I would tell her to buy organic apples. If my organic vegan friend asked if I needed him to pick anything up on his way to visit, I'd say, sure, could you grab some apples?

Similarly, if I were hanging out with a bunch of gay friends, we'd say, do you want to go to the bar tonight? If I were putting together a group of gay, straight, and notsureyet friends and co-workers, I would say, do you want to go to the gay bar tonight?

In both examples, I am in the minority position, whether gay or organic, so I modify my speech to make sure its meaning is understood, and I feel that is my role as the minority here. The world is not going to change how they define all produce and all bars so that I don't have to do the extra verbal hijinx to ensure my meaning is understood. And, if I did expect that, I would probably feel disappointed by people not using gay- and organic-inclusive language more often. But I decided that, for me, life's too short for that battle.

So, I don't want to make this seem like I'm merely a grammar nerd, which I'm usually not unless I'm charging by the hour. I just think it is bad policy to make up a bunch of new words, grammar rules, and such, and then use that as a metric by which you might then be upset if they aren't adopted.

I'm not saying oliver is doing this, btw. Just that I see a lot of transgender activists who get all upset by this stuff, and I can't imagine it changing as rapidly as they would want, if at all. I mean, aside from saying I don't like the word cisgender, I have never once found any reason to independently use it in a sentence. That is the only usage I come up with! I don't need auxiliary vocabulary to express nontransness.

That said, I am a total libertarian, so I'm for all freedom, including the freedom to fight whatever battles you want, if you think it will lead to gradual change for future generations or somesuch.

"You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks" - Dawes, When My Time Comes (http://youtu.be/Z0FrcTX6hWI)

oliver's picture

a few months

I started coming out to her in a yes/no type way several years ago, but that was mainly just having my friends use male pronouns around me and posting a lot of trans* things on my facebook.

I came out to her officially in November, and then again in December when it became clear that she still hadn't gotten the message.... somehow.

Things are actually a little better though! Kinda. We had a BIG fight a few weeks ago and then she got in a big car accident. She's fine, car is totaled, but I think it scarred her since the last thing we did was fight.

When we went to check on her in the hospital she used male pronouns with me for the first time, but she also REALLY failed at it. It was funny. She kept failing halfway through a sentence like, "This is my daughter, she uses male pronouns!". But hey! She tried, and that's cool.

It's still too little too late because I'm really not ok with how much she puts down men (saying men are pigs, men are beasts, men are stupid, all men are rapists, slobs, etc.) and by how much she is trying to stop me from transitioning.

Also I posted on fb that my voice was dropping and she commented a sad face. So... we have a long way to go.

MacAvity's picture


...if you're above 18, you should send Jeff naked photos, whether you want to or not.

Singular 'they' still bugs me, although I can see that it makes the most sense - and there is precedent; didn't 'you' use to be exclusively plural? And singular 'you' still takes plural verbs... I don't know. Maybe I need to get used to 'they.' Blah.

jeff's picture


I think you hit on the more important lesson here...

"You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks" - Dawes, When My Time Comes (http://youtu.be/Z0FrcTX6hWI)

Duncan's picture

Wow, and I thought I was the

Wow, and I thought I was the only one who thought about grammar this much... >.> So yeah, you're definitely in the right there. You want people to use a certain pronoun and they won't. Just call your Mom "he/him" and she'll get the picture.

Courage is contagious... be strong, and soon you won't be standing alone.