General Question

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

When do you start using the new female or male pronouns to refer to a transgender person?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (25799 points ) September 28th, 2010

I have a very close friend who is transgender, and I began using female pronouns when referring to her as soon as she told me she was going to transition to be female. Technically, she’s still living with male parts, but in her mind, she’s a fully functioning woman.

What do you think? If gender is between the ears and sex is between the legs, then when should we start changing pronouns?

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42 Answers

laureth's avatar

Sometimes they will let you know. That’s always the best time. Or you could use one and see if see if they say something to you about it, or look uncomfortable, and let that be your guide. But in the absence of any other clue, I figure I’d use the right pronoun for the job as soon as they make their intent known, unless that is awkward somehow.

harple's avatar

Whenever that person asks me to – it sounds to me like you got it just right.

ucme's avatar

Whatever & whenever any individual is comfortable with I guess.

Seek's avatar

I let the individual’s choice determine for me.

My issue is with how to refer to someone when you don’t know their gender, or they are non gendered. Are there pronouns for such situations?

laureth's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr – In writing, to avoid the awkward “He and/or she went to his and/or her apartment with him/her,” I’ve been known to use sie, hir, s’he, etc.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Whenever I am asked or corrected. I’m terrible at figuring out if a baby is a boy or a girl.

Trillian's avatar

Ask @simone. Now that you mention it, I don’t know how to refer to…@simoneDB. I think you would have to go by how the individual person wanted to be referred to. ANd you would have to go on an individual basis, because of course not everyone has the same preference.

Blueroses's avatar

I saw a link on an older Fluther question where did it go? The linked site addressed this issue with “It’s never inappropriate to address gender by the appearance of the individual. If a person was born male but dresses and lives as a female, the feminine pronouns are appropriate.”
@Seek_Kolinahr If the gender is unclear, I take the cowardly way of avoiding pronouns full-stop and use the name instead. “Shall we ask if Pat wants to come with us?”

JLeslie's avatar

I would just ask them directly what they prefer. I ask black people if they prefer African American or black if it comes up. I would not go by some politically correct rule, I would go with the specific individuals desires and comfort.

downtide's avatar

As a transgendered person myself, my answer to this is, “whenever the person wants you to”. Also bearing in mind that they may be too shy to ask you directly to change pronouns – I wasn’t, but some people are.

It’s sometimes not okay to just jump in and use gender variant pronouns on the assumption that they may be transgendered, because you might be wrong – there are plenty of butch lesbians who dress as masculine as I do, if not more so, and yet they would be horrified if someone referred to them as “he”. It’s equally never okay to deliberately use the pronouns of their physical gender if they’ve expressed a wish to use something different.

If in any doubt at all, ask. “What gender pronouns do you prefer me to use for you?” 99.9% of transgendered people will not be offended by that question.

(Edit: I changed “It’s never okay…” to “It’s sometimes not okay…” because I could think of a few situations where it would be right to make that assumption)

MrItty's avatar

Whenever he/she wants you to.

Blueroses's avatar

Thank you @downtide. I’m here to learn. So it does always come down to the individual, which is fine if you know the person and can ask the preference. What then is appropriate besides avoiding pronouns until you know a person better?

downtide's avatar

@Blueroses I’d say, always ask anyway. If asking is absolutely and utterly impossible, then if there is any doubt I’d just try not to use pronouns at all. Part of the reason I changed my first comment was because I thought of a few cases where it might be plain from observation, and it would be pretty safe to make an assumption. For example if I met a pre-op transsexual woman, wearing female clothing, dressed modestly and attempting a more feminine voice, (but still clearly not “passing” and obviously male-bodied) I would start off straight away with “she” because the odds of it being a person who self-identifies as male would be pretty slim.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I agree with the answers above. Whatever the person is most comfortable with. It isn’t really my place to decide for them, so I don’t see why I would attempt to do that.
If I don’t know the person well enough to be privy to their preferences, I might just attempt to avoid pronouns altogether until I can get a better gauge on who the person is. However, if the first pronoun to come out of my mouth makes them flinch I would definitely be inclined to just ask.

lynfromnm's avatar

I think every person has a right to decide what others should call him or her. Whatever the person in question says, I will respect it.

Jeruba's avatar

The advice I always see is to use the pronouns appropriate to how the person self-identifies or presents himself/herself, regardless of what you may know or think you know about the person privately. I think this is fine advice and try to follow it.

What throws me off is when a person (deliberately? maybe so, but how would you know?) is gender-ambiguous. One person cultivates an androgynous look on purpose to make a statement and is pleased if you’re uncertain, but then another takes vocal offense if you get it wrong. Honestly, darlin’, if you’re wearing masculine clothes, no makeup, and short hair, and you are completely flat-chested, have no hips, and walk like a boy, how can you possibly blame me if I hesitate and then say “he”? My eyes aren’t good enough any more to examine your cheeks without a magnifying glass and be sure there’s no stubble. If you want to be perceived as a woman, please give a clue.

It’d be one thing if people were more understanding when you make a mistake. But all this statement-making tends to be combined with a high degree of sensitivity and a tendency to express indignation toward anyone who guesses your particular combination wrong.

ETpro's avatar

@Jeruba took the words right out of my mouth. Except my eyes are probably even worse than hers. :-)

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@downtide has it right, obviously.
@Trillian Thanks for asking – you can refer to me as ‘simone’ which is simpler or use gender neutral pronouns like ‘ze’ in place of ‘she’ and ‘hir’ in place of ‘her’.

loser's avatar

Ask! They’ll let you know!

downtide's avatar

@Jeruba in a situation like that where someone is gender-queer and/or androgynous, I’d say again – ask. I have a friend who identifies as neither gender, and prefers to use the plural “they” instead (as an alternative to less well-known pronouns like ze/sie/hir etc). I have another gender-queer friend who nonetheless still prefers the pronouns of her birth gender which is female. So again it’s all a matter of personal preference.

Blueroses's avatar

Quoting Avril: Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?

Jeruba's avatar

@downtide, that’s all very well when the person is deliberately choosing ambiguity. How about when, let’s say, you’re a newcomer to a group or fellowship and you join in a discussion by responding to someone else’s comment—someone you estimate to be sixtyish, with close-cropped gray hair, heavy-set nose and jaw, masculine dress, an undefined figure, and a rather hoarse midrange voice—and you refer to the previous speaker as “he,” only to receive an indignant glare amid some embarrassed laughter and hear the news that the person’s name is Judy? Again, how do you know if the androgynous appearance is intentional? If I knew, then I’d feel ok asking, but that’s when I wouldn’t need to. It’s when I don’t know that I’m troubled. I would not appreciate having one of my son’s friends ask me if I were his mother or his father. I don’t think I look like a man, but apparently neither did Judy.

downtide's avatar

@Jeruba Well to begin with I would ask the person what their name is, in the hope that it’s non-ambiguous. 99% of the time that’s enough. If they say something like “Pat” then I would wait, and try to discreetly ask one of Pat’s friends whether I should refer to them as he or she. If there is no-one else there who knows Pat either, then I would (again discreetly) ask Pat directly. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t tell and I really don’t want to make a mistake in front of everyone else… should I be referring to you as he or she?”

If Pat takes offense at that, then maybe Pat should reconsider how ze dresses.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Do as I do, and bring back they

Also, what @downtide @Simone_De_Beauvoir and @harple said.

downtide's avatar

@papayalily “they” is my favourite non-gender-specific pronoun but it’s still a bit awkward. The English language has lost it’s singular gender neutral pronoun: it used to be “ou” but it fell into disuse and is now seen only in “our”.
http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Gender-neutral_pronoun

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@downtide And that’s why I’m bringing it back. It’s just so much better than all the others, if we use it and stop thinking of it as “bad grammar”, then it won’t be. Like getting undressed in front of a lover – the first time was awkward as hell, but now you do it without even realizing it.

Blueroses's avatar

@downtide “ze” excellent. A non gender-specific pronoun, It looks familiar. Is it from ?? oh hell, I can’t remember the book now.

downtide's avatar

@Blueroses I don’t know much about the history of these pronouns but I did a little digging and found this:
”# ^ Creel, Richard (1997). “Ze, Zer, Mer (in English).” APA Newsletters. The American Philosophical Association. URL accessed on 2006–05-15.” So it’s a very new invention.

This is from here which has a massive list of options.

bookish1's avatar

Good question. I’m trans myself and have had to come out to a TON of friends and colleagues. It is VERY obvious, awkward and sometimes just laughable if someone just uses “they” or AVOIDS pronouns altogether in the attempt to not be “offensive.” I’d really advise against that. Sometimes people seem to think that ASKING about pronouns is what is offensive, but in my mind and according to many trans folk I know, it’s much better to just ask.

Also, your knowledge or lack of knowledge about what someone’s anatomy is (what gender society assigns to those body parts, or whether they are “fully functioning”) has NOTHING to do with whether you should respect their stated gender and desired pronouns. If you accept that trans people exist and have the right to do so, there should be no problem here.

ETpro's avatar

@bookish1 First, welcome to Fluther.

I’ve dealt with gender identity issues myself, so I am not the least unsympathetic. But in defense of those who interact in everyday settings, they often do not know that someone they just encountered for the first time is transgendered. All they know is what their eyes tell them, and in that setting they will most likely use he or she unless some oddity about the person warns them to be uncertain of what applies, and they are sensitive enough to the issue to even care.

bookish1's avatar

@ETpro: Thank you. And I agree. Things being as they are, the vast majority of people are not out there looking for transgendered people to make sure they ask to get their pronouns right. In other words, a trans person either “passes” (is read properly—which is only really an option open to binary-identified trans people), in which case no one thinks to ask them about their pronouns, or they are read (misgendered) as the gender they were assigned at birth based on anatomy, or as androgynous/a freak/other foul words I shall not use, but which are the origin and manifestations of transphobic violence and discrimination. And in these two latter cases, asking about preferred pronouns is not really a priority either….

This is why I try to work little by little to encourage people to see asking about desired pronouns as something that should be done with everyone. I’m not some starry eyed idealist at all but I think it can help. I think that asking about people’s pronouns could be a matter of course upon meeting them. Whether or not they are trans or “look” like they might be. This of course is a pipe dream—maybe in 100–200 years it will be more common. And trans people have more immediate and urgent activism to work on anyway!

However, I thought the OP was asking about when is the appropriate time to start addressing a friend who has recently come out as trans by their desired gender pronouns, and so that is the situation that I was attempting to address.

Jeruba's avatar

As a follow-up to an earlier post in this thread, and the advice that followed, especially from @downtide and more recently from @bookish1:

I became well enough acquainted with the particular mid-twenties young person I was describing above (looking very girlish and smooth-faced and yet wearing masculine clothes, no makeup, and short hair, chubby overall but completely flat-chested, having no hips, walking like a boy, and with a voice pitched midrange) to know his-or-her name and have a few chats. The person uses an ordinary genderless adjective as a name (a descriptor along the lines of “cool,” “strong,” and “clever”), so there’s no help there.

In one conversation, this young person happened to tell me—with considerable indignation—how in a public place a child had pointed at him-or-her and asked its mother loudly, “Is that a boy or a girl?” I said, “Well, to be fair, you do cultivate an ambiguous appearance.”

“That’s true,” he or she said, leaving me completely unenlightened and extremely reluctant to ask.

That’s the part that blows me away: the person does everything possible to conceal the answer to the question and then gets angry when people don’t know it. To me that’s a passive-aggressive trap. I’d like to respect a person’s preferences, but not past the point where I have to spend an undue amount of energy playing their guessing game and practicing exquisite delicacy to avoid giving the offense they seem so eager to take.

bookish1's avatar

@Jeruba: That does indeed sound passive-aggressive. I’ve known people who are agender, plural gendered, or otherwise did not identify anywhere along the “binary” of male/man vs female/woman. Some non-binary people choose pronouns that people have mentioned above, such as ze/sie/they/etc. Other non-binary people (such as myself) use pronouns that approximate the direction that they would like to be read, even while they do not identify as a man or a woman. Still others I’ve known have accepted any pronouns, gendered or non-gender specific, that people will use for them. Some people change the pronouns that they want to be identified by daily or multiple times a day. And I am sure I am leaving out cases here.

But this is not an ideal world and I even while I know every trans person would like to be read properly all the time (myself included), I don’t think trans folk should expect people to be able to play the guessing game. They should make this preference known if it is important to them. Being trans is often painful and can make you extremely self-conscious, and I certainly have gone through my own phase of being very easy to offend or irritate. I do my best not to be like that anymore, but avowedly it is much easier for me now that I am read as male with some consistency.

Did you ever ask this person explicitly “What pronouns should I use for you?” Their answer to this open-ended question (and one that doesn’t presume they are either a “boy” or a “girl”) should be indicative of whether they are able to accept people’s good intentions, or whether they are inclined to take offense at everything.

ETpro's avatar

@bookish1 It’s been mentioned before, but 2,000 year ago we had a gender nonspecific pronoun, thee. I see nothing wrong with going back to that.

Jeruba's avatar

@ETpro, “you” is also gender-nonspecific. But a second-person pronoun isn’t the issue. It’s third.

(Are you sure you meant 2000? 2000 years ago we didn’t even have English.)

ETpro's avatar

@Jeruba Good point. I meant the King James translation fo the wording of 2000 years ago.

Jeruba's avatar

The King James version of the Bible used the forms of its own time. It was published in 1611, when “thou” and “thee” were standard English, having nothing to do with the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

bookish1's avatar

@ETpro: Aren’t “thee” and “thou” second-person forms of address, however, like “you”? So they’re not replacing any grammatical form that is already gendered.

ETpro's avatar

@bookish1 Doh! Clearly I had not thought that through. @Jeruba already called me on that gaffe, but go ahead, pile on. :-)

bookish1's avatar

@ETpro: It still would be fun to bring those back into use :)

ETpro's avatar

@bookish1 Hast thee not taken steps to do so?

Jeruba's avatar

“Hast thou…”

“Thou” is nominative, and “thee” is objective. For example, “Thou art strong. I challenge thee. Choose thy weapon.”

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