Two powerful concepts cis people must understand first if we’re going to support our trans community: pronouns & privilege

Martie Sirois
Jun 10 · 15 min read
Original Photo by Kevin Jesus Horacio on Unsplash, Text Merged by Martie Sirois on Unsplash

Being a member of a few online support groups for parents of *trans kids, I’ve come to learn that we’re all asked questions exactly like these. Again, and again, and again. Folks who simply “don’t get it,” or have no experience raising trans kids seem to have a voracious penchant for attempting to find that one, ultimate, mind-blowing question they figure we’ve never, ever thought of.

“Don’t you think you’re encouraging this too much?”

“What if it’s only a phase?”

“Is this because you always secretly wanted a daughter?”

These people are looking for, you know, that one question that will, at long last, enlighten us and render us indebted to them forever, for their brilliant uniqueness and sage insight… which would undoubtedly help us see the error of our ways before we self-destruct and take the whole family down with us!

[Shaking my head at the thought of how much I deal with these questions.]

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Likewise, within these support groups someone always seems to mention that they have a skeptical friend or family member requesting “evidence,” like scholarly articles, regarding everything trans-related. Particularly, they want to know what the scientific/psychological/psychiatric/medical research says, and why they should even be supportive of trans people in the first place.

While it’s never the duty of a marginalized member of society to educate the rest of us, it seems that often, the trans people I know are willing to do so. Usually with grace and a smile.

But please hear me when I say this:

I’m in no way advocating for anyone to go forth and ask a trans person to explain everything. It’s 2019; we live in an era of incredible technology and information available at our fingertips, for free, if we really care to learn. We can no longer fault the innocence of ignorance; we can only claim an unwillingness to learn. A rigidly fixed mindset. In other words, willful ignorance.

Asking a trans (or non-binary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, etc.) person what their pronouns are is totally different, and totally respectful. But asking a trans person, for example, “so, are you going to have THE surgery?” is totally disrespectful and unacceptable (not to mention presumptive, because there are many, many different types of surgeries a trans person might elect to have, or not have, any of which may or may not complete a trans person’s journey, and all of which are none of our business unless the trans person invites us into that conversation).

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

On Privilege

People from marginalized or minority groups should never have to teach others about inclusivity or social progress, or be made to explain how we begin to fix systemic problems or systemic erasures (like racism or transphobia), because the marginalized people did not create the “isms” and phobias in the first place. As a white, *cishet person, trying to play some small role in figuring out how we change systemic problems, I see educating myself on issues that don’t affect me personally as my job.

Why make things harder than they already are for marginalized groups, who don’t enjoy the same automatic privileges that I do? They have enough on their plates just trying to fight for basic human rights in this current cesspool of an intolerable political climate — one that favors oppression and punching down on “the least of these.” Why should I expect them to also teach me (and rehash, relive, and retraumatize) their daily struggles?

The very fact that I wouldn’t really know what’s going on socially and politically if it weren’t for having a trans kid shows exactly how steeped in privilege I am — or was, before my eyes were forced to see things through a marginalized filter. So, I didn’t always, but I now see it as my duty to read, listen, and learn, on my own time. It’s my duty to figure out how not to offend already marginalized people.

And if I’m so inspired or inclined, it’s also my duty to help educate my fellow white cishet people. We are often blind to the issues that do not directly affect us. This is particularly true with respect to marginalized groups, whose struggles are largely invisible in a cishet-normative culture.

Parents of *TGNC children, along with other community allies and advocates also typically see it as part of our job to help chip away at those those barriers, those transphobic things in society, in order to make the world a little better for the next generation. Ultimately, though, the onus of fixing systemic problems falls on all of us who have privilege — the majority, the non-marginalized people.

Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash

For example, I’m a cishet, white person. That’s three categories of privilege, three areas where I’m non-marginalized: gender (as in my gender identity, not my sex assigned at birth, even though they align with each other), my sexual orientation, and my race. American society as a whole favors these three categories as the default, the “norm.” I can look online, on TV, in books, movies, plays, newspapers, magazines, commercials, even on billboards — literally everywhere — and see people who look more like me, and families who look more like mine than not.

Wherever I am, I have the unearned, born privilege of almost always feeling racially comfortable, as well as feeling comortable in my gender identity and expression, and my sexual orientation. I can see myself recognized, favored, and represented all around me, which is clearly not the case for a black, genderqueer, pansexual person.

By nature, we often have several different interconnected social categorizations that overlap or intersect with one another. There are areas of my life where I do not have privilege: my sex assigned at birth (even though I’m privileged as being cisgender rather than transgender, I’m not male, and our society gives more advantages and opportunities to males); my mental health (because I have chronic depression and anxiety disorder); my socioeconomic status (because my family of 5 lives paycheck-to-paycheck, barely making it sometimes); or my class (I was not born into a wealthy family, or, what we label around here in the south as “coming from old money.”)

So, while I’m clearly privileged in several aspects, I’m disadvantaged in others.

As a woman married to a man, I don’t have to give a second thought before I reach over, grab his hand and hold it while walking in public. If I were lesbian, I would have to worry about that. I would have to be somewhat more careful and intentional before making any moves.

Even if I’m someone who’s notorious for not caring what other people think, if I’m a woman holding hands with another woman while walking in public, I’m still going to notice being stared at, pointed at, whispered about, laughed at, mocked, name-called, harassed, or even denied service. (For that, we can all look back and thank Trump’s May 4, 2017 Executive Order for Religious Liberty — which in actuality is vague and likely unenforceable, but still gives the impression of government-approved carte blanche discrimination).

Likewise, if I’m a mother of only cisgender kids, I don’t have to worry about things like disclosure; whether my child will be stealth, semi-stealth, or out; whether or not they “pass” as their gender identity in all social situations; which public bathroom would be the safest to use in any given situation; whether or not my insurance company will understand that puberty blockers are medically necessary in order for my teen to not commit suicide; or the inevitable strain of friend or family objections that can’t help but take a toll on my marriage and children. And much more.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

I don’t mention the notion of privilege to cause strife, to be argumentative, condescending, pretentious, or any other negative purpose. I bring it up because it’s absolutely necessary to understand what it means (it’s not an offensive label), and to acknowledge it, if we want society to evolve and progress forwards instead of backwards.

As Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote in her widely-shared essay, Explaining White Privilege To A Broke Person:

“it’s not your fault that you were born with white skin and experience these privileges. But whether you realize it or not, you do benefit from it, and it is your fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.”

As a white, cishet person who writes, and who also happens to be the parent of and advocate for a trans teen, I try to always acknowledge that I’m speaking or writing from a place of privilege, rather than trying to talk over the voices of those who are actually marginalized. I don’t live it myself; it’s only through the very narrow lens that I’ve watched my trans child’s discrimination occur, that I can write about it. If I don’t try to always somehow acknowledge that part first, then I can’t really speak with any authority on the matter.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

On Pronouns

What parents of trans kids wish others would realize is that it’s not their job to either approve or disapprove of our parenting decisions, or our advocacy for our TGNC children. I say with confidence that there isn’t a single question or idea that anyone can pose to us that we haven’t already spent sleepless nights and long days agonizing over, before deciding to wholeheartedly recognize our child’s authentic identity and advocate for their needs (and even for their acceptance).

I haven’t yet heard an original question or comment regarding my own experience in this area. I’ve heard them all, from “so if my child says they’re a cat, should I accept that they’re a cat and buy them catnip?” to “what about their safety — aren’t you worried they’ll get bullied?” to “you should be locked up for child abuse.”

Occasionally we get asked what we wish others could understand about trans kids themselves. I’d have to say how important their pronouns are. Because there is not one universal way to “look” or be trans, in an ideal world, we should never assume someone is male, female, trans, cis, agender, or other. We’d never assume to know someone’s name before being introduced, why do we assume their gender identity?

But, in reality, I know our society collectively is nowhere near that point yet. So I (and I’m sure the majority of TGNC people) would settle for this:

If known, respect a person’s pronouns, always. If you don’t know, ask.

My trans *enby child began using “they/them/their(s)” pronouns when they socially transitioned over the course of 5th grade, but only in what they considered safe spaces, like our home and our local LGBT Center where we founded and run a program for TGNC kids and their parents. But our child still used “he/him/his” pronouns at school, because those students and teachers had known them for several years as a boy, so it just felt easier and safer for them.

Even though our child was socially transitioning, expressing feminine at school through their clothing, shoes, and accessories, they felt it was most comfortable to not change up the pronouns at school, even though they were rejecting everything “masculine” with more and more regularity.

The second — and I do literally mean “the second” — that the 5th grade graduation ceremony of elementary school ended, so did our youngest child’s association with “he/him/his” pronouns, as well as being referred to as our “son.” Before we’d even left the building, our child announced out loud with great relief:


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

In hindsight, I firmly believe that was the moment my baby’s 10 year old, forced, cis male gender identity died, or perhaps was released & absorbed back into the universe — energy for someone else who needed it.

It was as if they were slipping out of an old nightgown that no longer fit, leaving it in a heap on the floor, and walking away, stripped naked. Kissing it goodbye. Walking into the light. Laid bare, for the whole world to witness. For the world to judge, criticize and chastise. To praise, honor, and celebrate. To harass and bully. To feel led to be inspired and challenged and encouraged and renewed.

This was my child emerging from a cocoon while also saying, “hey world, this is the authentic version of me… here I am; some of you will see my beauty, some of you will not. But please, either take me as I am, or leave me the hell alone.”

Since that day in 2017, our child has never looked back. In public, they are always assumed & addressed as female by strangers (which they are fine with).

But I also know my child (and enby people in general) would much prefer not having to be “either/or.” Not having to be binary. Not having to check one or the other box on intake forms. Not having to be male OR female. This or that. Black or white. Not having to justify their very existence to strangers and family and friends alike.

They’d much prefer if American society could just catch up with (the majority of) the rest of the world, where many, many other cultures & religions recognize three or more genders, or absence of gender.

Trans/enby people would much prefer it if everyone could finally just realize that they already use “singular they” all the time, every day, without even realizing it. If each person could just realize that, and acknowledge they have no difficulty with using “singular they,” then we’d all be better off. (See, I just used it in those last 2 sentences.)

Pronouns are important. They may seem like a little, insignificant thing to cis people, but to TGNC people, they are everything, and they aren’t negotiable.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

What We Communicate By Refusing To Use Someone’s Correct Pronouns

Some people may not understand what they’re actually communicating when they refuse to use someone’s correct gender pronouns. I was referred to a great list by my child’s gender therapist, and I saw another one during a parents of trans kids conference. These really impacted me, because at the time, my husband and I were admittedly doing a terrible job of regularly using our child’s correct pronouns.

When a person says, “I’ll totally support you, but the new pronouns are just too hard for me to use,” what they’re actually communicating is “I support you, but I don’t want to talk about you. At all. Ever.” And yes, totally, when someone changes pronouns, it is a difficult change. Mistakes will happen; it’s inevitable. Fortunately, I’ve found most trans people to be understanding and gracious with this, that is, until they feel like like you’re not even trying anymore.

At some point, when we continuously mess up and say we “keep forgetting,” or the pronoun thing is “just too hard,” what we’re actually communicating is, “I really don’t want to put in the effort.” Which is a bullshit excuse, because people are quite capable of learning new words, nicknames, languages, speech patterns, and even code switching, all the time.

Does it take extra time and effort to make that change? Yes. But we actually need to put in that extra time and effort. When we don’t, we’re communicating that we don’t respect that person enough to use basic words that authentically describe them.

When someone says, “I’m sorry, I just can’t make the pronoun switch, I’m too much of a grammar police,” what they’re really communicating (aside from the ironic fact that they’re wrong about the singular use of they) is, “My personal comfort is more important than your physical safety.” Because repeatedly continuing to misgender a trans person is not just considered a microaggression — it can also be dangerous, subjecting a trans person to harassment, violence, and worse.

If we refuse to use someone’s correct gender pronoun, we could “out” a trans person who was up until that moment “stealth” (meaning nobody knew that person was trans to begin with), and there may be some very transphobic people in the room who have a propensity for violence, who may become aggressive in that situation.

When someone tells us which pronouns to use, whether that is ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they,’ ‘ze,’ ‘hir,’ “no pronouns just (insert name here),” or anything else, they are politely asking for our respect. If we choose not to use the correct pronouns, we’re eliciting a host of emotionally damaging, and even physically damaging things. It may be very unintentional, but it’s harmful and damaging regardless.

This whole process can also be emotionally draining and extremely torturous for trans people, who, in defending themselves, often have to “come out” over and over again, day after day.

When we refuse to use someone’s correct gender pronouns, we’re communicating all of these things (and more):

  • I know you better than you know yourself.
  • I am more knowledgeable about your personal truth than you are.
  • Your identity (who you are) isn’t real, and should not even be acknowledged.
  • I heard your “truth,” but I’m not accepting it.
  • I don’t believe you, so I will reject your truth and replace it with my own version of the truth/my own understanding/my own assumptions, (or, what I actually wish was true)
  • Offending you is perfectly okay if it makes me feel more comfortable.
  • I would rather hurt you repeatedly than change the way I refer to you.
  • Your sense of safety is not important to me.
  • My personal comfort is more important than your safety.
  • You being your authentic self is an inconvenience to me.
  • Yeah, I get that transgender people face disproportionate rates of discrimination, homelessness, violence, suicide, and even murder. But the real inconvenience here is me having to change which pronouns I use to refer to you.
  • Because your struggle isn’t difficult enough as it is, I’m going to assert that it’s my struggle — the struggle to switch pronouns — that is the real tragedy here.
  • I’m not just going to disrespect you, I’m also going to teach everyone within earshot how to disrespect you…

Because, you know, they are forced to correct not only you now, but also, all the people in your circle who are misgendering them, and thus, they are having to come out as a trans person over and over again, as if the first time weren’t hard enough.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

While certainly most people don’t intend to communicate those hurtful sentiments, it still doesn’t change the impact of how refusing to show basic respect through someone’s correct pronouns affects the person on the receiving end. A call to action would be that we all consider the potential harm before addressing someone, especially if they’ve already told us what their pronouns are, and then at least try to use them correctly (yes, it’s hard and takes practice).

Even if we slip up every now and then, it’s okay, as long as we handle it okay. Here’s what to do: 1.) Acknowledge or apologize, and 2.) quickly move on, so that we don’t inadvertently put the trans person in the awkward, reversed position of now having to comfort us, for feeling bad, for messing up. Again.

Conversely, here’s what we’re communicating when we use someone’s correct pronouns:

  • I see you, I hear you, I respect you. You are valid. You matter, and I care about your well-being.

Tiny Glossary

*Trans: short for transgender; “Trans” is technically an umbrella term that includes anyone who’s not cisgender. When writing, I typically use “trans” this way, to include nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender creative, gender nonconforming people, etc., unless referring to someone whom I know for certain goes by “enby” instead of “trans,” (for example.)

*Cishet: Abbreviation for cisgender and heterosexual; the proverbial jackpot or gold standard, the default of human existence in American society. (Note: not a slur.)

*TGNC: Trans and/or gender nonconforming; another umbrella term like “trans.”

*Enby: An abbreviation, a vocalized word for “NB,” which is short for “nonbinary” gender. “Enby” is used rather than “NB,” because “NB” already has a few connotations, including “non-black” as in NBPOC (non-black people of color).

Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes a variety of social commentary. She’s a top writer in Culture and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is also the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center, for trans youth and their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or follow her website & blog.

Martie Sirois

Written by

writer of social & political commentary, interviewed on NPR; SiriusXM Insight w/John Fugelsang, ftd contributor for HuffPost & others. Mom of 3, trans advocate.

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