Let’s say you have someone you care about deeply and you just can’t get the pronouns right. You think it’s great that they are finally getting to express their authentic gender, you’re happy for them so why do you keep creating these awfully embarrassing, and damaging situations?
Rewiring the brain
A lot of it is material. Whenever you think two thoughts in connection the brain physically shortens the synapse, the junction where those two thoughts meet, literally making it physically easier to put those two things together again in the future.
My friend Taylor, he…
and before you know it Taylor and he are forged tight in the brain. You actually have to retrain your brain.
My friend Taylor, they…
You have to work that thought to change the geography of your brain. It really can be a matter of practice! (Rewiring is basically what cognitive behavioural therapy is about).
Sometimes the problem really is just a matter of rewiring verbal habits. Sometimes though, there is some deeper subconscious rewiring to do.
Misgendering can be incredibly damaging, especially as an accumulative process, because it often sends the trans person into a spiral of self doubt.
Is that how they really view me? Even those that truly accept me still just see me as X trying to be Y.
The transphobic language and habits of cisnormative culture are never too far away and none of us want to set off that spiral in anyone we love. That is why, even if our problem is just an untrained mind and we mean no harm, our words can definitely harm.
Sometimes, however, those deep down insecurity that get sparked have a teensy bit of truth to them. Sometimes the misgenderer hasn’t completely updated their conception of who that person in their internal library of friends and loved ones is.
If you find yourself thinking anything like the following you may not have completely internalised their transition:
- Oh yeah, my friend is X gender now;
- My X (male/female) friend is transitioning to Y (female/male/awesome other), or;
- My X friend wants to be Y
Language like this shows you might still not yet see your loved one as their gender. If you ever played the Sims you’ll remember whenever you’re making a new one you’ve got them rotating around in the mirror room and you can change their clothes, their hair, and their facial structure. Get your loved one spinning up in that little mirror room in your head — visualise them, there they are, spinning in all the glory of their true gender. See them, describe him or her or them. Smile — you are getting to share just a tiny piece of the joy of transition — the joy of finally seeing someone in their true gender. Practice in your head and you’ll find that in real life you’ll truly see your loved one as they are and the pronouns will flow accordingly.
The absence of a negative is not a positive
You can focus so hard on not misgendering your loved one that you end up just avoiding gendering the person at all. People will learn to just use the trans person’s name in lieu of making a mistake with pronoun and even often just drop the subject off in a sentence so that instead of saying, “She ate ten pancakes”, they’ll just awkwardly nudge towards the person and say, “Ate ten pancakes”, even avoiding the gender neutral pronoun they.
This is a huge mistake for two main reasons. Firstly, you’re missing out on a chance to rewire your brain. Or worse you are actually rewiring your brain to just speak oddly and awkwardly around trans people.
Secondly, the absence of a negative is not a positive. Just as misgendering can be damaging to a trans person so can gender affirmation be hugely uplifting, euphoric, and a great bonding agent of friendship and love. Instead of awkwardly avoiding all gender references actively seek out opportunities to highlight the person’s gender. Proactively gendering the person correctly is not only a great way to train your brain it also affirms the person you love and will help make the bond between you stronger.
Rethinking the past
This can be fun, interesting, and instructive to do with the person if they are willing. Every trans person will think about their past in their own unique way so this is not something you can do on your own. It’s another exercise that can help you bond with them. Ask them how they think about their gender going backwards. You’ll learn about them and it will help you to construct a better understanding of who they are in your head — in your room of mirrors.
Me, for example, I am a trans woman, though a non-binary one. I see my youngest self as feminine. That little girl was, without her input or consent, forced into gender roles and treated as a boy. She was punished for playing with dolls, she was told how she was to behave, and told who she was. To continue to refer to that little girl as a boy would, for me, be a continued act of violence against the memory of that young person in my head. However, in my twenties I was trying my damnedest to be a cis gay male and I find myself referring to that person with more masculine or neutral language —although, I notice how I’ve distanced myself from that, reverting to the third person they to describe myself. It feels like a lifetime ago, like someone else, lost in clouds of confusion.
Have that fun conversation and let those perspectives change the way you understand who that younger person was too. It will help both of you, but remember, make sure your loved one has the energy and wants to do this with you.
Body parts awkwardness
Our culture is cis-normative. It has two socially accepted genders and was never too comfortable with trans people transgressing them. These cultural influences run deep in our bodies. Facial hair, bulges above or below, flatness above or below, voice cues, and even, when appropriate, the manifestation of genitals themselves. All of these things are deeply engrained within us as belonging to one gender or another, even though scientifically, historically, socially it’s nonsense.
Cisgendered, transgendered, and intersex people alike often transgress a mix of these characteristics. Nonetheless that cultural instinct often trumps our best intentions to accept diversity. We see a beard and “he” comes out like second nature. We think of a vagina and we say “hers” without thinking about it. These deep brain associations are learned and cultural, but we are capable of changing them. It just means rewiring, once again. Maybe you are really good at gendering your loved one correctly, but one of these things pops into your head and you automatically switch to the wrong gender. Don’t punish yourself, retrain.
Beyond the binary
More and more trans women are accepting of their beards. Many trans men do not take hormones and their voices will not change a whole lot and their skin will stay as it was. We have long left beyond the immense medical and social pressure that used to force trans people into surgeries that altered their genitals. Every trans person should be free to choose which gender affirming surgeries they want, but nothing is obliged anymore — we have more and more women with penises and men with vulvas. Language and culture will naturalise and eventually the phrases “her penis” and “his vulva” will become normal. With practice and retraining you can be at the forefront of that cultural change.
Even beyond all of that we are now seeing an explosion of the population of self identifying non-binary people. Non-binary people come in all shapes and sizes and can have any combination of primary and secondary sex characteristics. They present a beautiful challenge to those of us rewiring our brains.
Non-binary people may be on the more cis-presenting end of the spectrum, or the more trans end of the spectrum, or they may feel they want to talk about their gender in different terms entirely. They really do force us, in the best way, to transcend all that awkwardness about beards and bits and boobs behind. They make us stop and listen to what the person is trying to say about themselves and that is never a bad thing.
- When you mess up, don’t punish yourself. Say you’re sorry quickly without drawing extra attention to yourself and move on.
- When you have a moment to yourself, retrain retrain retrain.
- Take every opportunity to correctly gender the person in their presence.
- Take these moments as opportunities to learn, to listen better, and grow closer to someone you love.
I came out as trans while living in the wilds and have turned my home into a free nature retreat for trans and queer people to offer a place to escape and discover a non-urban way of being in the world. Help me keep this project alive with our Patreon campaign and get yourself some cool rewards at the same time! If you like the article, clap and share!