Transitioning to They/Them Pronouns
by Cornelia Prior
Firstly, I’d like to say congratulations. Well done for keeping your heart and mind open. Gender and its attendant pronouns can be a tricky business, and changing pronouns can be especially difficult for parents, so seeking out help is a great first step. What’s also wonderful is that you have created and fostered an environment in which your kid (hereafter: The Kid) feels safe enough to navigate these changes and communicate them to you. Secondly, I think we should start over. Let’s rephrase your question using your child’s pronouns:
My child just told me that they prefer using they/them pronouns. How do I make the transition from using she/her pronouns to they/them pronouns? What does it even mean?
The Kid has asked you to change pronouns and you’re worried about what that means for them AND for you. You might be wondering: “Are they sure? Have they given this enough thought? Are there going to be any other changes? How will this affect their school, their university, their work? How will I tell our family?” I assure you that these are all normal questions for a concerned parent to ask. Given that, the best recommendation I have for you is to talk to your child.
It can be strange to suddenly reverse roles—like Freaky Friday but with fewer fortune cookies and without beautiful, beautiful Chad Michael Murray. Normally, children ask their parents for guidance, and parents often have a wealth of experience to offer them, but in this instance you don’t. Fear not! The Kid probably does —let them become the parent for a while! Use it as an excuse to not make your bed in the morning or do the dishes!
What is important to understand here is that The Kid has carved out a new space for you in a journey that, up until this point, they may have travelled alone. They have invited you into a part of their life that they have most likely given a great deal of thought to. They have asked you to join the conversation. The wonderful thing about this invitation is that they might already have resources to hand. In which case, all that is left for you to do is to be supportive: read, ask questions, and listen.
It’s also important to be respectful of The Kid’s boundaries. If they aren’t ready to talk about the ins and outs of gender, or if they just don’t feel like it right now, then wait until they are ready. In the meantime, it could be useful to learn as much as you can about what this transition means. Websites like Beyond the Binary, Trans Media Watch, and Press for Change, as well as forums like The Angels, can all provide you with support and really useful information about gender variance. Proximate community groups like your local chapter of PFLAG (if you’re based in the USA) or Gendered Intelligence (if you’re based in the UK) also allow you to meet and organize with gender variant people and their families.
Now before I attempt to answer the question of what this means, a quick caveat: the purview of trans* is really wide. It’s used as a catch-all term for people who understand their gender to be different from the one they were assigned at birth, so it would be wrong of me to attempt to speak on behalf of all trans* people. I can tell you what it means to me, and I can point you in the direction of others I have learned from, but I can’t tell you what, specifically, it means for The Kid, because only The Kid can tell you that.
If terms like “trans*”and “gender assigned at birth”are new, then this website is the ideal place for you. There are lots of written resources, as well as videos to help you learn your vocab! Even so, here is my two cents. For me, it’s always been useful to think of my gender, and all gender, as existing on a spectrum. This means that I think that gender looks more like a bus route and less like Man and Woman standing on either side of a river full of crocodiles that try to eat you if you so much as dip your foot into the river of Gender Ambiguity. Some trans* people need to go from stop A to stop B, away from their gender assigned at birth and towards their true gender, while other people make request stops somewhere along the line—and some people don’t even get on the genderbus™in the first place.
Just as there are lots of different identities under the non-binary spectrum: agender, neutrois, genderqueer, butch, and androgyne, to name a few, there are also lots of corresponding pronouns. Because The Kid has asked you about they/them pronouns specifically, we’ll stick with those. They/them pronouns are one set of pronouns usually used by non-binary people who sit somewhere between man and woman on the gender spectrum—or completely outside of it. They are also widely used in the LGBTQ community as a gender-neutral identifier for people whose pronouns are unknown. For example, here’s a scenario where I’m at a party with Wonderwoman and our friend Balthazar walks in with someone:
Wonderwoman: Who’s that with Blathazar?
Cornelia: I don’t know, I’ve never met them before, perhaps they’re Balthazar’s new lovemuffin, Xanthie.
Ok, I’ll admit that was partly an excuse for me to imagine being at a party with Wonderwoman and partly an excuse to use the phrase “lovemuffin,” but we also learned three valuable things: 1) Wonderwoman and I have friends with cool names, 2) “They”doesn’t have to be plural, it’s super easy to use, and it saves you from misgendering someone, 3) But seriously: cool names.
Which brings me neatly to your other question: How do I make the transition from using she/her pronouns to they/them pronouns? This is really a question of respect. If it helps, try to put yourself in the position of your child. Imagine going through life with people treating you like you were a different gender than the one you know you are on the inside. Imagine being a child yourself and always receiving gifts intended for a different gender and not understanding why. Think about always being referred to by different pronouns than the ones you use now. Think about the magnitude of little aggressions faced by trans* people every day and the ways in which those little aggressions hurt. When you use the correct pronouns for someone, you are not simply using the correct pronouns—you are respecting and affirming their identity.
In your case, you’re affirming The Kid’s identity, so you’re going to want to get it right, right? My best advice in practical terms would be to, well…practice. If The Kid is happy for you to mention their pronouns to your family and friends, then use these pronouns with them. If they aren’t, then write them down. In fact, write them down anyway. Write the many reasons why you love The Kid using their correct pronouns and then read it out loud in a mirror. If you feel comfortable enough, read it to The Kid. Not only will this help you practice, but it will show you how very rarely our feelings about our loved ones are based on their gender.
Cornelia Prior is a Writer and Communications assistant by day and Cultural and Critical Studies student by night. I currently work at the Whitechapel Gallery creating content for the website, blog and social media. I was Culture Editor of The Leopard Newspaper from September 2014-July 2015, where I commissioned, edited, and wrote pieces that delved into local culture, from fine art to food and from book reviews to restaurant reviews. I have written about art for The Flaneur and Best for Film and about LGBTQ issues for My Kid Is Gay. When I'm not busy being 25 years late to the Judith Butler party or frequenting art galleries, the theatre, the cinema and other things that classify as either “Critical,” “Cultural,” or both, I can be found reading, swimming or admiring lighthouses.