Transgender pronouns

Sara, 17, brought her best friend Jamie, 17, to a family reunion. Sara’s aunt saw Jamie getting a soda and asked Sara, “How is she doing?” Sara replied, “Oh, Jamie, they’re fine.” Sara’s aunt was taken aback and said, “Sara, dear, Jamie is a girl not a ‘they.” Sara realized that her aunt didn’t understand that Jamie was nonbinary and explained, “No, it’s they/them/their. It’s a gender nonbinary thing. They prefer that we use non-gendered pronouns.” Sara’s aunt said that she didn’t understand and asked Sara to explain further. When they finished talking, she replied, “Okay, I understand a little more, but this is going to take some time. I’ll try to call Jamie how they prefer.”

Research has shown that the use of incorrect personal pronouns that aren’t gender-affirming can be harmful to a person’s self-esteem, just as calling someone by an incorrect or undesired name can be. Therefore, it is important for parents, teachers, and other adults who work with youth to understand the importance of using correct personal pronouns when working with teens who identify as transgender or gender diverse.

Transgender teens feel strongly about the personal pronouns used to describe who they are. In many languages, when speaking about someone in the third person, it is common to use their external physical appearance to determine what pronoun to use; for example, if someone appear female the pronouns of she or her are usually employed. In many cases, transgender boy and girls who have a clearly determined their preferred gender want to be called the pronoun that matches their identified gender. However, this can be problematic for transgender teens who have a personal image that doesn’t conform with societal norms about their physical appearance and displayed gender. These teens may prefer the use of personal pronouns that are unrelated to male or female. Examples of non-binary pronouns are they, them, ze, or zir. It’s important to note that the singular pronoun “it” should be avoided because it is considered hateful.

Transgender, as defined by the American Psychological Associate (APA), is an adjective describing a person whose gender identity does not align with what is typically associated with their sex assigned-at-birth. This is an umbrella term that is largely accepted but does not capture all the nuances of those who identify as transgender and gender diverse, such as transsexuals, non-binary, gender-fluid, or other gender variations. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is the global guide for mental illnesses, removed “gender identity disorder” as a psychological issue in 2013. A new condition called “gender dysphoria” was added to diagnose and treat transgender individuals who felt distress at the mismatch between their identities and their bodies. This new diagnosis helps to show that a mismatch between one’s sex assigned at birth and gender identity is not a pathological disorder. This change shifts the focus in treatment from fixing a disorder to resolving the distress the person feels over the mismatch.

While there is not a lot of national level data about transgender and gender diverse youth, smaller localized studies have found that nearly 3% of high school students identify themselves as transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, or are unsure about their gender. Transgender teens are more likely than their peers to engage in risky health behaviors and have emotional distress than their peers. Sadly, 31% of transgender students report having attempted suicide; this is four times the rate of their peers.

Granted, for some, it may seem odd to begin using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular person because it doesn’t fit the context of the language or sound correct to the ear. However, the use of the correct pronoun with transgendered youth makes a big difference to them and how they feel about themselves. Just like any adolescent, these teens are trying to find themselves within the contexts of their family, friends, and community.

To help reduce their distress and risk of suicide, here are a few things that help them feel accepted and valued:

  • Ask them what pronoun they prefer, and then use it.
    • When their preferred pronoun is used, they feel validated in their gender expression, feel supported, and feel less emotional stress.
  • When a mistake is made with a personal pronoun, apologize and self-correct.
    • Transgender teens know that their pronouns go against imbedded speech patterns and gender assumptions. They understand it can take some time to become a habit.
    • The intention to use the appropriate pronoun is appreciated and they don’t expect perfection.
    • Transgendered teens welcome others helping supply brief education to those who don’t yet know about their preferred pronouns (such as Sara in the example at the beginning of this post).
  • Acknowledge that it may not be safe for them to use their preferred pronouns in every context or situation.
    • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender youth are at high risk for violence due to intolerance and discrimination. They are aware of their risks and may choose to only use their preferred pronouns in situations that they deem safe.
      • In a national survey, 10% of transgendered people who were open with their families about being transgendered experienced violence by a family member because their gender identity and 8% were kicked out of their family.

Not every transgendered person gives the same meaning to pronouns, and their meanings may not match the common understanding in society. Since these teens are still developing it’s wise to be open and accepting of changes to transgendered teens’ preferred pronouns. Checking in with these youth occasionally to see what they want to be called will help reveal where they are at in their development and understanding of themselves.

William Shakespeare wrote is best in his lines for Juliet to Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The names of things do not affect what or who they really are. Transgendered youth can be supported by calling them by their preferred pronoun and valuing their innate understanding of themselves. Doing so will help them feel validated and secure as they continue their path through adolescence.

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