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Don’t refer to trans people in the past by their old pronouns

May 8, 2017

Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox will have different experiences of being trans in the public eye. Laverne Cox became well-known after appearing in Orange is the New Black, but did so as a fully fledged woman.


She played a transwoman and was perfectly open about her past – even agreeing for her identical twin brother to play the pre-transition version of her character, a decision which I consider to be nothing less than heroic – but nonetheless appeared identifying as a woman right from the off.

Caitlyn Jenner, on the other hand, had a life in the public eye before she transitioned, which means that she will always be beset with misgendering, as much a force of habit than anything else.

This misgendering is not necessarily in regards to matters of the present; more likely, it relates to her past, where people confusingly switch pronouns or even names, depending on which time of life they are referring to.

Most people are simply confused as to procedure. For those people: You must never refer to a trans person by their old name and pronouns when talking about them in the past, unless it is essential, i.e., you are telling the story of their life. If you accept that without question, you can stop reading right here. If you can’t see why that should be, I will explain it to you.

Hearing your old name as a trans person is like an ice pick through the heart for many trans people. I used to jump and break out in cold sweat for a good two or three years after I stopped using my old name.

People know the power of misgendering and misnaming; someone on YouTube once tracked down my old identity and, because he felt insulted by something I said (I probably liked a song he disliked, or vice versa) decided to issue a veiled threat, using it.

It was quite insidious. I’ve yet to come across an attack on the internet, aimed at me, that I’d consider equally as vicious. Since that information is not exactly stamped on my public profiles, he must have gone out of his way to find it, just because he knew it would get at me. I have not had a panic attack in several years, but the closest I’ve come to it has always been in relation to moments like this.

I have nightmares sometimes, too, that my public identity has reverted; that everyone has simultaneously forgotten my journey, and no matter what I say, I can’t get people to understand that I’m not who they think I am. It is, of course, a dramatic projection of a real experience; my entire life, up until the age of about 20.

I know people who still live through that very resistance to their chosen identity, every day, in real life. A waking nightmare.

Understand that those names and identities are bound up with unpleasant experiences. The knowledge of having lived a hard lie taints memories of things which should be positive. People talk about their childhood as the best time of their lives and, although I’m sure there were happy moments, that is not how I remember mine.

I have every reason to; good parents, good siblings, trips to the park and few if any particularly troubling events. But, being a trapped boy paints everything black. Or perhaps a ghastly, sickening shade of sticky pink, to match my old bedroom walls.

It takes a while to put that bitterness aside and, even when it is all but gone, if a trans person could freely choose, they would choose to be seen in the past as they are in the present when they reflect nostalgically with friends and family.

That, unfortunately, is not what happens. Instead, the pronouns that were relevant then come out, because they are seeing things from their visual perspective. You saw a girl then which means a girl must have been there. Never mind that I heartily disagree.

Because being trans is traumatic (how we ever got through puberty is anyone’s guess), it’s a bit like your mother talking fondly about the time you were in a car crash, with nary a notion that that may not be a pleasant memory.

You might say: “There’s no point hiding from it; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s you. You must embrace it!” If you would say something to this effect, you have it backwards. For trans people, their entire lives up until the point of change was about hiding.

And it was always about other people. Our identities were defined entirely by other people; what they see, what they expect, what they want. I remember being obsessed with never doing anything wrong, never disappointing people (I failed spectacularly in that endeavour, obviously) because when your identity is not your own, how other people see you matters that much more.

Asserting oneself as trans, and taking whatever steps are involved in that, is a way of reclaiming that identity. After that point, it’s appropriate for other people to change their language, even when referring to you in the past, because in doing so they are acknowledging that, through no fault of their own, their previous assessment of you was wrong. Quite fundamentally wrong.

I often think that anti-trans outlooks are in part influenced by discomfort with the notion that people are not quite who you think they are. Many a time, I have had people I know or used to know tell me I “haven’t changed a bit”.

This is what they want to believe, and it is not entirely true. Irrespective of my transgenderism, like everyone else I have aged and gone through different experiences that have no doubt made me different to how I was when I was 16. We tend to brush over this in our quest to find familiarity in all things.

Such people are expressing this thought because they want to bring the world back down to where they understand it. My having had a sex change is difficult to get one’s head around; it is with relief, and perhaps a touch of delusion, that they see beneath the new shape of my body and into what they believe is my deepest nature.

Actually, they’re the good ones. The worse people wrap the physical up with the emotional so tightly, they they interpret a change of shape with a change of self they can’t accept.

At the other extreme, there are many trans family members that continue to use the old pronouns at the point where it becomes ridiculous in public – the man has a footlong beard and his mother is still calling him Candice.

The waiters are no longer staring at him when this happens, because there is no doubt in the minds of onlookers that they are looking at a man – they’re staring at her, the crazy old lady who’s completely blind to not-so-subtle secondary sex characteristics.

In other words, the appropriation of your identity by the people who supposedly love you is a form of rejection, not a form of embrace. They are saying that their idea of who you are is more important than your idea of yourself. They are saying their comfortable familiarity is more important than your most intense emotions.

This is by no means isolated to trans people, but is woven into the wider fabric of parent-child relationships particularly; how often have you heard a mother assert that she knows her child better than anyone, even better than he knows himself?

Most offspring resent that. They know how much they hold back from their mother that she will never know, for her own protection. The sentiment only serves to make parents sound like the kind of insular people with whom children cannot be honest about their real lives. Wishing to avoid upsetting one’s parents with the truth probably accounts for a lot of estrangement.

Trans people must be permitted to define their identities in retrospect, because it is part of the reclaiming process. It is not merely squeamishness about being reminded of an awkward, if not traumatic, period of their life – though, I would argue, that would be plenty reason enough to abide by their wishes.

Rather, trans people go on emotional journeys back through their childhood and attempt to understand them anew, with the recently acquired context of transgenderism. In so doing, transmen find the boy in their childhood and transwomen find the girl. It is therapeutic to know that, however repressed, you were in there somewhere.

When other people don’t play the game, and use the acquired pronouns instead of the birth pronouns, they are not accepting the importance of this journey. They are, instead, privileging their own experience over and above that of the trans person who, as a victim of circumstance, should not be put through any further stress.

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