Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Trivial Keys to Deep Truths: Gender Pronouns and More

This post has nothing to do with ME, or only peripherally. My transgender M-F daughter also has ME but this post is about that other medical situation: her being transgender, me supporting her as the young woman she is.

A friend wrote me not long ago sharing her “brother’s” blog post about being transgender, but her sibling, like my daughter, is Male-to-Female transgender, so a woman, her sister. And right there from the pronoun, we family members begin coming to terms with seeing our loved one in a new light. Here’s what I wrote back to my friend, pretty much:

Well, I know it's not easy because it involves rewiring your brain from a lifetime's assumptions about her, but first of all, it's your sister’s new blog post. And if she chooses a feminine first name you will have that to stumble over too. But we often have to adjust our definitions of people to fit new information and we manage.

The thing is, it is our definitions, not hers, that have to change. She wrote so clearly and beautifully, making it plain that she has always been who she is, so on the one hand you don't really have to change how you think of her as a personality—she is still the person you have always known, likes the same work, holds the same beliefs, will laugh at the same jokes that amused her in past and be drawn to the same books and movies. The only thing about her that has changed is that she has decided to stop being afraid of sharing and declaring her gender identity - and sadly she will be having to defend it too.

So what has to change in her family and friends? We have to accept and defend her, and show her those things. But she is clearly a person who understands the deep and subtle nuances of communication in our society. So you should start from where I would have told you to start anyhow, and that's deep within you.

My transgender daughter is like your transgender sister in that she too is not interested in most of the outer trappings of typical womanhood in our society. My daughter doesn't wear makeup or fuss with her hair and clothing much. She is taking hormones and is pleased with the changes in her shape, but the real essence of being a woman is much deeper. I am a woman who rarely wears makeup, I don't fit a lot of stereotypes about women in our culture, and yet I have the privilege of the body I was born with, which communicates to others to treat me as they treat women (whether the way they treat women is something I like, or not—and sexism, like homophobia, is something that takes on whole new nuances for transgender lesbians like my daughter and your sister).

But the point is about those deep understandings. Your sister’s family and friends can come to grips and show support by taking in the truth of her gender on a deep level. It's not easy but fortunately the use of superficial keys will help open the doors for those deep explorations. Pronouns and other gendered referents for example: practice using her and she, sister and woman, in referring to your sibling, and as you use those superficial words, take them into your own deeper thought structure. Think of her femininity. Recognize her as the woman she is.

This superficial thing, this language, is wired into our understanding so deeply. Words have power. The more you refer to your sister as she, the more you will know her as your sister and a woman. Sure, you will also have to ponder: you will spend time reviewing your whole shared life history in your mind. You will come to realisations, like the realisation that you as her cysgender sister may have inspired envy which she couldn't express, as you developed an obviously female body and were accepted into the society of women while she did not and was not. And the realisation that as a woman she may use the women's restroom, should use the women's restroom, but won't ever be asking another woman for a tampon. You will grapple with that. If she doesn't have to pass through our blood rites, is she still a woman? Ah yes—there are many women who for one reason or another don't bleed and yet we all know they are women... and so on, and so on, you will review and revise all of your assumptions, and being a sensitive and deep person yourself, you will successfully change your brain, change on the deep level, which she, also a sensitive and deep woman, will pick up on.

But those superficial keys are useful in the process. You will grow gradually so accustomed to saying that SHE is your SISTER and you support HER as the WOMAN who SHE has always been, that if for some stupid societal reason (it comes up for us in paperwork and bureaucracies all the time since my daughter hasn't yet changed her official legal gender status) you find yourself forced to say, "brother," "him," "he," and "his," you will feel intensely those quote marks. You will feel deeply wrong using the masculine terms for her. As wrong as if you used them in reference to yourself or your mother.

Defending her is partly a matter of gently but firmly insisting to others that they too use the appropriate, feminine, referents. You learn a lot about people when you do this. You will be surprised sometimes by which people are supportive and which are resistant. You may have to go through some difficult educational conversations with some, and you may have to drop it for the time being with others, but your consistent efforts to convey the truth, and the normalcy and legitimacy of that truth, to others, will also help you make the deep changes you need to make. Every time you speak out, stand up for her and defend her, you will own it just a little more deeply.

In the cases of women and girls who are more girly than your sister and my daughter and myself, fellow women can use some other superficial keys to open those deep doors: we cysgender women can take our transgender sisters shopping the way we would shop with any of the girls and try on clothes and makeup together, or watch a chick flick at home while doing our nails. In our cases, there are other little things, like choosing the birthday card "For my Dear Sister," instead of "Brother." At first it might feel like pretending, but it will become natural. And some day you will have a new deep realisation: all those other things, those things that had you calling her a boy and a man? THOSE were pretenses.

The degree to which you can and should talk with her about the whole process depends on so many other things in her personality and yours and your relationship, but I would suggest that you try. When you hit the awkward and uncomfortable moments, make the effort to open up and discuss, learn and teach. You can't know what it is like to be transgender and she can't know what it is like for you to accept, but conscious examination is our human way and sharing it helps.

My friend, I can say I sympathise with you and I do, for the small things, the faux pas that will surely happen, the many times you'll have to tug your foot out of your mouth and the times you'll have to try to tug other people's feet out of theirs, but on the deep level I am so happy for you. Your sister has given you a great gift of honesty and trust, which will bring you as siblings, as two women, as two people, to a closer and deeper relationship, based on truth.

Thanks so much for asking me this question. I didn't realise I had so much to say!

hugs and congratulations,


  1. A great message back to your friend! Thanks for sharing- I'm sure it will help her get a good start in making the necessary changes, and will also be helpful for those who don't have any trans people in their lives [yet] such as myself.

    1. Thanks for that thought Claggy! Yes, if this can be of some help to people who haven't yet had to adjust their thoughts about a trans person in their life, then I'll be very happy.