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For nearly half a year now my partner, "Jane", has taken to using non-binary gender pronouns (they/them) and has asked those around them to respect this decision.

The problem is that their closest friend, "Alice", is having a hard time understanding this concept. Alice is aware, and acknowledges, that she doesn't use they/them pronouns, and has even made a comment to Jane before along the lines of:

"Aww... Jess uses your pronouns... I'm such an a**hole, I'm so bad at it."

The thing is, Alice doesn't seem to try. I've never once heard her try to use they/them.

Yesterday, Jane asked both Alice and I to start calling them by a new name, as part of a test to see if a more gender-neutral name feels right to them. Alice immediately went back to using their birth name after being told this information.

I truly believe Alice is not doing this to be malicious, but simply hasn't been exposed to this type of situation before (which is why Jane is so lenient with her and often attempts to shrug it off). I'd like to help Alice work through whatever is holding her back from changing this undesired behavior, since she is otherwise very supportive of Jane.

How can I tactfully discuss with Alice about why she hasn't started using Jane's preferred pronouns? I'm not that close to Alice and want to make sure I don't come off as condescending towards her lack of effort, since I feel like that could ultimately push Alice even farther from changing her behavior (she will even more desperately cling to what she already knows). Additionally, I want to avoid confronting Alice in a way that could make her focus more on apologizing to Jane than changing her behavior going forward. No apologies are necessary.

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    It seems like tact isn't working. Are you sure that you want to be tactful about this? – sphennings May 21 '18 at 21:00
  • @sphennings well, I'm hoping maybe if I can find a way to nicely have a direct conversation it will help. My partner isn't ready to burn bridges with Alice over this, so I don't want to come at her too strongly. – Jess K. May 21 '18 at 21:02
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    @JessK. please edit information back into your question :) Comments are only for clarification. Thanks. – Benjamin Gruenbaum May 21 '18 at 21:29
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    Morning Jess! I see you have some answers that do a great job of addressing how to explain to Alice to use the preferred pronouns, but if I'm reading your question correctly, you want to find out why Alice isn't using them yet? Or am I misinterpreting the question? – Tinkeringbell May 22 '18 at 9:08
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    @Tinkeringbell You're correct, that is what I was initially asking, but after reading a few of the answers I'm starting to think that maybe it'd be better for me to approach it as how I can help Alice get more comfortable using non-binary pronouns. If I ask Alice why she hasn't started using them yet, the end goal will be (essentially) "get over it and get on board" which may not be the best way to handle things. I'll edit my question accordingly. – Jess K. May 22 '18 at 13:12
16

Being a transwoman and going from he/him to she/her, I get that a lot. The longer people knew me as a man, the more difficulty they have. Some catch on quite quickly and just make the occasional mistake, some have to date not caught on yet, even though they are as supportive as they can be at the moment, given that they are going through something akin to bereavement. The longer they know you and the closer they are to you, the harder it gets and the more patient you have to be. Months, years, even.

Changing pronouns and first name is a big deal. It usually comes after a lot of deep soul searching in trying to figure out what you are and letting go of some of the cultural norms that have left their mark on you. You have made that decision and of course you would like everyone, especially close ones, to conform. And when they don't, it feels as if they are invalidating your choice and thereby an essential part of you. Frankly, it hurts.

But it does not work that way, close ones have to let go of those same cultural norms with respect to you, to view you as you are and not what you used to be and finally, to break with the force of habit. This is even more difficult when you are not at either binary end of the spectrum.

Now it is much preferred that "Jane" does this. You as a partner can chime in or provide tips, provided that you have squared this with "Jane". So where necessary substitute "Jane" with "I" and me.

Announce what the pronoun and first name should be

Do this gently and with some empathy for how difficult this is.

Alice? I understand that this may be difficult for you, but "Jane" would really like you to start using they, their and them when you are referring to them. It is really important to them.

Conversation may now go to 'Yeah but why?' or to apologies in advance.

Answering the why

Without saying that it hurts (leave that until there is no significant progress):

"Jane" is very sensitive about it. It has been a tough and hard decision for them. Yet the decision has been made and by using him/her instead of them it is like we are saying that they have made the wrong decision, even though we don't mean to. We must respect their decision and follow, even though it may be hard and will take some time to adapt to this new situation.

Redirecting apologies in advance

It's okay to mess up, it takes time to learn. Here is a tip, when you say him/her instead of them, just correct yourself. Don't apologize or only with the briefest 'him/her .. sorry .. them'. It shows you are making an effort and that is what matters.

This is part personal experience, part stories from others. Today my ex wife called me by my dead name first, then immediately called me by my assumed name. This is much less painful then having to listen to an apology, including rationalizations on why she messed up.

Announce intent to correct

Corrections on the use of the correct pronouns and correct name should be done gently, but brief. Tone is important here.

When you are corrected and that will happen from time to time, just acknowledge it and move on. Like in 'He/she did that then', 'They', 'Oh right, they did that then'

It is also important to reward good behavior. Smile when Alice uses the correct pronoun.

Educate Alice

Eventually there will also be questions from Alice, aiming to understand why "Jane" has changed or chosen this path. These are natural and part of the bereavement process/paradigm shift. Simply answer them truthfully if you can and also make it clear that "Jane" is not unique in this and that "Jane" is not solely identified by their gender. But beware of Too Much Information as this may make it more difficult for Alice to come to terms with the new situation.

Above all, be very patient.

I wish I had all the answers on this one and give a foolproof recipe, but I don't as I am in the middle of a similar process.

6

I'm gonna give you a example of what went through MY head when one of my friend suddenly came out as transgender that may help you understand Alice's mental state and then give you a few pointers at what you should do. It is probably different for everyone and just to be clear, I'm perfectly fine with transgender people or any other community, you do you.

Story Time

In my case, "Julian" became "Julie". It was a huge shock for me and I had to pass through all the five stages of grief.

At first, as all people, I thought she was just joking and when I realized she definitly was not, I didn't understand, I refused to understand. Where should have been Julian there was Julie, it was not right.

I was angry for a little amount of time. I was angry that she didn't tell me sooner. That she left me unprepared. I was angry that she was "She", but surely my friend was still there somewhere so I quickly repressed my anger.

Then I thought that, If I continue to act the same and say the same thing, nothing will really change. Julian will stay Julian, so I continued to use "he" instead of "she". Maybe she would make up her mind if I treated her like her older self. At this point, she started to voice the need to be called in a proper way, the way she chose to be called. I shrugged it off, mostly like your friend. I was also a bit pissed off at people who reconginzed her new identity, they were interfering with my work !

Then I realized it wouldn't work, at all, I started to use her new name and pronouns but it was hurting. I felt that Julian was gone and I was just killing him more everytime I used the new name.

Finally I accepted that there was no more Julian, it was Julie now, but Julie was still very similar to Julian, same memories, same reactions to things, same tastes. Now Julie was a friend, and a dang good friend at that.

Conclusion & Answer

I think we often find ourself more tolerant when we are in our confort zone. When you are suddenly confronted to an unusual situation, you might find yourself more affected than you would think (and less tolerant).

I can't but imagine the pain and distress that transgender people feel when they transition but I feel it's important to acknowledge the pain that close friends and family may feel.

I think you should both take it slow, reassure Alice that Jane is still her friend and that while it may not make sense Jane really wants you to acknowledge their new identity and that comes through using the right pronouns. You can also assess that it's especially important coming from their best friend.

Then give it time, she'll come to accept it... or not. I understand it may be hurtful but she may never accept it, so changing your reaction may also help if you want to salvage the relationship.

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tl;dr: before asking Alice to change pronouns, ask her how she feels and what she thinks about the whole situation.

I'd like to expand a bit on Loki's answer. I think that the key point here is understanding why Alice is behaving like that. She probably knows that Jane prefers gender neutral pronouns, but probably she doesn't understand or accept it thoroughly. To quote the OP,

I truly believe Alice is not doing this to be malicious, but simply hasn't been exposed to this type of situation before

Most people are used to think in binary terms. The entire society talks in binary terms - from grammar and language to gender stereotypes (pink for girls, blue for boys etc); finding examples of non-binary people is not that frequent. Using non-binary pronouns means first of all acknowledging that the non-binary model is a valid one (i.e. gender is a spectrum, not 1/0), that one's own perception may vary with time etc, you will know what it means better than me.

Asking "Can you do A instead of B?" bears the implicite assumption that B is not correct. When the person has strong feelings for B/against A, this request may induce the person to take a defensive stance on the subject and make them even more reticent to do A. What my father did with me, when I was in the situation of not wanting to do something because of strong feelings attached to it (be it tantrums or more serious issues), was deescalating the situation by asking me what I felt and why I'd feel like that. It had the effect of making me reflect upon the issue instead of blindly defending it from an outside attacker. Moreover, from my point of view he became the person who you can talk with, and not the one trying to persuade you.

So, my suggestion is approaching the problem in multiple steps, or even several conversations. The first conversation should revolve around stepping in Alice's shoes and asking her about her perception of the current situation. Acknowledge that her position is not that easy, as Loki said. Ask her about her opinions about gender: what is or isn't gender, what concurs to build it, whether she thinks it may vary... She may have issues with your partner's gender fluidity which she can't voice with anyone, or she's not even fully aware of. During this first conversation I suggest using open questions and not expressing any opinion of your own about the subject, in order to make her feel free to express also negative emotions towards the current situation. Make this conversation all about her.

If you're lucky enough, she will be the one talking about it again. If she identifies you as a person with whom she can talk freely, then jackpot! If this issue didn't surface in the first step/conversation, ask her what are her feelings specifically about your partner's requests. Then you can pass on discussing the same issue from your point of view and your partner's one: if Alice feels listened, she will also feel more eager of listening demands from other people. Focus primarily on feelings: what Alice feels, what you feel, what your partner feels. I don't know if this is the case, but a mistake that people unfamiliar with LGBT+ sometimes do is thinking that gender identity and sexual orientation are more opinions than facts. While opinions and stances on things can be perceived as right or wrong, feelings can't be dismissed that easily. However, I think it may be useful stating clearly that the identity of your partner as they themselves perceive it is not negotiable.

Above all, focus on what you three can do to reconcile your feelings. Make her be proactive about it. If she recognizes that her effort is truly needed in order to make your partner feel better with themselves, more accepted, happier etc it will be easier than just meeting you demanding all of a sudden to respect something she doesn't understand at all.

Good luck!

  • Hello! You've done a great job of actually answering 'how to understand why Alice isn't using the preferred pronouns yet' (Which is the actual question asked). But could you explain where your suggestion is coming from by backing-up your answer, why are you giving this advice and what makes you sure that it'll work? If you're struggling with how to add relevant personal experience to your posts, here is a good guidance on how to do so. – Tinkeringbell May 27 '18 at 8:46
  • @Tinkeringbell it's funny, it took me a while to do so, because I couldn't recall when I saw this strategy put in place... and then I realised that this strategy was used on me and so I was Alice! – LinuxBlanket May 29 '18 at 13:37
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What I've seen work, or at least sort of work with the right sort of person, is a reminder of what they're doing and why it's hurtful. Granted, people slip, it happens, but not even trying is kind of an a**hole thing to do. Sometimes a gentle reminder that that's what they're doing is called for.

When I say "the right sort of person" I mean someone that is a friend, and probably not terribly phobic. Someone who obviously cares, but doesn't really "get it" or realize that these things carry the weight that they do.

This may be a conversation better had between Jane and Alice because they're closer, but I wouldn't think it odd or inappropriate to stand up for your partner. Sometimes people need that extra support, and it's always nice to know that someone has your back.

So... Here's an example of what I've found useful.

Hey, could you make an effort with the name and pronouns? [wait for a response]

It's not easy for people making these changes. When you use the wrong name and pronouns you're invalidating a piece of who they are as a person. The outside world is pretty hard on people like Jane, they need your support right now. It would mean a lot to me, and I know it would mean even more to Jane if you made an effort. You two are friends, and your friend needs your support.

The wording is of course entirely flexible, but the key there is that last bit "your friend needs your support". It seems to help to place the focus there rather than on the admonishment. Alice seems to know that she's doing something wrong, she just needs a reminder that her friend needs her to cut the crap and be a friend.


Just realized that this answer wasn't backed up as well as it could have been, or should have been. When answering questions from users I've interacted with before, I forget that the other people reading these may not have read the previous posts... My bad, sorry about that.

I'm legally married to and living with my partner, who is trans/gender-fluid (they/them) and we have a roommate who is binary trans (he/him). Situations like the one asked about here come up fairly often in our day to day lives.

To offer a specific example of this sort of thing working...

My partner had a friend/co-worker who is a cis-gay-man. He was a good friend, but didn't really make any effort with pronouns till he was called on it. After a gentle nudge in the right direction, he started making an effort. Shortly after, he gave my partner one of those "my pronouns are: ____ " name badge thingys that he picked up at a pride event as a show of support.

Later he became my partner's primary ally in their workplace. He's now the person who offers this sort of gentle reminder to others and my partner appreciates having the backup.

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