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I have an old friend who recently came out as transgender. We have a very healthy relationship in general, but I often find myself wondering if I should mention his past (before he came out) and, if I do bring it up, if I should refer to him by masculine or feminine pronouns.

My question is: Is it OK to mention a transgender person's past in any conversation altogether and what pronouns should I use if and when talking about it?


Additional details:

  • Female to male transgender
  • He seems to have no problem in seeing pictures or videos of him before coming out.
  • The culture is Brazilian and I'd dare saying we are both very liberal/chill people.
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    I've deleted two comments already that insulted the OP's friend for being transgender, and I will continue to delete any further ones that are irrelevent and/or offensive. Saying that a transgender person has a psychological problem because of their identity violates the site's Be Nice policy. – HDE 226868 Nov 8 '17 at 19:35
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    I appreciate this question very much, because my ex-wife is a trans man, and that’s a situation where the pronouns can get confusing. “He had a miscarriage“, is a strange sentence. – G Tony Jacobs Nov 10 '17 at 2:21
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    Just passing on some information I have learned while trying to navigate this issue. The terms "Female to Male" or "FTM" and "Male to Female" or "MTF" are no longer accepted by a large portion of the trans community. A transgender individual has always been whatever gender they are whether they knew it or not, so it is no longer considered acceptable to say things like "this transgender female used to be male" because they are just a female and always have been. – Groggo Nov 10 '17 at 15:39
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    Usually the preferred phrasing is "assigned female at birth (AFAB)", if you wanted to address Groggo's comment with an edit. That said, "he's a trans man" is generally clear enough on its own; trans means his (current) gender isn't what was assigned at birth, so he was presumably assigned female. – Cascabel Nov 10 '17 at 18:26
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As a general rule, it's better to ask the individual person how they want to be referred to, whether it be past or present.

That said, in my experience it's common and usually appreciated when you use their current pronouns. Many trans folks think of themselves in those terms, because they knew they wanted to transition and identify long before they were ready to come out.

As for bringing up the past, this is really a personal preference thing. Some people are intensely uncomfortable about it and some are just fine, like pretty much anyone who had a difficult or troubling past.

In both cases individual results will vary, so just talk to your friend like they're your friend and ask, just be gentle about it.

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    It's also my understanding that to them, there is no "real" before vs after... just a "I was a woman in a man's body" and "now I am in my correct body". So for them, they always were that pronoun. But I would also ask it, to be on the safe side :). – Patrice Nov 8 '17 at 21:58
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    And if in doubt use singular they or their name to avoid a pronoun altogether if you are worried about outing them accidentally – Maxim Nov 8 '17 at 22:24
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    @Obie 2.0 People usually call that "dead naming" and it's a crap thing to do to someone. Many of the trans people I've met would be deeply insulted even if their old name was used in reference to them before they transitioned. Many will also be really hurt if someone asks what their old name was. – apaul Nov 9 '17 at 3:52
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    As corroboration for this answer, I have noticed when news outlets (in the USA at least) refer to transgender people in historical contexts, they always use the pronoun associated with their gender identity, regardless of whether the person had had reassignment surgery or has changed the way they dress or live. Sometimes they will clarify as in, "In 1995, Ms. Doe, then living as a man, discussed her gender identity with her mother." – Todd Wilcox Nov 9 '17 at 12:45
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    @apaul, The singular “they” in English is actually very, very old. – G Tony Jacobs Nov 10 '17 at 2:26
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If it's a good friend, ask. Your friend will tell you. It won't be awkward unless you make it so. Most Transgender people will make their preferences plain.

Just be prepared for an emotional dump. Even in more accepting societies, the life of someone who is TG is difficult as they often are dealing with many issues and very difficult histories.

Your friend may want to tell you little, much, or nothing. Since you're going to be talking directly with the person, the only pronoun you will be using is "you", so that may not come up for some time. You can observe what your friend's friends use when using 3rd person pronouns and take the cue from that.

Whether your friend wants to talk about the life prior to coming out is up to your friend. You could gently probe by reminiscing over a good time in the past with "Hey, remember when we..." and see how your friend reacts. Then ask "Hey, does it make you uncomfortable when I talk about...?"

Even though your friend may seem "chill" as you put it, it's a difficult time and just being there as a friend likely helps more than you realize.

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Most transgender people prefer that you use their current pronouns even when discussing their past. If you don't know somebody's wishes and can't find out, this is a good default.

Important exception: never "out" a person as transgender without their permission. This can make them a target for violence and discrimination. Normally this is all the more reason to stick with their current pronouns, but sometimes situations arise where it's better to use their old pronouns.

As an example of how it can get complicated, one of my friends ("Bob") is a trans man (FtM). Shortly after he decided to transition, he took a job in a conservative workplace. All his academic transcripts etc. were still in his old name, which is recognisably female, and he didn't want his employer knowing he was transgender - so at work he had to present as female and go by the old name ("Kate").

Most transgender people are okay with talking about their past pre-transition as long as it's not going to out them. If you've been friends for years, you don't have to erase all that from history! Some people may have specific things they don't want to discuss, especially if they've had bad experiences, but it's not a blanket rule.

In this case, because he's your friend, it is absolutely fine to ask "how would you like me to handle these issues?" and he will probably appreciate you making the effort to find out his preferences.

  • I mean it's pretty easy to tell someone is transgender even with using the "right" pronouns... – helrich Nov 10 '17 at 13:51
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    @helrich This is a fallacy. I'm not trying to say every trans person passes for cis, but you don't notice the many who do. I daresay nobody would think Tyler Titus is trans without being told. – Proxy Nov 10 '17 at 15:57
  • @helrich Nope. Check out e.g. theclothesline.com.au/%EF%BB%BFmr-angel-feast-film-review, stmedia.stimg.co/…, or newstimes.com/local/article/…. To say nothing of text-based media where there are no visual cues at all, but outing is still a consideration. – Geoffrey Brent Nov 11 '17 at 1:44
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    +1 for defaulting to current. Unless you know it's okay with them (asking, as above answers state), default to current pronouns. I have a friend who is totally fine with being referred to as their past name/pronouns when someone is speaking of a story from that time period, but other people might not be okay with this at all. However, it's much more unlikely that someone will complain for you referring to them as the pronouns they prefer on a timeless scale. – Jess K. Nov 17 '17 at 17:37
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Let's take a concrete example. You might tell me something about your friend, like "at the age of twelve, he was the captain of the girls netball team" or "at the age of twelve, she was the captain of the girls netball team".

First, should you tell this at all? Depends on your friend, you have to ask him. Is he Ok with you telling about the past in a female body, or does he want to forget all about it? Different people will see this differently.

Second, should you use "he" or "she"? Although the first variant sounds strange, I think "he" is correct. At the age of twelve, he was a "he", even though nobody knew it at the time. Someone who was more deeply involved with the person at the time might say "she", like "I was member of the girls netball team and she was the captain", perfectly acceptable if your friend is comfortable with that past at all.

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