What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Preferred Gender Pronouns

Let's Queer Things Up!

It can’t be emphasized enough: Coming out as transgender or any variation thereof is downright terrifying. It is often met with criticism, resistance, and invalidation. When I came out to friends, it felt like the world was crashing down all around me.

And by far, the worst part was the resistance I faced when asking others to stop saying “she.” Beyond coming out, we also ask others to change a very ingrained habit — to use different pronouns when speaking about us. This is where I encountered the most turmoil.

Some folks simply don’t understand what they are saying when they refuse to use someone’s preferred gender pronouns.

When someone states their preferred pronouns (he, she, ze, they, etc), they are asking for your respect. And when you choose not to use these pronouns, and instead opt for your own, you are not only invalidating someone’s identity, but you are…

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Fashioned By Mom

It has only become to clear to me in my adult years how unique parts of my childhood truly were. When we’re growing up, I guess we assimilate naturally into the world around us. Our perception would then be that “this is normal”. The skeleton elements of my childhood are pretty average: public school, Christian household in the suburbs of a big city. But some of the best parts of my “kid experience” were things way outside the norm and one of the most unique I owe solely to my Mother…

My Mom used to make our clothes.

To some, that sounds insane. I was born in 1984 in a Naval Hospital, not on a prairie in a covered wagon. And yet, hand-made clothes were completely normal for me. I have memories of my Mom taking me and my sister to the fabric store to pick out patterns. She’d show us the picture on the front and we could pick out our favorite. Then, we’d get to go up and down the aisles pawing through rolls of fabric looking for something that “spoke” to us. She’d even let us go to the button section to select the buttons we wanted for the front.

When we’d get home, she’d bust out her flexible tape measure and tickle the measurements out of us. We’d have to stand with our arms out like we were flying while she pinned the patterns to us and made notes. The patterns just looked like tissue paper with a bunch of dotted lines to us. But to Mom, they were the earliest signs of art. That’s how we discovered our Mom was a magician. We’d go play or watch TV while she sent the sewing machine into crazy fits of noise. Hours later, she’d still be pinning and sizing and cutting. Sometimes, she’d fall asleep right at the sewing table, pins and thread stuck all over the place. But somehow, a few days later, we’d have a dress. Somehow, she’d turn a bunch of folded papers into an outfit.

Eventually, I wanted to know about the magic that Mom made. I wanted to know how it all happened. I started watching her work. I’d ask to help cut the thread or pin the fabric. She taught me how to load the new thread, fill and change the bobbin spool, and how to sew different stitches. I started with small projects and had made my first beanbag by the time I was 10. A few years later, I finished my first quilt at 14. It was exhilarating to me. And yet, for so many years I have taken those skills for granted. It has taken me a long time to realize how lucky I am that my Mom shared her magic.

Sewing Meme

One tradition we had around the end of September every year was to pull out the Halloween box from the rafters to decide what our costume would be. My Mom would plop the box down in the garage and we’d take out all of the props collected over the years. With the props as inspiration, we’d head to the fabric store so Mom could get the right fabric for our costumes. Sometimes inspiration came from movies or books. Either way, they were made by Mom.

One year – I think I was 8 or so – I pulled out a brown grass hula skirt and threw it on over one shoulder so it draped across me instead of sitting at my hips. I shouted, “Look Momma, I’m a caveman!” Right away she had her vision. She went to work on making a skin-colored body suit and a pair of grey fuzzy boots for me to wear. She found a giant bone and fastened it to a clip to sit in my wildly teased hair. She even made me bone earrings and bought a plastic club for me to carry. I really did look amazing. I never gave her credit for it though. Since it was my normal, I guess I just assumed it was everyone’s. I assumed all of the kids in the parade that day at school had moms that sewed their costumes. I don’t think I ever truly grasped how lucky I was.

So here I am, 30, and sewing my costume for this Halloween. I have kept the tradition alive my hand-making my costume every year, and my Mom is in my heart the whole time. Thank you, Momma. Thank you for sharing such an amazing gift with me. I can’t wait to pass it on…

Blue Star Experience

I went to the most amazing workshop today.

A colleague from work stopped me on the way into the building on Tuesday to let me know that the Coordinator of the LGBTQ Center at Montclair State University would be at the Boys and Girls Club in our town to give a seminar on sensitivity and awareness of LGBTQ youth in our schools. I wanted in immediately. It was very last-minute to put in for a Professional Day and get myself signed up for the workshop, but I am so glad I was able to quickly put all of the paperwork through because today was the best eight hours of professional development I have ever completed in the 8+ years I have been a teacher.

Even though I consider myself very educated on gender pronouns, gender and sexual preference spectrums, and trans-related issues, I was very excited to learn as much as I possibly could to be a better educator and role-model for my students that may identify as LGBTQ. When we first got to the workshop, the instructor, Brian, had us write our names followed by our used gender pronouns on a name tag. Mine said, “Cali – She/Her/Hers”. I understood right away what Brian was trying to do – open up a conversation about how not everyone identifies with the perceived gender pronouns. For example, some people who are outwardly female may use the pronouns “they/them/their”. But what was interesting was that some of the other professionals there didn’t get it right away. I noticed some of them even omitted the gender pronouns  from their name tags – perhaps confused or maybe unsure of the point. It gave me a bit of a chuckle that so many people at the workshop had no idea that traditional gender pronouns are not utilized by everyone. For once, I felt the privilege in being gay. I felt more “normal” in today’s conversations than many of them appeared to feel. I loved that feeling.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves with three prompts: Say your name, Give your used gender pronouns, and Explain why you signed up for this seminar. There were about 30 others there today from all over North Jersey. Most were administrators or guidance counselors – I think I was only one of two classroom teachers. Four of us identified as LGBT or Q – everyone else would have identified themselves as “straight”. We did quite a few exercises and activities throughout the day that were incredible, but one of them hit me so hard that I can’t get it out of my head.

Brian handed out stars to each of us. Some were yellow, some were purple, orange or blue. Mine was blue. First we were instructed to write our name in the middle of the star. Then, Brian told us to write a different thing on each “arm” of the star: On the top, we put our best friend’s name. The next arm we were told to write the name of a family member(s) in which we usually confide. Next we wrote a community to which we belong (for example “Church” or “School” or “Soccer Team”). On the fourth we wrote our dream job. And on the last arm of the star Brian said to write our hopes and dreams. My star had Jamie as my best friend and my father as my confidant. I wrote “LGBTQ” as my community and “positively influence kids” as my dream job. My hopes and dreams said, “Get pregnant and have babies.”

Brian had us all get up and form a circle. Like I said, there were about 30 of us. I began to glance around at the different colored stars and spotted 2 other blue stars like mine. I saw about 8 orange stars and about the same number of purple stars. There were a lot of yellow.

Brian told us that for this exercise he was going to ask that nobody leave, and nobody talk. He asked us to remain completely silent and just focus on the importance of his words. I can’t remember each word exactly, but it’s burned well enough into my head to recount the following.

Brian started to read from a piece of paper. “You are now all members of the LGBTQ community. You identity in some way as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning. This is now your ‘coming out’. You start by confiding in your best friend. If you have a blue star, your best friend is supportive and understanding. They tell you that they will be there to support you and that they do not consider you as any different than before. If you have an orange or purple star, your best friend tells you that this changes things for them. They don’t understand this part of you. They need time to deal with it and cannot be emotionally or physically available right now. If you have an orange or purple star, fold back that point of the star to symbolize this. If you have a yellow star, you have lost your best friend. They do not understand and never will. If you have a yellow star, tear off that point of the star and drop it to the ground.

“You continue by coming out to your closest family member. If you have a blue or orange star, your family has accepted you. They have told your that they will support you no matter what and have followed through with that promise. If you have a purple star your family is struggling with your announcement. They have mixed feelings and are not fully supportive. Some of your family members have not shown support at all. Others claim they need more time to process this. If you have a purple star, fold back that point of the star. If you have a yellow star, your family is not at all supportive. They have told you that you are no longer accepted as part of the family. Tear off that point of the star and drop it to the ground. ”

The exercise, something that started as just a colorful star visual, got really real for me. We all could see where this was going. As Brian read more and more, our fates began to fall into place. My blue star remained untouched. My best friend, father, community and profession stayed intact. Meanwhile, pieces of the orange and purple stars were being folded away or dropped completely. And piece by piece of the yellow stars were piling up on the ground like confetti. They were supposed to be symbolic of our support groups – friends, family, work, dreams. But the yellow stars were turning into empty, pointless shapes. I felt my eyes well up with tears as Brian got to the last one.

“Your hopes and dreams are deeply rooted. They are in your soul. If you have a blue star you have the confidence and support to push for those hopes and dreams – to achieve your inner-most desires. If you have an orange or purple star you work as hard and you can to mend relationships and control your life, but you have to put your dreams on hold. They are not as important to you as they once were. If you have an orange or purple star, fold back that point of the star. If you have a yellow star, you have disregarded your dreams completely. You have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with your life. You fall into a deep depression and let go of all hopes, dreams, and desires. You become one of the 40% of people in the LGBTQ community to commit suicide. Tear up the remaining part of your star and drop it to the ground.”

And as all 12 people with yellow stars tore up their paper, I lost it. It hit me full force how many in my community have that yellow star experience. Friends of mine popped into my head – friends that I had to see struggle with coming out, fighting constantly to stay afloat in a situation that so desperately wanted to drown them. And as I looked down at my hands, clutching a perfect, 5-point star, I was grateful. I was overwhelmingly grateful to have had the Blue Star Experience for real. I have friends and family and a community that support me. I have an administration that backs me up. And I have hopes and dreams that are still very much alive for me. But those broken pieces of orange, purple, and yellow stars are still so fresh in my mind.

The man next to me had an orange star and after all was said and done he had one point remaining. When we regrouped to reflect on the exercise he held it up and said, “What if, for many of our students, we are the only point on the star they have left.” And that is what I will remember every single day that I get to work with these kids.

I will never, ever forget that.

Ludovic Bertron

Ludovic Bertron