Actually, You're Hurting My Child When You Don't Respect Their Pronouns

by Reaca Pearl

I think it's safe to assume most of us are all too familiar with the recently politicized debate over transgender people's right to exist in public spaces, sparked by increased visibility of transgender celebrities and the so-called bathroom bills popping up around the country. Whether willfully or accidentally, people don't always think about the personal stories behind the publicity. So I am going to be blunt and tell, point blank, the ways people hurt my child when they don't respect their pronouns.

My child is transgender. For the past two and a half years, my child, who was assigned male at birth, has requested that we use she/her/hers pronouns. Then, about two weeks ago, they discovered that they/them/theirs was a valid singular pronoun option. Since they are both genders, this option elated them in its ability to accurately explain themselves.

My child is not stealth; the term used when someone who is trans would rather not let anyone know. In fact, I share their story with their permission. Some transgender people, however, are stealth because of a very real concern for safety living openly as a trans person. Others are stealth because their gendered experience, whether related to their genitals or not, is nobody's damned business. Hopefully you also see how, as both genders, stealth is not really an option for my child. As their mother, I have to do everything I can to change the world to be safer for them before they are out in it by themselves.

Courtesy Allison Bailey

It's my opinion that being trans shouldn't be a big deal, meaning we should all be able to openly explore and validate our experience of our own gender. Everyone's gender identity expression and experience should be accepted and respected without question in society. Unfortunately, that's not the way our society currently works. As a result, I'm writing until my fingers bleed about how people hurt my child when they misgender them. And, unfortunately, it does happen all too often. Please consider this list the next time you wonder how choosing not to use someone's pronouns (in other words, intentional misgendering) actually hurts them.

It's An "Identity Threat"

Everyone experiences social identity threats to some degree or another. According to Psychology Today, identity threat occurs when someone actively invalidates another's identity. This can be in the form of one microaggression, like a single incident slur. Identity threat can also be consistent, persistent invalidation of someone's identity day after day, like daily misgendering or claiming transgender people are "faking it," confused, mentally ill, or otherwise incapable of asserting their own gender.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM 5) and the American Psychiatric Association that releases the manual, both assert that the consequences of chronic identity threat, especially when paired with social stigma, are varied, severe, and may include depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), homelessness, suicidality, and other mental health struggles. They make clear that being transgender is not a mental illness, and gender non-conformity is not, in and of itself, grounds for the diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria. Further, because of the social stigma and identity threat transgender people face, inclusion in the manual may help insure access to services.

Simply put, misgendering is dehumanization (where the target is thought to be less than human). When someone is thought of as less than human, it is a lot easier to justify violence against them. Is it any wonder, then, why I'm concerned about the hurt that's caused when someone misgenders my child?

It Dismisses My Child's Ability To Know Themselves

There have been people who say they will not respect my child's pronouns because they are too young to know what their gender is. These same people hint that if my child stays with the same pronouns in their teens, they might think differently. To those cisgender people who just don't get it, I really want to say, "When did you know you were a girl/boy?" The response has never been anything other than, "Well, always." We, as a society, respect cisgender kids when they affirm their gender. In fact, it's only transgender kids we don't trust.

My child realizes this distrust, and it devastates them.

It Places An Ideology Over Respecting My Child

I know I'm supposed to be kind and welcoming. I know I'm supposed to gently educate people until they just get it. This gentility changes the world, hearts, and minds, right? Well, if that's the case I will fail miserably. There are amazing people out there, some of whom I know personally, that are incredible at talking to the ideological naysayers.

I am not one of them.

This is my child we're talking about. I do not allow people to hurt them intentionally. That is my job as their mother. You see, dear reader, my child doesn't understand that someone could listen to an idea about genitals equaling gender over the actual person standing right in front of them, saying, "This is who I am. This is my lived experience."

Quite frankly, if someone has a problem with their pronouns and refuses to use them, they can do one of two things: use my child's pronouns anyway and work out their issues in therapy, or cling to their ideology, refuse to respect my child, and stay away.

It Ends With My Child Telling Me They're Hurting

My child is pretty damn understanding of people who don't get their pronouns right. They're pretty damned forgiving, too. (A hell of a lot more so than I am.) Why? Well, because my child generally assumes that people are making unintentional mistakes and will get it right when they get used to it. I, however, know better. I know that some people see using my child's pronouns as a direct affront against their own beliefs. They completely ignore the fact that my child's identity is about my child, and not about them. identity is about Lily, not about them.

Let me repeat that, because it's important: My child's identity is about my child, not about anyone else. Ever.

A little over a year ago, when faced with family who refused to use their pronouns, my child was confused. I sat with her as she wept and said, "If I told someone who I am and they don't believe me, they must not really care about me at all. That isn't what you do when you love someone."

Is this child hurt by intentional misgendering? Sure as hell seems that way to me.