What’s in a name? When my husband and I chose the names of our kids, we thought a lot about them. A name sticks with you, it’s what you write on forms and papers everyday, it’s the first thing your teacher reads about you when they see their roster for the year. People will make assumptions and have ideas about your just by reading your name (think about how many actors and actresses changed their given names to have more appeal!). So for someone whose gender identity doesn’t match up to their given name, a name can also validate (or not) who they feel they are.
Gender identity is our personal perception of our gender. It is innate and very much based on the individual. Gender may or may not align with chromosomes and anatomy. For Some, gender is the opposite of chromosomes. For others, gender is more fluid. Some languages do not have gender categories, but the English language does. When describing my own children, I often use the pronouns she and her. My oldest child identified herself as a girl around age 2 1/2. I recall it very vividly (plus it was only a year ago. I was at the store buying diapers. There was a pink box and a blue box. Previously she would ask for the blue box (which had a pirate and car), but this particular day she was adamant that she wanted the pink box. I was a bit shocked and asked her why. Her response: ‘because I’m a girl.”
For a transgender person, the pronouns used by others to describe them can either support or invalidate their personal sense of self. As a cis-gender person (someone whose sex at birth aligns with their gender identity) I rarely consider pronouns. But I know that on the occasion when I’m referred to as ‘sir’ instead of ‘ma’am’ I feel a bit offended. I can only imagine how it would feel to have this occur on a routine basis.
What can we do to validate an individual’s self identified gender?
Ask preferred pronouns. This may include he/his/him or she/hers/her. It may also include they/their/them. The only way to know is to ask the individual.
Ask about the person’s preferred name. A name means a lot. It is what we write on applications; it’s what our friends and family call us. When going to the doctor, it’s the name that is called from the waiting room when it’s your turn to come back.
Make an effort to support the individual. I’m not saying there won’t be times when we get it wrong. We may not get pronouns right all the time and we might use a term that is outdated, but trying to respect a person’s preferences goes a long way. The most important thing is our efforts at supporting the individual in front of us.