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How can I train myself to use the right pronouns?

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Q: One of my siblings has announced she is transgender and wants to go by “she” and “her” pronouns. I really want to respect her wishes, but I’m afraid of saying the wrong pronoun. How do I get this right?

A: The first thing to do is to convey to your sibling that using the pronoun that is affirming to her is important to you. Tell her you are deliberately working on this. She may or may not be aware that it can take 2 to 8 months to shift pronouns — even when you are motivated and well-intentioned.

While changing pronouns is relatively straightforward, keep in mind that you have been using the original pronoun for many years. It’s an established habit. Research suggests that with deliberate goal setting and practice, habits can take anywhere from 18 days to approximately eight months to break, with most individuals breaking habits by the two-month mark, approximately.

Meanwhile, having a proactive plan will help you build and reinforce the changes you want to make. For example, you might journal and write about your sibling using her pronouns. You could also speak to trusted friends about what you’re working on, and when you discuss your sibling, attempt to use the pronouns that are affirming to your sibling.

While it’s important to make a real effort to use an individual’s pronouns, if you slip up — and you likely will — simply apologize, correct yourself and continue with the conversation. Apologizing profusely is often uncomfortable for the person you misgendered. Remember, the best apology comes in subsequent behavior change.

If after significant deliberate practice, you still find it difficult to use your sibling’s pronouns, you may want to consider reaching out to a support group for families of transgender individuals, or a professional. These spaces provide a place to openly discuss hesitations and to learn from others. For example, sometimes there is grief associated with the changes of a family member; at other times, it might be more about fear of how others might respond to your sibling’s gender.

Finally, keep in mind the “why” of using your sibling’s pronouns — both for your sibling and for you. A person with supportive family is likely to be a happier person who can achieve goals and dreams of her own making. By supporting your sibling, you are proving that you are committed to a relationship with her that is based on respect and acceptance. In using pronouns that are affirming, you’re promoting a genuine relationship with your sibling. Remember, sibling relationships are the longest lasting relationships in most people’s lives. Research in family psychology demonstrates that positive sibling relationships can be a protective factor against loneliness later in life.

For additional resources, try looking up the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Family Acceptance Project or the Human Rights Campaign websites. Attending a local PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter may be a good source of support and education.

To learn more: What is transgender?

The word “transgender” encompasses more than you might realize. It covers a range of gender identities and expressions that might fall outside of the idea that all people can be classified as only one of two genders — male or female (gender binary).

People who are transgender include:

  • Those who have a gender identity that differs from the sex assigned to them at birth
  • Those whose gender expression — the way gender is conveyed to others through clothing, communication, mannerisms and interests — and behavior don’t follow stereotypical societal norms for the sex assigned to them at birth
  • Those who identify and express their gender fluidly outside of the gender binary, which might or might not involve hormonal or surgical procedures

Other helpful terms:

  • Gender identity. This is the internal sense of being male, female, neither or both.
  • Gender expression. This is often an extension of gender identity, and involves the expression of a person’s gender identity through social roles, appearance and behaviors.
  • Gender dysphoria. This is the feeling of discomfort or distress that might accompany a difference between gender identity, sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics. This type of distress doesn’t affect everyone who is transgender.
  • Cisgender. This term is used to describe an individual whose gender identity and expression matches the stereotypical societal characteristics related to sex assigned at birth.
  • Gender fluidity. This is the exhibition of a variability of gender identity and expression. Gender fluid people don’t feel restricted by typical societal norms and expectations and might identify and express themselves as masculine, feminine or along a spectrum, and possibly with variations over time.
  • Gender-nonconforming. This occurs when gender expression, gender roles or both differ from societal norms and expectations for an individual’s sex assigned at birth.
  • Trans man and trans woman. These terms are used to describe, in a gender binary manner, a transgender individual’s gender identity or expression. For example, the term “trans woman” is used for an individual whose sex at birth was assigned male and whose gender identity is female. However, not all transgender individuals use these terms to describe themselves.

Cesar Gonzalez, PhD, ABPP

Dr. Gonzalez is a clinical health psychologist and clinical director of the Transgender and Intersex Specialty Care Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Find him on Twitter @DrCesarGonzalez.

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