Recently a friend asked me a question about pronoun usage that we don’t always think about. When a person comes out as transgender and starts using their new chosen name and pronouns, how do we refer to them in the past tense?
This is one of those topics that can get very confusing very quickly. While the topic seems to be pretty straight forward on the surface, there are a few things we should try to keep in mind about what is under the surface.
The Past Will Never Go Away
Everyone comes from somewhere. Unless we were born and raised in a 5′ x 5′ room with no windows or doors, we have all done something in our lives; something fun, something exciting, something scary, something dangerous, something good, or even something bad. Regardless of what we have done, we all have a past of some kind. The events of our past are the things that make us who we are today.
The hard part is how do we talk about a person’s past when that person no longer uses the name or pronoun that were used during the event.
To Exist Or Not To Exist?
Having spoken with numerous transgender individuals over the years…..and pulling on my own thoughts as a transgender woman, there is no clear cut answer to the question of “how does the past name’s events jive with a current name and pronouns?”
Historically speaking, in many cultures around the world it was traditional for a bride to take her new husband’s last name as her own; for her to become a part of his family and give up claims to the family that raised her. She would always be a part of her birth family, but her current and future familial classifications would from then on be associated with her husband’s family. In the modern age, as we celebrate more and more matriarchal societies coming to the forefront, as well as gay and lesbian marriages becoming legalized in more and more states, it is no longer strictly a woman joining a man’s family, but rather any variation of individuals joining each other’s family.
I explained all of the marriage logistics to bring up one very important point, that even in daily life a person never fully gives up who they were before their gender realization. The bride will always be known as both their past identity and their married identity.
For transgender individuals who have begun transitioning and have chosen a new name and pronouns for themselves, this marriage theory does not always apply.
Some transgender individuals believe that they/we have always been the gender that is currently being expressed versus the sex that was assigned at birth (e.g., male, female, intersex, etc.). Using myself as the example, I was designated male at birth by the doctors, and my parents and society helped to enforce that designation. When I was 11, I realized that male was not who I really was……I was a girl (now a woman) and the male that everyone said I was, was just a costume I put on for their amusement.
Now that I have transitioned, I can look back and say, full of pride, that I have always been a woman. The male/boy/man that everyone thought they knew, never really existed as a gender.
Pronouns Of The Past
You might be saying to yourself: “that is all well and good, but it was the old name and pronouns that did the stuff in the past.” On one level you would be correct. But if you look back at the last section, you will see that it really wasn’t the old name and pronouns that were participating in the past events. It was the transgender individual you know now; they just hadn’t had the opportunity to proclaim their internal gender and make it fit with a name and pronoun of their own choosing.
Respecting The Past & The Future
I guess we have zig-zagged around the real question long enough. So, how do we refer to a transgender persons’ past events while still being respectful of their current and future identity.
This one is actually a lot easier than you might think it is. (This tip works for all gender identities).
As soon as a person tells you that they are a transwoman, or a transman, or that they are any gender or non-gender other than what you thought they were, then that is what they are. Your impression of them doesn’t matter. Your insistance that they are a specific gender does not matter. From that moment on they are, will be, and always were a woman, or man, or both, or somewhere in between, or neither.
Even if you knew the person before they transitioned, the new self-proclaimed identity is the only one that actually matters.
Let’s see if I can make this a little easier. Since Caitlyn Jenner has been in the news a lot over the last couple of years, I will use her as the example.
Many millions of people grew up watching the Summer Olympics every four years and many of those are probably very familiar with former gold-medal winner Bruce Jenner (name used here with sincerest apologies to Caitlyn for its use) who won the decathalon event during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada. This same individual also went on to find additional notoriety, among many other things, as a step-father to the Kardashian girls. And until very recently, the world knew her only as Bruce.
But this person battled with their gender identity for numerous decades before coming out on national television as a transgender woman named Caitlyn Jenner. From that point forward, Bruce, as a name with attached pronouns, ceased to exist and Caitlyn gloriously became who she always was from the very beginning.
Now we can look back on her life and proudly say that Caitlyn Jenner was an Olympic gold-medal winner in the 1970s. We can also say that, yes, she is a step-father to the Kardashian girls, but she is also the father of Kylie and Kendall Jenner and loves all of them with all of her heart. (Italics added for emphasis)
See what I did there. I talked about the person that everyone used to know as Bruce as if she had always been known as Caitlyn. Which is actually true, it just took the world this long to find out who she really is.
The transgender individual you now know will always be the person you used to know, regardless of the names and pronouns. All you have to do is adjust the name and pronoun for the person you are talking about…….just like you would if you knew a woman (historically speaking) both before and after she got married.
If you struggle with remembering the proper and respectful pronouns, talk to the transgener individual in your life and ask them to help you.
I will speak collectively for all transgender individuals when I say that all transgender individuals are not the same and every one of us may have variations on the themes discussed here. Just be respectful toward us and treat us like any other individual you may come across. And remember that person (new name & pronoun) you know now is exactly the same person (old name & pronoun) you knew before.
Transgender Visibility & Education Network