For eight years, Sara Kaplan truly believed that her first-born child was a girl. It wasn’t until a classmate told Kaplan that her kid had a secret, and that secret was that his “inner person is a boy,” that she realized she’d been raising a son all along.
Kaplan took her son — James, who’s now 10 — by the hand as they walked home that day, and listened as he told her how he’d struggled to connect the sex a doctor assigned him at birth with how he truly feels. He began his transition soon after that conversation.
But even though Kaplan is a loving and supportive mother, she couldn’t immediately retrain herself to say “he” instead of “she,” or to use the new boy name her son chose.
“At the beginning, when I’d get angry, I’d want to call my son by his dead name [the name a transgender person was given at birth, which they often change after transition]. It was on the tip of my tongue,” she says.
Like all non-transgender people who know someone who has transitioned, Kaplan had to relearn how to refer to her son and later her daughter — Kaplan’s younger child also came out as transgender soon after her brother. It took practice to let go of the names she chose for her kids, and the idea she had of who they’d be based on their sex assigned at birth, Kaplan says. But it’s important for the cisgender (non-trans) people in a transgender or gender non-conforming person’s life to do this work, and to use their proper name and pronouns.
Mistakes happen, especially as people are learning new ways to refer to people they’ve known by a different name or a different pronoun. But purposely misgendering (using the wrong name and/or pronouns for) a transgender or gender non-conforming person is an act of violence, as transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox has said. Even when it isn’t intentional, though, using the wrong pronouns can still be hurtful.
“Ask any trans person, and they can tell you how awful being misgendered makes them feel,” trans YouTuber Riley J. Dennis said in a video on her page. “It’s a way of invalidating their identity. It makes them feel disrespected, isolated, uncomfortable, and hated, simply because of their gender.”
It’s up to us, the cisgender people in their lives, to do everything possible to remember to use their new names and pronouns, so that the people we love won’t have to feel this way — even though it’s not always easy. As Kaplan says, “It takes a minute,” because you’ve known this person by a different name and pronoun for however many years. But it’s absolutely necessary.
Read on for tips on how to avoid misgendering your loved ones, acquaintances, or even a person you just met — as well as what you should do if it accidentally happens.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.