Expert-Approved Strategies to Help Your Family Understand Gender-Neutral Pronouns
Community Psychiatry’s Dr. Magavi was featured in Pop Sugar discussing Gender-Neutral Pronouns.
Finding your correct pronouns is an important milestone, but getting the rest of your family to use them can feel like a whole separate battle. Odds are, not everyone in your family shares the same values or perspectives, which can make the task of explaining gender-neutral pronouns feel daunting, especially when talking to older generations who grew up within a strict gender binary.
“Older relatives may hold unconscious biases regarding gender identity based on their own lifelong conditioning,” said Allison Forti, PhD, an associate teaching professor and associate director of the Department of Counseling Online Programs at Wake Forest University, adding that some relatives may view gender-neutral pronouns as a phase or a way of “trying on an identity” that doesn’t really reflect who you are. “Therefore, it takes education, conscious awareness, and reflection to understand gender identity in a new way,” Dr. Forti told POPSUGAR. “They may need help expanding their vocabulary and knowing when and how to use gender pronouns.”
Fortunately, there are some ways for you to help even the most traditional family members understand who you are and how they should refer to you, without having to endure disrespectful behavior or constant misgendering. If you feel ready to share your pronouns with your family members, read on for some expert-approved strategies to make the conversation a little bit easier. Because everyone deserves to have their identity validated and respected — especially by the people closest to them.
How Do I Start a Conversation With Family About My Pronouns?
When explaining gender-neutral pronouns to someone for the first time, Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, said it’s a good idea to start with the basics. That means opening up the conversation by talking about what gender identity actually is, and how it may or may not align with a person’s sex at birth. When talking to older family members who aren’t familiar with gender-neutral pronouns, “it may be helpful to explain to them that some individuals struggle on a daily basis as they are uncertain about how they perceive their gender, and this affects their self-esteem and confidence level,” Dr. Magavi said. Covering this kind of information can make it easier for parents and grandparents to understand what pronouns actually are and why they matter.
If they can understand that, they may be more willing to put in the work and embrace your identity. To help them grasp the importance of pronouns, Cassandra LeClair, PhD, a professor at Texas State University whose courses focus on gender and family communication, suggests using concrete examples to communicate your point. You might say, “If someone repeatedly addresses you by the wrong name, it can feel dismissive and hurtful.” This might make the role of pronouns clearer to more traditional family members and help them realize how it feels when the incorrect pronouns are used. Dr. Magavi added that emphasizing the benefits of correct pronoun usage could also be an effective talking point. “Relaying that use of the right pronoun could potentially prevent the emergence of depression and anxiety may encourage reluctant grandparents to modify their stance,” Dr. Magavi explained. Whatever details you decide to include, letting your family know why pronouns are important to you can help move the conversation in a positive direction.
It’s beneficial to use assertive language throughout conversations like these. Dr. Forti suggests using phrases like, “I would like you to use they/their/theirs as my pronouns. I feel respected when you use my correct pronouns and this helps me feel close to you,” to express how you feel and emphasize that you and your identity matter. “Using correct pronouns validates one’s identity. It communicates respect, safety, trustworthiness, and a sense of belonging and mattering,” she said.
Remember that leading with patience and compassion is also important, but you don’t need to sacrifice who you are just to keep the peace. “Realize this may be hard for [family members], and they may need help learning a new way of thinking and relating to you, but do not back down from expecting them to treat you with dignity,” Dr. Forti said. If you’re having a hard time getting through to your family at first, she suggests sending them some helpful resources, like readings and videos, which can allow them to process new information more privately.
Click here to read the entire article on Pop Sugar.