A couple of months ago I began seeing a therapist. I wanted to change a habit, and so it made sense to me to find a hypnotherapist to help me do that. My reasoning was that if they could help people quit smoking, they could help me quit my habit.
The habit that needed to change was the use of the wrong pronoun in reference to my transgender son. I had been trying to use the masculine when referring to him, but I was only successful on the occasions when I slowed down my thoughts and words sufficiently. Most of the time, though, I would spontaneously use the feminine as in “Do you know where she is?” and immediately realize my mistake.
Recently, when I was standing in line with Jamie’s partner and friends, waiting to see his musical show about gender transition, I said “Oh, here she comes,” and saw the amusement on their faces. I caught myself right away, and tried to make a joke out of it by saying “I think there’s a song about that” (which there is*), but I could see that they were dismayed on Jamie’s behalf. If they could adapt, why couldn’t I?
Even when I tried to slow down my thoughts, I found it easier to rearrange the sentences and use his name instead of a pronoun. For example, I might say something like “I was talking with Jamie the other day and Jamie said that in Jamie’s experience, producing a play was complicated.” As you can see, that is a construction without grace and so obviously forced as to make everyone uncomfortable. However, so far it has been the best I could do.
In talking with the therapist I recounted a story of something that happened when Jamie was an infant. The story was supposed to be amusing but it made me cry to talk about the day when we decided to take pictures of our baby in each of the new outfits we had been sent as gifts. We dressed and undressed that child in one pink dress after another so that we could show friends and relatives how lovely the clothes looked on the baby.
I cried in part because I felt a sense of loss for the little girl I once had, and in part because I felt I had to erase the memory of the silliness and happiness of that day. If I were to now accept Jamie as male, I had to deny my child as female, and that meant denying thirty years of memories.
I was also angry. I was angry that I got it wrong, I presumed too much, I knew too little about gender, and I had so easily bought into the social norms around parenting and gender. I was angry at my total misunderstanding of what it all meant, and would mean for my child. It never even occurred to me to question whether or not gender was binary, and neither did anyone else at the time.
So this mishmash of thoughts and emotions came to the fore, and helped me to understand my inability to use masculine pronouns in reference to Jamie. There was a deep-seated resistance tied to some happy moments in the past that I didn’t want to let go of. My therapist said something then that has stayed with me ever since. He said “You are one of the few people in the world who holds that thread; the thread of Jamie’s entire life,” and those words were a turning point for me. Suddenly, my memories became necessary, not something to try to negate.
In a subsequent meeting, I was recounting a recent lunch date I had with Jamie at which he was wearing a pin that said, simply “They. Them. Their.” Jamie had previously (a couple of years ago) said that he would prefer people to use they pronouns in reference to him, but I had pooh-poohed that idea. I said something like “You must be kidding! Both your mother and your mother-in-law were English teachers. There’s no way we are going to refer to you in the plural.” As far as I was concerned, there was no such thing as a singular they. Since then, though, I have softened on that position.
I realized that we do, in fact, use they pronouns in reference to singular subjects quite often, especially if the gender of the subject is unknown or irrelevant. You might say “A journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources,” without giving it a second thought. Or, “How do you like your new teacher? Do they want you to bring notebooks to class?” Also, if you refer back to the first paragraph of this essay, you’ll see that I used the singular they in reference to a single person and when you read it, you didn’t find it odd. So, using they pronouns in reference to Jamie isn’t out of the question.
In fact, that is my new resolution. I’m going to try to switch to using the singular they. That way I can include in my language and in my perceptions of both the infant who wore pink and the adult who now does not. It makes so much sense to me. I don’t have to negate those memories; I can incorporate them into the new understanding. Just don’t expect me to get it right all the time! That would be asking too much.