Past References and How to Do It Right

Another late post due to travel yesterday. The trip went well and I was pleasantly surprised at how accepting my family was and how much effort they made to try and adjust to my transition. That’s not to say there weren’t hiccups, there were, and that’s actually what I want to address today.

My family went kind of back and forth on use of my old male name and my true female name, but still used male pronouns. This is kind of to be expected, pronouns are usually the last thing people change because of how fundamental gender is to us. However, there was one incident where my grandparents, my dad, his wife, and I were all sitting around, and stories were being told about when I was little. My grandma started out by using my male name, then caught herself and said “well, you’re Caitlin now, but you were [insert old male name] back then, so anyway…” and continued her story, using my old name. This really stood out to me. If she hadn’t caught herself and just continued her story, sure I would’ve noticed, but I would’ve accepted it as part of her still adjusting. But she did catch herself, and she made a justification to keep using the wrong name.

Now, every trans person has different feelings on this, but for many, if not most, of us, when someone refers to us as we were in the past, we still prefer them to use the names and pronouns of the gender we identify as. It’s always best to ask if unsure, of course, but you’re more likely to find someone who prefers you use the name/pronouns appropriate to their proper gender but doesn’t mind if you use the ones associated with them before transition than you are to find someone who gets upset if you don’t refer to them as they were known at that time.

Let me give an example to make that a bit clearer. Jane was once born John and later transitioned. Jane is more likely to be ok with you calling her John and referring to her as male when telling a story about her past before she transitioned (but still preferring you refer to her as Jane and female even then), and less likely to want you to refer to her as John and get upset if you talk about her as Jane when referring to those times. So it’s a safe bet to refer to her (and other trans people) as the gender and name they identify as when speaking about their past lives. This helps avoid outing them if they haven’t come out to someone (such as if they live “stealth”), and helps avoid other issues with weird phrasing. It sounds weird hearing things like “go ask Caitlin if he wants some of this” or “go ask Jason what time she wants to head out.”

On that note, since we’re discussing the transition others go through when adjusting to us, another point that came up. The first talk I had with my grandma this trip, while sitting waiting for dinner, she suggested I go by a different name so that they could feel more comfortable, and still go by calling me by the same name. This is tantamount to telling Christopher to change to Christina, Nichole to change to Nicholas, Kenneth to Kendra, or Alexis to Alexander. Now, there are some people who do just this. I’ve been guilty of suggesting similar, when a friend with a gender neutral name asked me to help him pick his name, one of my suggestions was just changing the spelling to the more masculine one. And as he pointed out, for many of us, that’s still too close of a reminder of a false identity we don’t want to be reminded of. And many times, that’s a name we don’t identify as. And yes, I did help him come up with other names he liekd, including the one he settled on (and I call him by it more than he does himself).

Much like referring to us as the names and genders we were assigned at birth rather than the ones we identify as, asking us to change our names to something similar to what we were assigned at birth ends up being for your own comfort, not ours. But transition is, ultimately, all about us. It may sound selfish and self-centered, but transition boils down with us becoming comfortable, with being able to truly be ourselves rather than who others tell us that we should be.

What about you? Have any of you run into issues with coming out to family? Have any of them offered their own advice on a name to make themselves more comfortable?


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