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Amelia teaches Trans 101: How to refer to a trans person’s past

image source: wikiHow

image source: wikiHow

This is something that seems to come up from time to time so I think it’s an important thing to talk about. What’s the best way to talk about a trans person’s past? For example, if you’re telling a story about someone, how should your refer to them? Should you use their chosen name and the pronouns they’ve asked you to use or should you stick with what they went by at the time?

For the most part, 99% of the time, you should never use a trans person’s birth name–or, as some of us often call it, dead name–and you should always stick with the pronouns they’ve asked you to use. There may be a situation in which the person said it’s okay to do otherwise, but unless you’ve been specifically told to deviate from this, you should stick with what you refer to them as now.

First, it’s important to understand they didn’t become who they are the moment they told you their chosen name. And they didn’t become this person because they transitioned, instead, they transitioned because they already were this person. When you’re talking about their past, even though you may not have known them as the person they are now, this is still the person they were. For example, I’ve always been Amelia. I may not have gone by this name in the past, but this was always the person I was inside, even if I was hiding it as much as possible and pretending to be someone else.

The second thing at play here is the fact that it’s never okay to out a trans person. Depending on the company you’re in, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that not everyone is aware this person is transgender and they would like to keep it that way. While I’m 100% openly transgender, it’s still not okay for someone else to out me. Even if it’s pretty obvious to someone else that I’m trans, no one else has the right to confirm that information. Maybe I don’t want to actually talk about trans stuff at that time. Maybe my safety could be at risk, which is not something anyone else is in a position to evaluate. Maybe there’s just no reason why that person needs to know I’m trans.

It can also create a confusing situation for everyone. This past New Year’s Eve, I was at a party and another guest was telling a story from a few years back that involved me. It’s actually a rather funny story, but the people he was sharing it with had never met me before that night. As he was telling the story, he kept pointing across the room at me while saying things “then HE ran down the hill…” and “the cops caught up to HIM…” (Side note: I didn’t get arrested, but I thought was I going to! Remind me to share this story sometime!) Imagine being a person listening to this story and looking across the room at someone who is very clearly a woman while someone else in the room is referring to her as a man. Don’t you think that’d be a little confusing for them? After that, how would they know what to call me? Needless to say, I was mortified and spent most of the rest of the night hiding in one of the bedrooms crying.

To move back outside of my own life, some trans people choose to live stealth, meaning they are not openly trans. Referring to their past with a different name and a different set of pronouns would take away their ability to continue being stealth. You would be outing them when they very clearly do not want to be outed.

Another thing to consider here, besides name and pronouns, is what it is you’re actually saying. I once had a coworker mention something about how I used to use the men’s room at work to a new employee at our company. This was actually how he found out I’m trans. When you’re talking about someone’s past, you should take care to avoid things that may out them or that may be a bit embarrassing for them now. In addition to the change in which gendered facilities they use, try to be careful when discussing how/who they used to date, what kind of relationships they used to be in, etc. When I was younger, I had a bit of a streaking phase (hey, I was going through some stuff, okay!). Obviously, this isn’t something I’d really like people to associate with me, Amelia, now.

When we’re around our friends, especially people we’ve known for a long time, it can be easy to let something slip out without thinking. This happens every once in a while with friends of mine. Many of them have commented that hanging out with me is the same as it ever was and my having transitioned isn’t something they really think about or that matters to them. So when we’re talking about the past, it’s easy for them to forget certain things may be off-limits to talk about depending on the company we’re in (if it’s just us, anything goes). The key here is to really do your best. If this person is your friend or family member, I would imagine that you wouldn’t want to say anything that makes their life harder.

40 Comments

  1. Spot on. I like “I’m 100% openly transgender, it’s still not okay for someone else to out me”. We have the right to assert our identity, and own the right to choose when or if we out ourselves.

  2. Excellent explainer. To further belabor the point, as I said to my friends and family:

    “Whenever you’re talking about me and my past, you’re (at that moment) in the present and looking back at past circumstances. Accordingly, you should be using the name and pronouns of the present. My name is Emily. As a woman, the correct pronouns for me are she/her. If you are talking about something that happened in 2010, my name is still Emily, and the correct pronouns are still she/her. If you are talking about something that happened in 1985, my name is still Emily, and the correct pronouns are still she/her. If it’s absolutely necessary to clarify that I was presenting as a cis male at the time, you should ask yourself if that would mean outing me to someone who isn’t aware I’m trans (I may not pass as cisgender now, but that doesn’t mean that’ll always be the case), and also why that clarification is necessary.”

  3. All makes sense – I would also note that “don’t mention things about somebody’s past that they might find very embarassing now when you are with new people” is a really good rule in general.

  4. Very good to know, but let me ask you this. What do you do if you are reminiscing about the past with someone who does not know about your transition, who still only remembers you by your “dead name.” Obviously if it’s someone we’re mutual friends with (or someone who never knew you by your “dead name,” if at all) most of the stories I could tell (such as troubleshooting your programming way back in college) could be told using the right names and pronouns.
    But if it’s someone who knew of you (due to us being in the same organization), but only knew you as your “dead identity,” how should you proceed (considering I wouldn’t want to out you)?

    • Okay, yeah, this is definitely a good question. I saw someone else pose this in the comments when someone else shared my post on Facebook as well.

      It’s definitely tough and this is really going to come down to individual preference, I think. You are right, it’s not your place to out someone, but you are in a bit of a predicament. In most cases, I almost want to say to just proceed as if the person hadn’t transitioned, for the sake of not being the one to out them. It kind of makes it the one exception to the never use dead name and old pronouns thing.

      For me, personally, in most cases, I wouldn’t have a problem with you simply saying “FYI, she goes by Amelia now” and leaving it at that, but the big thing there for me is that you leave it at that and don’t explain it further. If the person seems confused you can simply tell them to reach out to me (you can say that I’ve told you it was okay).

      But yes, definitely tricky in this situation and if you think you may have to deal with it, my suggestion would be to simply ask the person what they want.

  5. Thanks for posting this! While I’ve never had this problem myself, I’ve been on the other end of the “reveal” and that’s no fun, either. The most frustrating part is that it wasn’t intentional on anyone’s part: two people I know “outed” their roommate to me by occasionally using the wrong pronouns. Worse, although they each messed up multiple times in my presence, I heard her correct one of them all of once, with an exasperated, tired tone that implied to me that it happens all too frequently.

    It embarrassed me, too, because until that point I had not quite realized that she was trans. I thought she was a man the first time I met her for maybe about five minutes until she turned around and had a conversation with me. But a lot of people are androgynous, myself included, so I thought nothing of it. Strangers have identified me equally as both sexes from behind for as long as I can remember. So it wasn’t strange to me that I would make that mistake. So the first time someone used the wrong pronoun to refer to her, my thought was, “Come on, she’s androgynous, but she’s not THAT androgynous! This isn’t that hard.” Took a while before I figured it out. To their credit, nobody actually told me that she was trans or mentioned anything about birth names or “when she was a boy” or whatever other flagrant offenses people commit. But still, it’s got to be tough when even the people with whom one lives can’t get it right. Ugh. I want to talk about it with my friend who lives with her, but that would make me feel even more awkward. Especially because I still don’t know if she is out or not about being trans and don’t want her to know I know when I’m not even her friend, but friends with her roommate.

    Okay, I probably over-shared with my whole anecdote. But it is at least worth saying that some of us (I can’t speak for everyone) don’t care to hear if your friend is trans if your friend is not planning to tell us. It’s one thing to say “that person transitioned/is transitioning, so stop using those incorrect pronouns and start using these”, and another to let strangers know upon their first or second meeting. -_-

  6. Thanks for this post! I’m really glad to know this.

    My quandary: I know two different cis men who identify as straight who have trans exes. Both exes transitioned after the relationships were over; both were living as women, with female names, during the relationships. While I would NEVER out a trans person, if I’m just talking to, say, one of these guys who used to date one, it feels weird to talk as if he had been dating a man. At the time, as far as the guy knew, he was dating (in one case married to) a woman. To use male pronouns for the trans person’s past self here seems like saying that my straight male friends are retroactively bi or something.

    I respect the fact that the trans people in question were still trans at the time, and would not want to deny this important part of their identities. But the cis guys were also still straight at the time. Is there a way to refer to past situations without denying an aspect of either person’s identity?

    I hope this question isn’t offensive. I just want to do as right as I can by everybody, and would really appreciate any suggestions.

    • Did you ask your straight cis guy friends how they want you to talk about their past relationship with those who they loved in a straight relationship? They get to identify how they feel. Some will say straight still, and others might say queer. Are these exes with you when you are talking about the couples or is it just the cismen? Do the others in the room know who you are talking about too?

      Example: You have a cismale friend Doug who is with you having burgers and two other guys come along you never met before that are his friends. For some reason you decide to tell a story of how you met him there when he was still dating his ex, but you do not know if they know his ex or if they are cisgender or straight like you and Doug. What to do?

      1st: you could have talked to Doug ahead of time if it is okay to bring up his past, how you met, and if you can mention his ex. (some guys may be so sad of a break up he does not want to hear about the ex at all.)

      2nd: you can ask the others if they knew Doug long and if they knew his ex. If they say no, you could talk about his ex girlfriend and leave out the name, since he identifies as straight, and those guys will not need to know anything about the transitioning of the ex after the relationship ended, not their business. If they say yes they knew him since kids, for example, they likely already know the story of the transitioning, so you can just say you met him and his ex in 2009 and they will know the rest.

      3rd: If his ex had said something to you and you wanted to include that in story, why not just say “And then Doug’s ex asked me ‘but then why is it green?’ and I thought ‘gee you are blond!’ hahahaaha!” and leave gender out of it? Why bring up a past ex’s name at all?

      4th: If the ex is WITH you and your friend, then I think you should have a conversation with both the ex and your cisfriend in private about all the above. If you no longer see the ex, why make it a big deal?

  7. My BEST friend is transgender, mtf (all pre-op, no hrt). I love her SOOOOO much!! I’d be lost if she wasn’t in my life. Kylie and I have a complicated relationship with pronouns. In my heart, Kylie’s gender doesn’t matter. I see both sides of her. See, when we met, it was at work. Only she was he. And his name was Paul. I never call “him” Paul. Never, I never used the name Paul, I use her last name. She was military as a guy, so it’s a safe name to use. At work, Kylie wasn’t out when we met. I also know Kylie’s kids. And Kylie’s kids still call her dad, and refer to her as a him. She’s got 4 kids and 3 of them are boys. It’s hard for one to accept, but the others are all used to dad wearing dresses, and going to pride with me and my family. I use both pronouns with Kylie. Depending on who I’m talking to. It’s complicated at times because I met Kylie’s mom, and she introduced herself as “Hi, I’m Paul’s mom.” I had to stop myself from saying “Who the fu©k is Paul?” My kids are starting to use less of “him/he” and using more “her/she” when referring to Kylie. They have a harder time with it bc they are best friends with the kids. But, they’re making an effort.

    I guess my question is… Will it get less complicated?? Am I handling this correctly??
    I don’t see Kylie’s gender, I’m gender queer. Use male or female pronouns with me, idc. I see Kylie’s soul, and it’s beautiful!! Kylie always seems surprised when I do something for her, recognizing HER, not him. Maybe she needs to accept herself more?? Maybe she hasn’t fully accepted it, that’s why the family still calls her Paul?? She said her mom knows about Kylie. Idk. Any advice would be nice.

    • I think that is a problem actually. You are not seeing a gender of a person who wants you to see their gender. HER gender. I have met others who are not binary identifying, and when they meet someone who is binary they refuse to accept the new gender.

      Have you ever sat down and had a private one on one talk and asked Kylie how she feels when you say to her you do not see any gender in her or that “Kylie’s gender doesn’t matter?” I think it does matter, to her.

      How her kids (not sure of age) deal with gender of Kylie is their family business, and what kids say should not reflect on how you teach your kids to speak about her. Kylie is not androgynous, she is a woman from what you have stated. Do you teach your kids to address a female identifying cisgender teacher at school as THEY and THEM or as SHE and HER? If the latter, and I bet they do, then you should teach them to do the same for a TRANSwoman.

      Guessing why Kylie feels surprized when you say HER should not make you wonder if she has not accepted womanhood yet, or that her mom using her birthname means Kylie has not accepted being a full woman yet. Can you control what your parents say? Nope. And if older woman, it may take her brain a lot longer to figure out what to say. That is Kylie’s business, not anyone else, and it should not reflect on her not being accepting of herself enough what others say about her.

      Will it get less complicated, for you? Only if you want it to. It is simple enough to say she is female and to use only female words for her. But when something comes up like the past when was identifying as male, maybe let her tell that story or not tell it at all? I think best idea is to ask her what she thinks you should do.

  8. Thank you for this article Amelia. I have tried to explain this situation to a friend who just doesn’t get it this will definitely help as your article is clear and succinct .

  9. Isn’t it awfully contrived to force everyone else to bow down to your gender issues. I shouldn’t, and certainly won’t be, treading on eggshells so as not to upset the transgender community. If u were Steve in the past I will use your name at the time of those actions to describe it. Your hang ups are not my concern.

    If you went streaking then you are accountable for it, regardless of the fact you consider yourself to be a different person now. If someone tells a story of when I was younger I don’t have a right to be mad simply because I’m not young anymore.

    A person’s life and experience contained therein are what make them the person they are today. To turn your back on it is to do oneself a disservice.

    I don’t get to pick the colour of my skin anymore than you get to pick your gender. Difference is I don’t try to say I’m black and make everyone else go along with it.no one should be forced to humour you because you don’t like the handle you were dealt.

    Like it or not, the cold hard fact is you are what you are. Surgery just makes you a mutilated version of your former self. Sorry not sorry!

    P.s Bruce Jenner is a man and is not stunning, brave or a hero!

    • You never went to college I take it?
      What is “intersex?” Look it up in biology. It is a thing, and sometimes visibly.
      Not always is it clearly Male or Female at birth.

      • Nathan,

        I think this post assumes that the reader does not want to hurt their friend and offers advice on how to achieve that goal. If you do not care about hurting people, then I guess this goal doesn’t make much sense to you.

        I feel that I don’t need to understand it. If someone tells me that they are one gender, and that referring to them otherwise is painful, then it’s really only a minor inconvenience for me to avoid causing them pain, even if I don’t understand why or think they’re being silly.

        Sadly, being ‘outed’ can in some contexts be dangerous. There are people who not only don’t see why they should make an effort to avoid hurting people, but actively want to hurt those who are different from them. Given that, I definitely would not want to increase someone else’s risk of suffering physical violence.

  10. Great article. ..thanks so much. I have a family member who is transgendered, and I was really worried about this subject. I really love her and would feel terrible if I inadvertently said something hurtful. I am so glad there are resources like this available for reference.

  11. Another issue is with parents who do not know quite what to say. My baby boy? When she was a little girl? That her son was not in girl scouts was in boy scouts but sold cookies? Sometimes issues pop up and they were not prepared, and some do not want to lie and do not want to out their adult child who is transgender. They painted the baby room pink? See it is problematic, and it is not always simply do not talk about some things. Parents, especially moms, are ASKED direct questions about all their kids (often by other women.) In cases of elderly parents, over 65, almost constantly nurses, social workers, and caregivers will dig for information to check #1 memory and #2 for abuse/exploitation. If a nervous mom messes up and uses wrong pronouns even once it can signal to that worker she has mental problems and they can start questioning her even more. We need to have helpful advice to support parents, and grandparents, who are questioned a lot about kids and their kids’ history, so they know how to deal with it and remain safe.

  12. I dunno. As an agender person I prefer in all situations the names and genders of that particular time of the story or reference. Wouldn’t make much sense if you’re telling the story of how Joshua looked so cute in his 5th birthday party dress huh? Or how Jane had the best bachelor party.

  13. Hi Amelia, I have a question that you might be able to answer. I am in the middle of applying for medical school and am answering an essay question about a humbling experience. I’ve chosen, with permission, to write about a friend who is transgender and how I allowed my misguided feelings to push him towards femininity because we were young and I though it would help him feel more included before he told me he was transgender. The problem is that if I use the correct pronouns (he/his), the story is going to be very difficult for the admissions committee to understand (i.e. Why would I be trying to make a man more feminine?) The school I’m applying to is very sensitive to those who may have different preferences for pronouns and such, so I want to make sure I’m as correct as possible without making the essay confusing. I was thinking about using they/theirs as a gender neutral term but I’m not sure if that is correct. Help?

    Thanks
    Alexa

    • Hi Alexa! Can you write the essay in a way that declares your friend is transgender in the beginning to set up the stage for the male pronouns being in contrast to your trying to make him more feminine? Otherwise, they/them isn’t a terrible option. But honestly, your best bet is to just ask your friend how he feels about it.

  14. I am in an odd position because I have a nephew who has openly become my niece in the past few years. It had been her secret. I have not seen her in years because she was stationed in Hawaii as a man in the Air Force and now lives on the west coast as a woman. It will be interesting to see her again. I am not prejudiced (at the age of 63, some young people try to classify me as old and not receptive to change), but I also admit I do not understand being transgender. I love my niece, even though it feels odd to call my former nephew “she”. I hope to be ale to speak with her about this one day, and really listen. I have other transgender acquaintances, but this is my family. Peace to all.

  15. This was very nicely explained. I understand fully. However, my child was seperated from me while most of her transitioning was done. It was hard for me to seperate him from her. I’m getting better about using the proper pronouns etc. However, those of you who are transitioning have to remember, we need to transition too. It takes time to get accustom to using the desired pronouns, name etc. Then to top it off, as a Mother, I don’t get to name my own child. Maybe the transition would be easier if the name choice was shared. Maybe it would help with the feeling of loss of a child. Maybe it would help as a rebirth…something to be celebrated.
    I love my daughter, actually more than my son. She is warm and caring. But my son was struggling with a lot of issues besides transitioning his gender. His anger pushed everyone away from him, including me and his children. Then there is the hope, the expectancy of acceptance. It was a difficult and painful position for me.
    I hope this is food for thought. To hear how those who love the trans person feel through the process.

    • It’s not about you. Don’t try to make it to be. Yes, it’s absolutely a change for you, but that pales in comparison to what she is dealing with, working through, and experiencing.

      One of the most frustrating things is when people say “loss of a child/partner/sibling/etc.” They’re not dead! They’re still there! The only thing you’re losing is a fake identity. The person you think you’re losing never actually existed.

      • That’s pretty harsh. I guess we aren’t allowed to have feelings? Of COURSE it’s not about the parent, but the person transitioning. Duh. But to magically make years of a previous perceprion of someone just dissapear or be contrived as insignifigant sounds pretty heartless. I can still love my child for what they once were before they transitioned, and still be proud and love them just the same now. The feeling of loss shouldn’t be ridiculed. I’m glad I have a decent support system…because if I hear one more person tell me to “get over it, it’s not about you”, I may just get angry instead of just sad. Sheesh.

  16. Thank you, Amelia. I love and respect my transgender friends, and wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt them. It’s a lot to learn, but I want to do it right. They matter a great deal to me.

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