Pronoun Problems on our Gender Journey

We were walking back home from the pool, my 8-year sparkly son and I, when we had a conversation that tugged at my heart and left me hoping I’d handled it well… at least well enough.

At 8-years old, my sparkly son is becoming more aware of himself in relation to others and their reactions to him. This has added an extra layer of complexity to his gender journey.

Once relatively unaffected by others’ side-eyes and commentary, my 8-year-old is now increasingly sensitive to these social signals. He’s begun to realize that, more often than not, when people realize that he is a boy — despite outwardly appearing to be a girl — people react with a mixture of surprise and embarrassment or thinly veiled disapproval.

“It’s always the same face,” he has told me twice now. “They don’t look at me the same way when they realize I’m a ‘he.'” Hearing this breaks my heart. It’s a reality I was hoping would never come, or maybe to which he’d be immune by way of his firm awareness of and loyalty to self.

The initial conversation came a few weeks ago. There was an incident on the beach. My kids were all playing with some children in the sand when the new friends’ grandparents joined in. One grandparent referred to my sparkly son as “she” and my 6-year-old son, in an effort to affirm and stand up for his older brother who often took offenseto being misgendered, corrected the grandparent. “He’s a ‘he’,” my littlest told the grandparents. According to my sparkly son, they recoiled and said, “Oh.”

The evening of the beach incident, my sparkly son snuggled next to me after his bedtime story and told me he had been thinking about his pronouns. He wanted to be referred to as: he/she. I told him I honored that, then asked him what spurred the decision. He recounted the grandparent scenario from earlier that day and said, “I don’t want people to react like that, so it’s better if they don’t know. They can just call me ‘he’ or ‘she’ so they don’t look at me like that.”

I asked, “Are you requesting these pronouns for you because they feel right and true for you, or are you requesting them so people don’t judge you?” He thought a moment and said he was doing it so people wouldn’t give him the look anymore.

As my heart crumbled, I hugged him and said that I will always honor him and his pronouns but that he shouldn’t change who he is for other people, and certainly shouldn’t pretend to be something that isn’t true to him just to maybe please people. He should be proud of who he is and if people don’t accept him, they have let him know that they are not his people. This resonated with him.

A few quiet minutes later, he said he wanted to take more time to think about the pronouns. Then, he asked that we not correct people anymore if they misgender him because he wanted to avoid “the look.” Swallowing the lump in my throat, I agreed and promptly discussed the new expectation with my other children.

I didn’t sleep well that night.

I didn’t let my sparkly son know that though.

The following weeks were filled with family and friends. No misgendering occurred. Part of me thought we’d escaped the hurdle, at least temporarily.

Yesterday, my three kids were playing at the pool with some unfamiliar children. One child kindly referred to my sparkly son as, “she.” The moment the child said it, my breath caught. I’m pretty sure my sparkly son’s breath did too. In that moment, I realized the weight I now carried to honor and protect my sparkly son’s wishes.

I became acutely aware of the affectionate and colloquial terms I used in reference to my sparkly son. I made certain not to call him by his full name when he was unresponsive to my calls, because his middle name is clearly masculine unlike his gender neutral sounding first name. I avoided pronouns altogether. I had to be sure not to “out” him.

On our way home from the pool, I asked my sparkly son how he’d felt when his new playmate had referred to him as “she.” He said, “It made me nervous.” I said I was sorry he felt nervous and asked him why he felt that way. “I didn’t want them to find out and give me the look. It’s always the same look.” I said I was sorry he had to worry about that. I asked if part of him felt happy when the friend called him, “she.” He said he wasn’t. I asked if we’d all handled it OK, and he confirmed that we had. I told him I was glad to hear that.

And so our gender journey continues its lengthy, winding path. But we’re all on this path with our sparkly son — stumbles and all — letting him lead the way.

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