5. Being on Autopilot

Excuses for Using the Wrong Name or Pronouns, and My Ambivalence

This post might make you feel bad, defensive, or angry, and for that I’m sorry.

A gender transition typically involves a lot of changes. Now, not everyone changes their name. Some people were named with gender neutral names (this includes me, actually; although, the spelling of my name is considered the ‘male’ version), or are happy to be a little genderqueer with their name. I noted in my post #2 on WPATH and the Standards of Care that one requirement for seeking Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) (I’ll be posting on the language of SRS) is to undergo a period of time living in one’s new gender, often called the Real Life Experience (RLE). CAMH, Ontario’s only anointed institution to recommend SRS to be covered by provincial health insurance (OHIP) now calls this the Gender Role Experience. In many jurisdictions, changing one’s name signals the beginning of the RLE (I’ve heard this said of the UK’s NHS, as well as with CAMH), and not doing so would send red-flags to the (largely backwards) psychologists and psychiatrists running gender clinics. 

metamorphosis_pronouns_2.pngFortunately, these aren’t big concerns for me because I wanted to change my name regardless of these considerations. I never did like my male name — I was teased mercilessly as a child, and considered changing it then — and I want a new name which signals both to me and the rest of the world that I’m a new person. There are also side benefits that doing so should help people who knew the old me to switch to the appropriate female pronouns and so on.

Well, that was the hope, I suppose. I’ve been surprised by how much trouble people have had adopting the new name and pronouns. Certainly, early in my transition, I didn’t consistently fully suppress my male secondary sex characteristics like facial hair (because it’s painful having sensitive skin, and the laser hair removal takes up to a year), and this makes it more difficult for someone to perceive someone as female, which makes it more difficult to use the appropriate name and pronouns. I get it. Yes, it’s harder than if I had what would appear as a fully female gender presentation. And yes, it’s harder to change pronouns and a name than to use someone’s pronouns/name you’ve been using for months or years. But my point in this post is that it’s not that hard. It just takes a little effort. And yet now, even when I’m consistently presenting as “completely me,” people are still, though less frequently, making errors.

It was well over a month before people were much more consistent about using the right name. It turns out that women are a lot better at this than men, for some reason. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a single instance where a woman used the wrong name. (UPDATE: a mere two days after I wrote this, it happened twice in the same day.) I can think of a couple where they used the wrong pronouns, but at least it wasn’t with people who interacted with me daily. Most of the pronoun errors, and all of the name errors were from men. I wonder if I can conjecture a reason — I’d appreciate reader comments on your experiences.

“I’m sorry, it’s just automatic.” That’s the principal excuse I received from pronoun or, particularly, name errors. Both my former and current name begin with the same letter, but they aren’t similar in pronunciation. Here’s what that excuse says to me: “I’m sorry, I’m not even trying.” If it’s automatic, it means that you’re not putting in the effort to overcome the automaticity of using my old name or pronouns. I agree that it takes effort, but it’s not that hard: thinking a little bit before you speak, that’s all it takes. Here’s the conjecture: men are on autopilot more than women.

I’m often told to give people a break: it’s not so easy for people to make the change. (Oh yeah, by implicature, like it’s easy for me!) Well, I’m telling you that it’s not that hard. When challenged on this claim, I took a wager. Here’s a friendly tip: never utter “Wanna bet?” to someone who used to play poker professionally for six years: the answer’s probably going to be, “Yes.” The bet was that I’d have to refer to a friend and colleague by whatever name he chose for a week. Well since it was the spring semester, and I wouldn’t see him in the department as much, we lengthened it to two weeks. In fact, because it was so easy, I made it three weeks in the end, not once slipping up. The bet required me to only ever use his middle name, even in conversation with other people when he wasn’t present, but I was allowed to explain to whom I was referring after initially using his middle name. With the terms set, the bet was on.

I asked him, after three weeks, still using his chosen name, whether he thought we could consider the bet settled. Needless to say, I won. The prize was a nice bottle of wine. I think that they’re still skeptical about my claim about the change being easy to make. It’s easy because I made just a little bit of effort to remember what name to use before I spoke to him, or about him. Moreover, success breeds success: each successful use of his new name made it more likely that I’d be successful next time, with less effort. And, conversely, failure breeds failure: each time someone fails to use my proper name because of being on autopilot, it makes it more, not less, likely that s/he’ll make an error the next time.

Being on autopilot tells me that you’re not really trying: you’re not taking the millisecond it takes to think about what name or pronoun to use. It’s not really that hard. I’ve noticed a distinct difference between me and many of my friends when discussing trans issues: if the conversation turns to another trans person, many of my friends struggle mightily keeping the pronouns straight, whereas it comes with ease for me. Now, I admit that it’s probably easier for me on account of having to deal with, think about, and talk about other trans people, but just slow down a little bit, get off autopilot, and you’ll make a big difference.

I was listening to something on CBC radio the other day that struck me as relevant. It was about apologies; specifically, empty apologies. Empty apologies are the ones where we’re not convinced that the speaker is really sorry. They have certain features, typically. For example, the speaker isn’t looking you in the eye; maybe they’re mumbling a little bit; perhaps they’re making excuses (see? it’s really your fault, not theirs!); or they’re doing it to get out of trouble, and not as an act of contrition. So what features do genuine apologies have? Here’s the important one: after you apologize, change your behaviour. If you screw up, apologize, and screw up again, without changing your behaviour, how should the person you just apologized to take your words? As genuine or empty? Here’s what bugs me: I’m not sure if people are actually changing their behaviour after screwing up my name or pronouns. I think they’re hoping that next time they won’t screw up, forgetting that it’s wholly in their power.

It’s been suggested to me that being on autopilot is one way that people express familiarity and intimacy with friends and loved ones, so people’s being on autopilot about my name or pronouns indicates that connection. Maybe this is true. We can all think of times when we’ve been on edge about what we say around unfamiliar people. We’re often cautious and guarded, and we consider every word before we speak. It’s stressful and takes a lot of energy. But I’m not sure just how true it is, at least in this case. In a sense, I’m more careful around my friends and loved ones because I don’t want to say something that will hurt them: if I know that my friend just suffered a loss in the family, I’m not going to make any death jokes. That takes just a little bit of effort to know, when conversing around someone, what topics are presently gauche. It’s no different with pronouns: people should know that using the wrong pronoun is a lot like making a joke in bad taste. It’s like making a throwaway, “Well maybe I’ll just kill myself” joke around someone who’s best friend just committed suicide. It’s incredibly insensitive and unthinking. Maybe in a different context, that would be okay. We’re sensitive to these matters in conversation with our loved ones. Pronouns are no different.

Now, I should say that I realize that people generally feel really bad when they screw up. I can see it in their faces, and in their voices when they apologize. People will apologize on the spot, and sometimes again later in the day. I know that no one’s doing it on purpose, and that people genuinely express a desire — and definitely a second order desire (a desire about a desire) — to get things right. But it’s tough to see a continual disconnect in what one desires and what one does.

Getting a trans person’s name or pronouns wrong really hurts: it’s like an invalidation of her/his/hir identity. So I implore: a little effort goes a long way. And the good news? The more success you have, the more likely you’ll continue to be successful, and the easier it will get.

Thank you in advance.

Yours truly,