How to Explain Gender-Neutral Pronouns to Your Family
Expert-Approved Strategies to Help Your Family Understand Gender-Neutral Pronouns
Finding your correct pronouns is an important milestone, but getting the rest of your family to use them can feel like a whole separate battle. Odds are, not everyone in your family shares the same values or perspectives, which can make the task of explaining gender-neutral pronouns feel daunting, especially when talking to older generations who grew up within a strict gender binary.
"Older relatives may hold unconscious biases regarding gender identity based on their own lifelong conditioning," said Allison Forti, PhD, an associate teaching professor and associate director of the Department of Counseling Online Programs at Wake Forest University, adding that some relatives may view gender-neutral pronouns as a phase or a way of "trying on an identity" that doesn't really reflect who you are. "Therefore, it takes education, conscious awareness, and reflection to understand gender identity in a new way," Dr. Forti told POPSUGAR. "They may need help expanding their vocabulary and knowing when and how to use gender pronouns."
Fortunately, there are some ways for you to help even the most traditional family members understand who you are and how they should refer to you, without having to endure disrespectful behavior or constant misgendering. If you feel ready to share your pronouns with your family members, read on for some expert-approved strategies to make the conversation a little bit easier. Because everyone deserves to have their identity validated and respected — especially by the people closest to them.
How Do I Start a Conversation With Family About My Pronouns?
When explaining gender-neutral pronouns to someone for the first time, Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, said it's a good idea to start with the basics. That means opening up the conversation by talking about what gender identity actually is, and how it may or may not align with a person's sex at birth. When talking to older family members who aren't familiar with gender-neutral pronouns, "it may be helpful to explain to them that some individuals struggle on a daily basis as they are uncertain about how they perceive their gender, and this affects their self-esteem and confidence level," Dr. Magavi said. Covering this kind of information can make it easier for parents and grandparents to understand what pronouns actually are and why they matter.
If they can understand that, they may be more willing to put in the work and embrace your identity. To help them grasp the importance of pronouns, Cassandra LeClair, PhD, a professor at Texas State University whose courses focus on gender and family communication, suggests using concrete examples to communicate your point. You might say, "If someone repeatedly addresses you by the wrong name, it can feel dismissive and hurtful." This might make the role of pronouns clearer to more traditional family members and help them realize how it feels when the incorrect pronouns are used. Dr. Magavi added that emphasizing the benefits of correct pronoun usage could also be an effective talking point. "Relaying that use of the right pronoun could potentially prevent the emergence of depression and anxiety may encourage reluctant grandparents to modify their stance," Dr. Magavi explained. Whatever details you decide to include, letting your family know why pronouns are important to you can help move the conversation in a positive direction.
It's beneficial to use assertive language throughout conversations like these. Dr. Forti suggests using phrases like, "I would like you to use they/their/theirs as my pronouns. I feel respected when you use my correct pronouns and this helps me feel close to you," to express how you feel and emphasize that you and your identity matter. "Using correct pronouns validates one's identity. It communicates respect, safety, trustworthiness, and a sense of belonging and mattering," she said.
Remember that leading with patience and compassion is also important, but you don't need to sacrifice who you are just to keep the peace. "Realize this may be hard for [family members], and they may need help learning a new way of thinking and relating to you, but do not back down from expecting them to treat you with dignity," Dr. Forti said. If you're having a hard time getting through to your family at first, she suggests sending them some helpful resources, like readings and videos, which can allow them to process new information more privately.
What Do I Do If My Family Still Won't Use My Correct Pronouns?
If your family members still refuse to use your gender-neutral pronouns, it's important to take care of yourself first before worrying about how to fix the situation. That means being compassionate with yourself and your needs before trying to move forward with your relatives. "Some people may be tempted to cope with these slights by repressing their emotions or disregarding their own self-worth," Dr. Forti explained. "However, self-compassion may soothe some of the pain." From there, you can start to work on directing compassion toward your relatives, especially if you value your relationship with them.
It's likely that a relative who refuses to use your correct pronouns doesn't understand their importance — which is why it's helpful to make the conversation about respect. "Older relatives need to understand that having a genuine and authentic relationship is made possible through respectful acceptance of one's identity," Dr. Forti told POPSUGAR. In a situation like this, more time might be needed, but you could also try framing the use of your pronouns as the foundation for a healthy relationship. "Let [your relatives] know you want to have a close relationship with them, and you feel closer to them when you are valued and respected through use of correct pronouns," Dr. Forti advised.
If you're still feeling disrespected or hurt at this point, it might be time to set up some boundaries until more progress can be made. "You may choose to communicate with your relative that you will not engage with them until they properly address you," Dr. Forti said. "Or, you may decide that they do not have to understand your gender identity, but they do need to use correct pronouns because it communicates value and belonging." Remember to protect yourself and your mental health first and foremost, and don't be afraid to draw the line if you feel disrespected.
Ultimately, your family should be able to realize that your identity is valid and something that should be respected, whether it fits on a binary or not. Asking your family members to use your proper pronouns is not a trivial endeavor. It can take time, and there may be lots of frustration and anxiety throughout the process. However, Dr. LeClair said that despite all the pressure, there is a lot of good that can come out of these conversations. "This can be a wonderful space for families to grow together," she said. "Your words are important, and having this conversation showcases that you are willing to stand by them."