Years ago when I was an overwhelmed and weepy new mother, a therapist informed me that parenthood is just one long series of losses. I walked out of her office never to return, but her words have stuck with me for 22 years as I’ve learned the tricky dance of motherhood.
Your baby learns to walk and runs away from you. Your shy child is too busy with preschool friends to wave goodbye to you. Your tween begs to go away to camp (okay, mine didn’t do that, but hypothetically). Each alleged “loss” for you is a gain for your child — and a remarkable, heart-bursting gain for you, too, when seen in the right light.
Like most parents, I had to learn that the point is not to hold on so tight that your children remain a part of you, but to hold a safety net under them as you let them become whoever they have the capacity to be — even knowing that they might get hurt in the process.
My self-confident kid, Sula, came out as gay during high school in a liberal community and then fully as transmasculine-nonbinary while in the safe haven of a liberal arts college. Sula is one of a growing number of people who identify outside the gender binary and who uses the pronouns they, them and theirs. When they graduated and began “real life” in a new city — and in a new and frightening political era — I was more anxious than I’d been since their early childhood. But as always, I wanted to embrace and support them as they took on new and bigger challenges.
Like many parents of transgender people, I had to educate myself about my child’s identity and how I could best support them. One stumbling block was that embracing my child’s identity meant changing my language. As an editor, I found it painful, on a professional and cognitive level, to force myself to refer to (the most singular) Sula as “they.”
But I stopped wincing at my own grammar relatively quickly. Harder were the not-always-predictable interpersonal dynamics, because each new person I talked to about Sula had to be inducted into a new way of thinking. Despite my pride in Sula, it was embarrassing to make myself everyone’s teacher and guide to this brave new world where gender is recognized as a spectrum. Even in the open-minded circles in which I move, I discovered that many people have difficulty embracing changes that disrupt our well-ingrained frameworks and categories.
From a practical perspective, using “they” often hobbles conversations, when I have to clarify in pretty much every sentence whether I’m still talking about only Sula or am now referring to a group of people. And I get tired of having each new person I talk to explain to me — a PhD in English — that the problem is that “they” is plural. Merriam Webster traces the use of a singular “they” back to the 14th century, and even if it were new, language is continuously evolving.
I have had to hone my explanation about other pronoun options such as “ze” or “xe,” the need to coin the objective and possessive cases, the often-slow drift of linguistic change, and the reality that many people already used “they” in place of “he or she” for a singular person of unknown gender.
But more than anything else, back when I still stumbled over each “they,” I realized that the tiny jolt I felt each time my mind readjusted was a miniature echo and essential reminder of the hundreds of instances of disrespect, discrimination, harassment, hatred and violence that transgender people experience every day. A recent survey by the Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut of more than 12,000 LGBTQ teens found that only 1 in 5 transgender teens says they are always called by their correct pronouns in school. Not calling people by their correct names is not a small thing. It’s a denial and a dismissal of their own deep sense of who they are.
I soon realized that the minutes I wasted repeating my fragment of Gender and Language 101 were nothing compared with the burden placed on trans people, including Sula, to educate their families, friends, teachers, employers, landlords, policymakers and the rest of the world about their very personhood.
As transgender Americans and their advocates fight for acknowledgment of that personhood and protection of their rights, I have come to see accommodation by the English language as a small but subtly powerful prod toward emotional and civil acceptance by the world.
So as Sula’s mom, I push through my discomfort and do what I can to explain all this to the people I know or encounter, hoping to help them undertake the minimal work to call transgender people by language that reflects their true selves. If parents would let themselves feel proud and amazed, instead of scared, when their kids grow and change, they might just grow and change themselves. And if they’re very lucky, their kids, like mine, will help the world grow and change, too.
Debra Malina is the perspective editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.