Gender Defiant: Raising a Trans Teen

Misgendering and Repair

My kid and I were at the doctor’s office this morning. They’d had a lingering cold that I suspected might be verging on seasonal allergies. More worrisome were some chest pains they experienced when taking deeper breaths. We were checking out the fish tank in the waiting room when the nurse called out JJ’s name. I had noted when filling out forms upon our arrival that the gender on JJ’s paperwork was listed as the one they’d been assigned at birth. (Shorthand for this is “AFAB” — assigned female at birth — or “AMAB.”) I started to feel nervous, worrying that we might be about to enter a situation in which JJ would be inadvertently misgendered or deadnamed.

You might wonder, what’s the big deal? In the first several months after JJ transitioned, I deadnamed and misgendered them frequently. And, in the beginning, I, too, wondered what the big deal was. But then I watched as their mood plummeted when I misgendered them. The buoyancy with which they usually carried themselves dissipated, and they were visibly saddened. After seeing this happen a few times, I realized it was time I got the new pronouns down. Because what I finally started to understand was this: this was not about me. This was about my child’s psychological and spiritual well-being.

Both my mother, who was 81 at the time, and I struggled with the new pronouns and name. JJ was 11 when I left them with my mother for 10 days one summer so I could attend a writers’ residency; I returned to find a very glum and, frankly, depressed child. Then I noticed that my mother misgendered them all the time. She and I spoke about it after JJ had gone to bed. I needed to let her know it was imperative for my child’s mental health that she stop misgendering JJ. She, understandably, felt very defensive. It was never her intent to hurt her only grandchild. And the process was frustrating! It is a very difficult undertaking to employ a grammar to which one is unaccustomed.

But I am here to tell you it can be done. If I can do it, anyone can.

One of the first things to understand about getting the pronouns right is that you should first ask an individual what their pronouns are. Do not make assumptions. You should feel confident sharing your own pronouns as a precursor. (“My name is Tina, and my pronouns are she/hers.”) 

Second, do not apologize profusely when you misgender someone. It makes it worse. If you are corrected, say a quick “thank you” and move on. I’ll never forget watching my mother misgender JJ about five times in a row and then say, after each time she did so, in aggrieved tones, “I’m trying.” We concluded, as we drove away, that she hadn’t been trying nearly hard enough.

Again, I certainly screwed up on a routine basis, but then I noticed that when I really started trying to get the pronouns right, JJ was more willing to give me slack, because they could see I was working at it. 

Here are some tips for getting pronouns right: 1.) Practice. Do not avoid using pronouns because you’re afraid you’re going to screw up. The more you use them, the better you’ll get. 2.) When you think about your trans friend/family member, use the proper pronouns. In your head. This was key for me. 3.) Correct others. With your newly attuned ear, you will start to notice when others misgender your loved one. There’s nothing wrong with gently reminding someone of the desired pronoun usage. We’re all on the same team here, and our shared goal is to respect the dignity of trans folk. 

If you screw up (and you will), you can simply acknowledge that you misgendered the person (with chagrin) and offer a quick apology. Then move on. A trans person has no use for long and belabored apologies. Who does?

When JJ returned from their 10-day stay at my mother’s house, they were depressed. I let their therapist know that they’d had a bad time due to being misgendered. The therapist, a cis man who was listed on the PFLAG website as an LCSW with expertise in LGBTQ+ youth, told me, “I explained to them you can’t expect people to use different pronouns right away.” 

Right? Wrong. This was just a few months after JJ had transitioned, but at that point I’d come far enough to know two things: 1.) it is inappropriate to invalidate anyone’s request that folks employs their requested pronoun — not only does it lack compassion, it is a form of gaslighting; and 2.) JJ would never be seeing this therapist again, and I would make certain his name was taken off the PFLAG website. 

Long story short: I worked hard and eventually found JJ a trans therapist. This has made a world of difference, but that’s a story I’ll save for a future column.

That now feels like a long time ago. You should see my mother now. Not only does she have the pronouns down, she’s read numerous books on trans experience and she’s about to start a support groups at her church for older folks who, like her, have trans grandchildren. Go, Mom! You’re the freaking best. That’s what I call seeing love in action.

Back at the doctor’s office, a nurse named Fran called us into the exam room and, in the process of checking them in, misgendered JJ three times. I corrected her. Firmly but, I hope, not harshly. I could sense that Fran was simply worried about inadvertently offending one of us. She also grew confused when going over JJ’s medications, and then she became really unsure when she asked if JJ still got their period. (For the record, they no longer have their period because they take testosterone. They are, at age 14, on track for a male puberty, which has been very affirming for them these past couple of years. I’ll write more about gender affirming care in the future. I am determined to demystify it for my readers, because I remember when I had a very hard time understanding just what such care actually looked like.)

I felt bad for Fran. She was trying to do her job. She was worried she’d put her foot in her mouth. When we met with our most-excellent primary care doctor, Dr. Murray, I explained to her that I felt Fran (who had left the room) could use more education around the topic of trans kids, so she might feel more comfortable with such patients. Because it’s not just about accepting (or tolerating) trans people — that’s not going to get us very far. It’s crucial that cis het (which I personally do not consider a slur, Elon) folk don’t think of transness as a foreign land they might never visit. You not only will know trans people, it is more than likely you already do know trans people. Hell, you yourself might be trans!

After listening to their lungs, Dr. Murray determined the cold was on its way out. She was concerned about the chest pains, of course, and began to query JJ about whether this was a recurring experience. Had they eaten anything unusual or engaged in strenuous activity? JJ noted that they’d done a number of push-ups the day they experienced the pain, but that they did these every day. Oh, and wait, they had eaten an inordinate amount of candy that day after visiting the Way-Way store in Saco with a pal. The corner of Dr. Murray’s mouth twitched a little, resisting a smile. She told JJ calmly, “I think it’s likely this pain might have been caused by indigestion.” Case solved!

I’ve got a lot of hope because of people like Fran — who cares enough to not want to offend — and Dr. Murray, who listened to me when I expressed my concern that JJ’s gender assigned at birth was one of the primary means by which they were identified as a patient in their records. Dr. Murray nodded and said they might be able to find a better way to indicate their patients’ preferred pronouns, “given how many trans and nonbinary patients we have.”

By the time we left, JJ had forgotten about being misgendered. When Nurse Fran measured their height, it was discovered that JJ had grown two inches! At the end of the school year, JJ had informed their best friend, Avery, that they would be growing four inches this summer. Avery was not impressed. JJ was furiously texting Avery with the joyous news that they were halfway toward meeting their goal, and it had only been a week!

Kids are so weird.

Tina Carson can be reached at

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