My Parents Won’t Stop Using My ‘Dead Name’ — What Do I Do Now?
I’m out to my parents as trans and they say they accept me but after 2 years they won’t use my pronouns or name. What do I do?
Two years is a long time, Koda, and you must be exhausted from the dailiness of this failure.
First, let’s talk about what your parents are doing right: They are offering at least verbal acceptance and not consciously distancing themselves from you. You might think that’s a low bar for praise, but considering how many other parents don’t even get that far, it’s worth acknowledging. Your parents may even feel proud of themselves for being accepting at the very same time as they badly underestimate how damaging it is to persist in your old name and pronoun usage.
I’ve talked to a lot of parents of trans youth about this issue and it is near universal that parents need time to grieve the lost name, which is the first gift they ever gave you. The pronoun problem comes from a different place; it’s the linguistic equivalent of muscle memory to keep using the same pronoun one has used for years.
Even so, two years is plenty of time to deal with both issues. People often change names when they marry or divorce and your parents would likely adjust to that sooner. So you’re right to feel that their continued inability to appropriately address you is hurtful; at this point, they’re stretching the limits of what acceptance means.
You have a variety of options, which differ in what they require of you. One thing you can do is to not just quietly endure the behavior, but routinely correct each error as it’s made: say your true name after every use of your dead name; say the right pronoun after every wrong one. This means answering “Kelly, pass the salt,” with, “Koda, pass the salt” and restating “She’d love to” with “He’d love to” or “They’d love to.”
You don’t need to make a big deal of it; just do it consistently, so that every single time they say the wrong/hurtful thing, they are reminded out loud that they have. It will feel awkward at first and change the rhythm of conversation, but that’s the point: After two years, it’s time their casual errors stop feeling casual to them. Why should only you wince every time they get it wrong?
Will this change their behavior? Hard to say. A few of my friends using this method have had success; some family members really did need the constant reminders to get better and some eventually improved simply out of sheer irritation at being endlessly corrected. But you may also find the emotional labor of this approach too draining. It will depend on your stamina for this kind of interaction.
Alternately, you could tell your parents you want to revisit the subject, making it clear that, after two years, you need to discuss how this affects you. Don’t do this off-the-cuff (just dropping the discussion unexpectedly into another conversation) or on-the-go (when you cannot actually focus on the subject at hand). It can’t feel like just another chat in a series; you want this to be as seen as an important and specific conversation.
Set aside a time to talk to them and come prepared to share your thoughts and feelings. (Seriously, practice on your friends!) Or, write it in a letter that you ask them to read, setting a follow-up time to talk about its contents.
Here’s five things you might include, with sample language (that you should adapt to fit your situation and voice):
“Thank you for loving me, raising me to be a strong person, and accepting me for who I am. Now, I need your love and acceptance to show up in your language. It’s been two years, which I hope has helped you grow along with me, and for my health and happiness, I need your words to catch up.”
“What feels like habit to you feels like lack of respect to me; it suggests that there are limits on your love. Are you trying to signal that you do not actually accept me? That’s the message sent by your use of the wrong language after all this time. If that’s not your goal, you need to show that by trying harder to honor my name and pronouns.”
“Finding it hard to remember a new name when you’re used to the old is understandable, but that isn’t an excuse in itself. Name changes are common. They most often signal forward motion into a new part of life, like when someone marries or divorces, but also when someone earns a medical degree or gains a new title. In the Bible, Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah; Simon became Peter and Saul became Paul. In sports, Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali. And nobody calls Meghan Markle “Rachel” anymore. We use the names people choose, even if the adjustment is hard work, because we recognize that evolutions of self are a part of life.”
“I understand that you may be grieving the loss of the identity you saw in me when I was younger because you loved that person. I’m still here, still worth loving, and more true than ever, but your language is opening up a greater distance between us every day. Unchecked, this could lead to a bigger loss: I may not be able to remain in your life. I may have to distance myself from you to stop the wounding.”
“Making errors isn’t failing me; not trying is. I, too, mess up others’ names and pronouns sometimes; when I do, I correct myself and move on. I will never ask you to not make mistakes; but I do ask that you acknowledge it when you have. All I wish is for your love to take the form of real effort.”
I hope that some of this will be helpful to you. But you’ll need to consider the possibility that your parents may have gone as far as they ever will; their love might never make it to their lips in this way. You may decide that you can live with this, even if it’s not ideal.
But you might decide instead that you need space from them. If you are a teen, and must live at home, that can be really hard. It might look like spending more time in your room or finding more out-of-the-house activities (tricky during a pandemic). If you live on your own or are away at college, limit how much time you give your folks in person or on the phone and save your emotional resources. If someone continually hurts you, especially once you’ve had the clear and frank conversation suggested above, it is perfectly reasonable (and likely healthier) to skip visits or calls as you need.
Whatever happens with your family, cultivate relationships with those willing to speak your language. Your first family is not the only family you’ll have in life; embrace those who see you for who you are. Revel in being seen.