Advice for Allies — How do I refer to trans friends in the past tense?

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I asked my cisgender friends if they had any transgender-related questions. Mary asked how does she respectfully refer to one of her transgender friends in the past-tense.

I’m happy to elaborate!

A lot of us have at least one transgender friend or relative. There’s even a chance you’ve known this person before they socially transitioned. In other words, you used to perceive them as a different gender before being corrected.

And I bet you’re well-meaning, too! After all, why would you click on this? So I’m here to assume that my cisgender readers have the best of intentions. If you’re not already fully on board with correctly gendering your trans friend or loved one, you’re taking the steps to get there.

This may lead you to the question — how do I refer to my transgender friend in the past tense? Preferences may vary, especially among different generations of transgender folks. Asking the person, privately, will yield the most correct answer for that individual.

For the most part, transgender people advocate for using the person’s current gendered (or non-gendered) language. After all, their current pronoun set is the correct pronoun set.

Let’s take Tobi for example. Tobi is a transgender man who uses he/him pronouns. It would be inappropriate to state, “Back when Tobi was a little girl, she loved reading books.” It would be more appropriate to state, “Back when Tobi was a little boy, he loved reading books.” If you’re still working on shifting your perception, “Tobi loved reading books as a child” doesn’t include any gendered language.

Practice makes perfect, and correctly gendering your friends and loved ones will aid their emotional well-being. There are several ways you can practice. Among your other friends and loved ones, be sure to say the transgender person’s correct name and pronouns. If you slip up, correct yourself. Encourage each other to do better together. These actions can be done in person, on the phone, or through text.

But maybe you want to practice, but don’t have anyone to practice with? There are still options for you! Laurie Raye created an interactive tool to help people familiarize themselves with 28 different pronoun sets. Minus18 created a practice app to help people familiarize themselves with 9 different pronoun sets.

You’re now on your way to being an ally to your friends and loved ones!

Thank you for the question, Mary! If anyone else has a transgender-related questions, please leave a comment below. For more thoughts on pronouns, especially neopronouns, check out Pronouns and Gender: Use What You Want.

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Ash Blue

Ash Blue

Ash is a local activist, cryptid-adjacent, and occasional writer. They/them pronouns. More at ash-blue.carrd.co.