The Honey And Vinegar Of Pronouns


SeeMeHigh on the list of things I wish I could explain to people about children like mine, is the importance of pronouns. In general, we don’t think about them all that much, but for those like Alice who spent fifteen years feeling mis-labeled on a daily basis, pronouns are incredibly important.  Respect, acceptance and kindness can be demonstrated or withheld in the simplest of terms.

He or she.

Him or her.

I’ve spent the better part of a week calling around to find a local doctor for Alice. After the first ten tries it gets easier. I’ve got my little speech down and everything. Finally, I catch a break.

“Hi. I’m calling with what may seem like an odd question but I’m hoping you can help. I’m looking for a GP who has experience with transgender patients, including hormone therapy. Do you happen to know if any of the doctors in your office fit that bill?”

“You know, I think Dr. Monaco might. I could double check for you.”

“Really? That would be great.”

Later that day, the receptionist returns my call and schedules an appointment for a few days later. It happens to be the same afternoon as our follow-up meeting with the principal and psychologist at Alice’s school. I’m feeling good about both things and anxious to get them sorted out.

As soon as the school meeting begins however, it’s clear that we’re going to have problems.

“I met with Jordan last week,” Mr. Brandt, the psychologist, begins.

Principal Marks and Lucy Cho are at the table as well and Lucy is quick to correct Mr. Brandt.

“It’s Alice,” she says gently.

He looks at her stone-faced, then turns back to Principal Marks and begins again.

“I met with Jordan last week. He and I had an interesting and informative conversation.” Lucy glances at me and we both turn to Alice. Her jaw is clenched and she’s biting the inside of her cheeks. “He also did some testing with Lucy while he was here and while there were some issues, we didn’t find any signs of disability.”

“Well that’s good news.” Principal Marks smiles encouragingly but he’s the only one smiling from this point on.

“I think what we have here,” Mr. Brandt looks down at his notes and then at Alice, “is a child seeking attention and inventing ways to slack off.”

“What about social anxiety?” Principal Marks is really trying. He’s leaned forward, elbows on the table, engaged and earnest.

“I didn’t find evidence of that.”

“So he…she should return to the classroom?” Principal Marks asks.

“I don’t see why not. If Jordan’s behavior is socially unacceptable, perhaps he’ll want to change that behavior.”

“And how do you feel about doing that, coming back to school tomorrow?” Mr. Marks turns to Alice but she’s completely shut down.

“It’s Alice,” I say pointedly to Mr. Brandt, “and she is rightly anxious about how she’ll be treated when she comes back. I don’t know if you’ve worked with transgender students before, but—”

“I’ve been doing this for twenty years Mrs. Vilmur. I’ve worked with all kinds of students, and your son isn’t anxious. He’s defiant.”

Lucy pops in at this point, opening a file folder in front of her. “Well, Ray and Alice seem to be getting along fine in Independent Study. She’s struggling with algebra but that’s fairly normal. She’s getting work done and she’s made every check-in session.”

Principal Marks turns his whole body towards Alice and tries again. “If you don’t tell us how you feel about this, we can’t help.”

She won’t even look at him, just continues to stare daggers at the psychologist. I wonder again why I didn’t think to try and find someone more knowledgeable and forceful than myself to advocate for her. Maybe Elizabeth could have done so, or gruff, battle-hardened Fiona. That would have upset the balance of this meeting.

Lucy reaches across the table towards Alice, but does not touch her. It gets her attention though and she turns deliberately from Mr. Brandt towards Lucy.

“Alice, do you want to come back to class?”

She shakes her head, almost imperceptibly.

“Do you want to stay on Independent study with Mr. Martinez then?”

She nods, so slightly it barely happens.

Lucy smiles, sits back, flips her file folder closed and looks over at Principal Marks.

“Then I recommend that’s what we do. We can always revisit the issue at the end of the semester.”

I’m biting back tears while Mr. Marks mulls over the situation. Mr.Brandt, in the meantime, looks irritated.

“Yeah, do what you want,” he says, flipping his own file folder closed with visible animosity. “My opinion is just my opinion.”

“That it is,” I say quietly, without looking at him.

With no folder of his own to fuss with, the Principal drums his fingertips on the table.

“Well,” he begins, “I guess maybe that’s a plan. Let’s go with it. For the time being.”

I want her in class, but I’m not going to insist on sending her in there without more support than a single resource teacher can provide. And it’s not like we can shop around for schools at this point. Despite how it feels, we were lucky to get her in here.

“Alrighty then.” Principal Marks claps his hands together.

Alice shoves back her chair and stalks out the back door and into the parking lot. I smile weakly at Lucy and the Principal and then I follow her out the door.

“I’m disrespectful?” she shouts once we get into the car. “”It’s one fucking letter, you just shove the ‘s’ in front of the ‘he’! And talking about me like I’m not even there, like I wished myself this way just to piss everybody off.”

She rants all the way to the doctor’s office and I let her. Luckily, she’s mostly out of steam by the time we pull into the parking lot.

I turn off the engine and let out a deep breath. “I know. I know. But now we’ve got to go meet this doctor. Hopefully, he’ll have a better handle on things. But I need you to chill out.”

I check her in at the reception desk, which takes an extra couple of minutes as I have to explain the name discrepancy on her insurance card. We sit for a bit in the waiting room, flipping through gossip magazines, then the inner door opens and a nurse calls out, “Jordan?”

I can feel Alice stiffen beside me.

“I thought you told them,” she hisses.

“I did,” I hiss back.

We get up and go in, following the nurse into an examination room.

“Jordan?” she asks, looking to Alice.

“Actually, it’s Alice,” I say. “It’s just that her insurance card still says Jordan. I explained it all at the front desk.”

The nurse studies Alice for a moment, then smiles and leans in. “I’m going to make a note right here in the chart so that doesn’t happen again.”

“Thank you,” I say, barely resisting the urge to hug her or break down crying from sheer relief.

“Alice in Wonderland was my favorite book when I was a little girl,” the nurse confides as she takes Alice’s vital signs.

“Flags of Our Fathers was mine,” Alice responds, “but Wonderland is good, especially the hookah-smoking caterpillar.”

“Don’t you love him?” The nurse laughs. “Dr. Monaco will be in shortly, and I’ll see you on your next visit, Alice.”

The beaming in this room is off the charts. The nurse is smiling, the child is grinning, and all I can think of is being back in Mr. Brandt’s office where misplaced pronouns go to die.

Dr. Monaco enters moments later.

“Good afternoon ladies,” he says with a wide, winning smile.

The tension I’ve been carrying around all day seeps out through the bottom of my feet.

The good doctor nudges Alice off his twirling stool and points to the exam table. “So Alice, what can I do you for today?”

She’s putty. Cheerful, charming and on her best behavior, she tells him about Dimensions clinic, Dr. Diane and her current levels of Spironolactone and Estrodial.

As it turns out, Dr. Monaco’s only experience with transgender patients is one trans man, but he’s got the basics down and he’s willing to work with us. I offer up Dr. Diane’s card and he takes it, promising to be up to speed when we return in three weeks for a checkup and a refill on Alice’s meds. This is great news. It means that as long as no red flags pop up on an Estrodial prescription for a teenage boy, our insurance will cover her hormone therapy and doctor’s visits from now on. It means a few less excursions to San Francisco, but the relief of having a local doctor who is on Alice’s side, along with the health-care savings, makes it well worth it.

We get home from the doctor’s office just in time for my Mom to pick Alice up for a trip to her favorite Army Surplus store. An hour later, Max and I are watching Edward Scissorhands for the umpteenth time when Alice flies through the front door, spurting furious tears. She retreats to her bedroom and I walk to the window to see my mother still sitting in the car parked out front.

“What happened?” I ask when I reach her.

“Who knows?” She sighs.

“It’s been a rough day. Particularly with pronouns.” I crouch down by the driver’s side window.

“Oh, I probably messed up then.”

Because my father lives so far away, the only real test he faces is getting her name right on the gifts and cards he occasionally sends and he passes those tests with flying colors. My father’s acceptance, easily won, is easy to maintain.

Conversely, my Mom and Pops suffer greater tests simply by their proximity and involvement in our daily lives. Pop struggles with pronouns, but the first time they took her out after her revelation, he bought her a set of false eyelashes which, in her mind, goes a long way to making things right. Grandma Jo doesn’t catch the same breaks.

“I try,” she says, resting her cheek on the steering wheel..

“Do you use her new name and feminine pronouns for her when she’s not around?”

“Oh, probably not all the time.”

“Because you still think of her as a boy going through some crazy phase?”

“She WAS a boy for fifteen years. It’s not that easy to just switch it off.”

“I know it’s not. But it’s important, mom. When you ‘he’ around her, she knows you still think of her as the boy that in her mind she never was. She’s being honest now about who she is and I need you to accept it.”

“Well she knows we love her no matter what.”

“Probably, but she wants you to SEE her for who she is.”

“I’m doing the best I can.”

“I know. Just keep trying. Using her name and pronouns when she’s not around will help. I know it feels weird at first but the more you say it and start to think it, the easier it gets. I’ve got to go talk her down now.”

“I’m sorry. I love you both dearly.”

“Well duh,” I smile, trying to be cheery and end on a good note as I walk towards the house.

The use of proper pronouns is such a simple gift to give and such a cruel thing to withhold. Continuing to mis-gender someone who has trusted you enough to reveal themselves to you says more about you than it does about them. Respect, acceptance and kindness can be demonstrated or withheld in the simplest of terms.

[The Honey And Vinegar of Pronouns is an excerpt from “The Complicated Geography of Alice“, a memoir currently in search of the perfect publisher. If you would like to read more, you can find on Facebook and get notification when the blog is updated and the book is released.]

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4 Responses

  1. NancyWH

    2013 Feb 03 1

    It always bothers me when “health care workers” don’t seem to have much empathy for their clients. Sad to say, for some it’s a paycheck. For others, I assume they can’t solve their own life problems, so they divert themselves by not helping others very much. That being said, I have a brief story. My work can involve people who are trans.
    I needed to speak with a client who was located in my own, tiny hometown. Her partner answered the phone, and we chatted a bit. His name sounded familiar. “When did you graduate? Do you know [and I named 2 relatives.] “Oh, yes, I remember them.” Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather! Of course, I will never violate their privacy, even though I also know the relatives I named would not think any less of their former classmate. Of course, we are all MUCH older now.

  2. Margaret

    2013 Feb 03 2

    Failing to use the proper pronoun is nothing short of dismissive and disrespectful, as I tried to point out to my own mother on any number of occasions. My siblings finally got it right but my mother and father never did. As a consequence, I didn’t spend a lot of time with them before they died but as you said, it’s such a simple thing that refusing to use the correct pronoun is just inexcusable.

  3. Debra

    2013 Feb 04 3

    Ugh I wanted to punch the teacher guy in the face when he kept calling her ‘him’ and ‘Jordan’.

    It is funny how something as simple as pronouns can make such a huge difference. People often accidentally use the wrong pronouns on other people and yet for a person who is not trans, it’s a simple mistake and can even go overlooked. But when we make this change, gender becomes such a core part of our identity.

    When I transitioned at work, I was lucky to have the full support of my company and yet coworkers often still accidentally used the wrong pronouns (usually when they weren’t looking at me) sometimes. I had to learn to be patient with them because I knew it was truly accidental.

    That being said, the people who go out of their way to use the wrong pronouns…ugh I still want to punch them in the face. lol. Well not really but you know what I mean.

  4. Lisa Shambrook

    2013 Feb 04 4

    I haven’t had any transgender experience, but I relate with the disrespect of adults to teens they class as troublemakers and attention seekers. One word can make all the difference, but if they won’t use it, you’re back to square one with a sullen teen…been there.
    Once again your writing is beautiful and so Alice is so vivid!

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