I was reading back through my last post and I thought there was a point in there that needed further explanation. This is a line stated by many people who have a friend or relative who is trans*, from the nastiest bigot to the really well meaning family member. This line is “That’s not who you are to me” (abv. in this article now as TNWYATM) and it can be one of the most damaging things to say to a trans* person and I am going to talk about why.
If you have been fortunate enough to not know what this phrase represents, I will contextualize it. TNWYATM is often said by old acquaintances of a trans* person to that trans* person. It could be your best friend or your worst enemy, it doesn’t discriminate. It is not terms like (censored to avoid TW) n****r, c**t, f****t, t****y, where everyone accepts that if you say that, its a clear slur. TNWYATM can be really well meaning, it can be an attempt by friends to often say, it’s really hard to get used to a new name and pronoun, I called you by your old name for so long and the person I met and became friends with didn’t use those names and pronouns and this is weird and foreign and I’m probs gonna mess it up a few times at least. there are, unfortunately more meanings that this.
My least favorite and most encountered is also from a friendly place and that is, TNWYATM, I know you as Martha (disrespecting by using old name and present tense) I just can’t call you Fred and use different pronouns, can I just call you by your old name or Em or something. (Em was actually suggested to me as an alternate name by a family member as Grey made them uncomfortable.)
This is where the first problem occurs, the same phrase now means two things, like even when a slur is used by someone well meaning, it still carries the memories of all the times it was used as an excuse to not respect your wishes aka to hurt you.
Now we get onto the semantics of the issue, this not being petty issues (let’s not argue over semantics) but the logic and meaning of this phrase. Lets start from the start “That’s not” this is a statement of fact, it is inflexible, its not a “I feel” or “I wish” or “Hopefully in the future”. It is set in stone and it presents an attitude of being unwilling to change. This is comparatively benign, but as we move through this phrase it gets worse.
“Who you are” this is by far the worst part of this phrase. Trans* people have to deal with lots of stuff, many are closeted for a long time and many feel shame and embarrassment about (to simplify) wearing dresses to school every day and playing netball, often they were hiding the things they really liked or trying to adopt behaviors to “correct” themselves, or to hide the fact they didnt feel and possibly had trouble acting like a real girl, and to treat that identity like it was ever real can be hurtful and remind this person of a really traumatic time when they are now trying to step into their real identities.
“To me” this is a hard thing to explain the problem with because it seems incredibly petty, lots of this will seem incredibly petty, it is easy to rest on one’s laurels, of being good and kind and understanding and trying really hard. Before I explain the problem with “to me” I want to thank you for trying so hard, even if you’re a trans* person reading this, you firstly respect my opinion and I am truly grateful and secondly you’re trying to stay informed and cutting edge on harmful and less harmful behaviours and language. Attempting that is almost a full time job, and even I tire of it and wish that I didn’t have to be so careful with the language I use. (and inadvertently stuff up a fair bit).
Now back to the point, “to me” is selfish, it makes a trans* person’s identity about you. Your feelings, memories and the person you knew is changing, often dramatically and that is a massive challenge, to be there and to change everything you knew about this person, I have been on both sides, I am obviously Enby and I also have coincidentally had a friend who I met and knew as a cis person turn out to be trans*. It’s hard to know if you should just disregard the past or acknowledge it in every conversation. (The answer is most likely somewhere in the middle) but those two words take an issue that most trans* people will most likely have to deal with every day of their lives, and turns it into something about you.
You are super fortunate to be able to go home or to your space or hang up the phone or shut facebook and not be confronted with it anymore. That’s why this time, the trans* person is allowed to be a bit selfish. Because most trans* people are considerate and work really hard to allow for this change. There are exceptions to every rule but most trans* people don’t care if you mess up their pronouns or name by mistake once in a while. Some are even okay with you calling them by their own name (this radically depends just asking some people can be an insult, you friend will tell you what is okay). In my case my middle name was worked out with my mother to be like my old name, but not so much like my old name that it was triggering, so people could use that and I could explain to others that it was my middle name.
So I say all this, but what does it mean for you. If you are in the situation where you feel that TNWYATM is the right choice and you are not sure how else to express yourself. The best answer was in the second paragraph, to self quote “it’s really hard to get used to a new name and pronoun, I called you by your old name for so long and the person I met and became friends with didn’t use those names and pronouns and this is weird and foreign and I’m probs gonna mess it up a few times at least.”
If you don’t feel that way you don’t have to say that, but you are having an honest heart to heart, if what you feel is hurtful, but you need to communicate it then honestly apologise, do the opposite of TNWYATM, make your “that’s not” a phrase that makes it clear that is how you feel right now and if you are hurtful in your opinion you are going to change it or otherwise minimise it’s hurtfulness. “Who you are” can become the past tense, eg. “who I knew you as” and the “to me” can be replaced with an apology. How I would put it together is, “I wish I could see you as who you are not who I knew you as, but….” and this is where I hand it to you, though I hope you will say something along the lines of “I’m going to try and change this over time, sorry” but if this isn’t how you feel then maybe you will fill it in with “but I can’t, we need some space, sorry”.
This re-wording of TNWYATM takes away the aforementioned double meaning, it keeps that it is about you, but it takes on a level of ownership over your opinion rather than it being a statement of fact, it respects that the old identity is old and it states the whole thing in a flexible manner. It gives you a space to explain what action you feel needs to be taken by you, to help the situation, even if that action is leaving. Rather than putting the onus on who you are talking to. It is a personal statement, not a hurtful line so many trans* people hear over and over.