What to Say When a Friend Asks You to Switch Pronouns for Him or Her

By Tom Gilson Published on July 18, 2017

What do you do when a friend asks you to switch pronouns: to call him “her” or vice versa, or to use one of the new sex-free/gender-free pronouns?

The best answer doesn’t seem obvious. We want to be loving, after all. We want to be kind. Yet some of us, myself included, believe God created us male and female, not cross-gendered or “fluid.” Changing pronouns to fit a person’s altered gender identity would violate our convictions. What do we do when they tell us to do otherwise?

I’m going to suggest a specific answer, but before I go there I need to explain what’s behind that answer.

Compassion for Pain, Wisdom About Trends

First, there are various reasons people make this request. “Trans” people who claim their gender identify doesn’t fit their biological sex vary from painfully transgendered to simply “transtrender,” and a whole lot of other variations in between and off to the side.

By “painfully transgendered,” I’m referring to those who are truly gender dysphoric, to use the technical term. Their internal world is painfully misaligned with their external world. They actually feel like their body is all wrong. There’s no magic that can make things “right” for them, not even hormones or surgery. They can’t just wish their feelings away.

These individuals are in pain. They need compassion; they need friends; they need love. They may want you to alter how you refer to them. But that doesn’t mean they need you to pretend to be someone other than you are. You can’t be a real friend unless you can really be you.

The main thing is to ask and to listen. But listening doesn’t mean agreeing.

As a friend, though, the first step in your conversation really ought to be asking the person what’s going on inside, finding out what it’s like for them. As believers we should take others’ pain seriously and compassionately.

Now, you may get a completely different sense from them as you ask them about their experience. Some “gender-fluid” people are really “transtrenders.” They’re riding the latest nonconformist trend for the thrill of being outrageous. You ought not treat them without love or compassion, but the less you sense they’re in real pain, the more you can feel free to ask, “Hey, what’s really going on here, anyway?”

There are many other ways to be “transgender” than I could even begin to cover here. Those are just two of them. The main thing is to ask and to listen.

Recognize the Power Play for What It Is

But listening doesn’t mean agreeing. Too few people recognize what’s really going on when trans people expect us to change our pronouns for them. Believe it or not, they’re actually claiming a power that no human has ever held, nor should hold. They probably don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, so it would be insensitive to accuse them outright. Still, this is what they’re really telling us: “I expect you to chuck aside what you think is true, and believe instead what I feel is true, just because I say it’s true. My internal, mental reality must become your reality, because I say so.”

Usually this gets tacked on, too: “If you disagree, you’re not just wrong, you’re a bigot.”

That’s an unjust use of power. I shouldn’t be able to command you to believe what I believe, just because I say so. No mere human being should have that power.

Listen, Then Answer

I strongly recommend you start by finding out — sensitively — what’s going on inside your friend.

Now, that’s all background so far. It helps define the problem more clearly and to find out what’s really going on in the mind of your friend. But I promised you more than that. I said I’d suggest a way you can answer the demand.

Eventually, it must come back around to the question of pronouns. Here’s what I recommend you say:

I understand that you have a set of beliefs and principles leading you to make that request of me. I hope you understand that I have beliefs and principles, too. For me to go along with your request would violate my personal convictions and my personal identity. I don’t want to violate your convictions or your identity, I don’t want to force my beliefs on you, and I don’t believe you want to do that to me, either.

What I think we both want is to build and maintain our friendship. How about if we talk and see if we can to work out a good way to do that, without either of us to violate our conscience?

Stick to your convictions during that conversation when it happens. Anything less isn’t just a failure of integrity, it’s also a disservice to your friend, who needs you to be you, if you’re going to be a real friend.

 

Tom Gilson is a senior editor of The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

Adapted from criticalconversationsbook.com. Used by permission.

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