Another letter to my colleagues

27 10 2008

After the other day’s rant, I took a more objective look at what was going on with the pronoun situation. I know my colleagues and I know that none of them have a malicious or ill-intentioned bone in their bodies. I know that they care about my well being. I know it because so many of them have offered me support during my transition so far. I know it because so many of them came to my transition party back in June. I know it because, as a colleage and friend pointed out the other night at the bar, when people joined me to celebrate the end of a week-long conference that I organised at work, if anyone in our department were to say anything negative about my transition, they would be the one to be ostracised, not me.

I still think it’s important for me to point out to them that they need to make an effort with the pronouns. Not to make them feel bad because, after all, they are all people with busy lives and a lot to think about already, but to make them realise the position they put me in when they mis-gender me. I think that it’s as important for us to put ourselves in the shoes of our friends as it is for them to put themselves in our shoes. They can’t know what it’s like to transition if they haven’t transitioned themselves or if they haven’t been exposed to trans issues before so we need to make it clear for them without judging them if we don’t want them to judge us. So I wrote them another email in which I inserted some humour but also in which I described the results of pronoun malfunctions. Here is the letter, with some modifications to avoid specific reference to my workplace. Any trans people are free to adapt and use if needed, or to borrow the basic idea.



Good morning;

Don’t worry, this appeal has nothing to do with that thing I’ve been bugging you about for weeks, the (conference name). That’s OVER and we can all go back to our “normal” (whatever THAT means) routines. This last appeal has to do with something a bit more personal but I hope you’ll bear with me. Spending an entire week at the college during the conference brought to my attention that, in spite of my increasing male appearance, my colleages are still having problems adjusting their vocabulary with reference to me. There was a significant number of pronoun malfunctions and, in some cases, even name malfunctions. Many of these were in front of new students or guest speakers, to whom I was presenting as male. In one case, it was in front of an entire audience in the auditorium.My first reflex was to get upset. But now I realise that most of you simply don’t fully realise the impact of calling me “she” or “Nancy” in front of strangers. So I will explain it to you in the hopes that it encourages you to think about it differently.

First, I guess it’s hard for you to imagine that strangers nearly always read me as male when you’ve known Nancy. It may be hard for you to let go of your association of me with “her”. I guess it speaks to the great acting job that I did all those years and, yes, Nancy will always be a part of me. But, trust me, with my current appearance and voice, 98% of strangers that I meet read me as male, EXCEPT when I’m with someone who calls me “she” or “Nancy”.  Then, a normal interraction about something completely unrelated to me becomes disrupted. The new person is confused. I’m outed and “otherised” and I become “unsafe”: an object of curiosity and confusion rather than another plain old ordinary human in the workplace. Then I’m forced to make a choice to let it go and have yet another person see me as something that I’m not or to further disrupt the interaction to correct the speaker and come up with an explanation for this odd mix-up. My plan is not to go “stealth”* like ma ny trans people do or to forget my female past. I don’t have a problem with educating people about trans realities or providing a model for young people who are questionning and are looking to see themselves (or their trans relatives or friends) reflected in the grown-up working population. However, I reserve the right and the power to “come out” when I see fit, not when other people force me to do so in the middle of an unrelated interaction.

All this being said, I’m hoping that this will encourage you to be more careful in how you refer to me, regardless of whether I’m there or not. I’m sorry if my personal choice to transition is giving you a hard time. It’s not my intention to disrupt other people’s work day but I would like to be able to go to work without having to avoid human contact out of fear that I will be outed . . . .again and again and again. If it helps, you can call me Jack instead of Jacky, which is unfortunately seen as a “girl” name by many in spite of such male characters as Little Jacky Paper, Jackie Chan and Jackie Masson. Jack works for me and maybe will help you with the pronoun as well.

Thanks again for your support so far. I know it’s a pain to have to even think about it but once you get used to this new way, you won’t even remember a time when you called me “she” because it will become natural and normal to refer to me as “he”. Then we will slowly work on My Liege. But let’s take it one step at a time, shall we?


*This is said without any judgement of people who choose to go stealth.




11 responses

27 10 2008

Right on, well done!!

28 10 2008

Then we will slowly work on My Liege.

😀 😀

28 10 2008
Jacky V.

Thanks GenderOutlaw!

Nix: Yeah, that line won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. hehehe

28 10 2008

Getting pronouns and names right is basic stuff. Yes, when someone transitions you have to use effort to get it right at first. And I’m sure your coworkers are well-meaning as you say. But this is important and basic. I hope your letter works.

28 10 2008
Jacky V.

Thanks for the comment Devastatingyet. I hope it works too.

29 10 2008

I think your handling it all very well. Jobs are something I have not had to deal with except for the hiring process and background check around my transness coming up. I commend your braveness and your compassion!

2 11 2008

Well said.

Your coworkers are trying, which is more than can be said for a lot of others. Some things take longer for adjustment, more so if they aren’t common (which is relative).

3 11 2008

That’s a great letter, and I hope your colleagues respond well to it.

I love the “my liege” bit, by the way.

3 11 2008
Jacky V.

Thanks for writing Eliot! I haven’t really had too many responses. A couple of people replied that they would try harder but that’s it. Of course, the context is that I’ve had the conversation face to face with about 10 of them in the weeks leading up to me writing this letter and the behaviour wasn’t changing so I think that some of them just feel too guilty to respond.

So we’re no where NEAR my Liege, I’m afraid . . .

12 12 2008

I really admire you for your courage and honesty, even though I’m just a regular female creature (kinda boyish though) and wish you all the best with your transition. 🙂

By the way, it’s interesting to consider the relationship between gender and language: in Slavic languages, for example, even first or second person singular and plural verbs indicate gender, as if you said “I go” as a male and “I goo” as a female. Even in French they use another pronoun for “they” when referring to women.

In Hungarian, on the other hand – and also in Finnish – there are no seperate male or female pronouns, we just say “ő” no matter if the person is a man or a woman. I prefer this setting as a poet – I do not have to make decisions if “nature” or “the sea” or “a city” should be referred to as a male or female thing and can focus on the core of the personification instead. My queer friends also prefer this grammatical solution, it spares them a lot of worries.

Language is fascinating. Anyway, I hope your collegues got the point and the situation is far more comfortable by now.

15 12 2008
Jacky V.

Hi Barok;

Thanks for writing and for the wishes! Yes, the relationship between language and gender IS a very interesting topic. Thanks for the info on Slavic languages. I didn’t know that. I know that “I” and “You” are gendered in Vietnamese as well, at least according to a Vietnamese friend I had in high school who told me that “I love you” is different if it is a boy telling a girl or vice versa. I remember asking her how a girl would say it to a girl. She giggled, as if it were a silly question. Of course, it was high school in North America in the 80! What other reaction was I expecting?

As for French, yes we have “elles” for a feminine “they.” What’s interesting (in a patriarchal kind of way) is that if we are talking about a mixed gendered group of people, the masculin “they” (ils) takes precedence!

I’m glad you told me that about Hungarian. You have no way of knowing this but I have been obsessed with going to Hungary for about 15 years. I don’t know why but Hungary has been pulling at some inner chain for all this time and I’m interested in anything Hungarian. Who knows – my dad was adopted so maybe I have some roots there that I will never know about. Anyway, that’s an interesting tidbit about the genderless pronouns. I like it!

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