How To Answer When a Friend Asks You to Switch Pronouns For Him or Her

There’s a new challenge many Christians must face these days: What do I do when a friend asks me 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 we should?

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 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. Yet 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.

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 feeling 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 bad person.”

That’s wielding too much power. I shouldn’t be able to command you to believe what I believe, just because I say so. Trans people shouldn’t have that power either.

Listen, Then Answer

Now, that’s all background so far. It’s helpful because it defines the problem more clearly, but I promised you more than that. I said I’d suggest a way you can actually answer the demand.

First, I strongly recommend you start by finding out — sensitively — what’s going on inside your friend, as I’ve already mentioned. Have that conversation for as long as it takes. Ask well, then listen well.

Eventually, though, it must come back around to the question of pronouns. Here’s how I recommend you go from there:

“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 asking the other person to be someone we aren’t?”

Appealing to Friendship and Common Values

Stick to your convictions during that conversation when it happens. Be who God calls you to be! 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.

Notice how this answer is based on an appeal to their natural desire to treat you with respect. Few people feel comfortable asking others to become someone they aren’t. Few trans people realize that’s what they’re really doing!

So explain that as clearly as you can. Follow it up with a friendly request to resolve your differences together, and you could be on your way to strengthening your friendship, without compromising any of your convictions. If not, at least you’ve clarified the issues, and you’ll be in a better position to figure out where to go from there.

Questions and Answers With Your Kids — In That Order

Questions and answers matter. They matter at younger ages every day.

My friend Bill and I were at the bookstore cafe enjoying coffee and conversation. He told me, “My son came home from school this week and told me has a gay classmate who likes him. He’s been calling him repeatedly on his cell phone. They’re in sixth grade.”

It starts way too early in kids’ lives, and it doesn’t get any easier as they move on into high school. My own two children (both in their 20s now) have had plenty of gay classmates, some of whom were close enough to be friends.

Bill has had training as a Christian counselor. He knew most parents are less well equipped. Questions like this are bound to come up, though.

It’s good if they do, actually. Young people are bombarded with messages of “equal love.” If they’re not asking out loud, you can be sure they’re wondering on the inside: Is gay marriage okay? Is my church wrong about this? They might even be asking themselves, Do my parents even understand the issues? They’ve never had a gay or lesbian friend like I do.

Count On It: They’re Asking the Questions

Actually, if they’re not asking you out loud, you can be sure they’re sorting out their opinions with their friends; and if their friends match national averages, more than three-quarters of them think gay is okay.

What’s a parent to do? The answer has to be (gulp) to start the conversation.

Well, that sounds scary. Don’t give up now! Sure, this takes you into a “perfect storm” of awkward parent-child conversation topics: sexuality, generational differences, and teens’ perennial sense that “mom and dad just don’t get it!” The easy thing would be to steer clear. But who do you want to be teaching your children what to believe about sexuality and morality? The kids who ride the school bus with them? Their favorite TV shows or music? Or you, yourself?

I don’t mean to make it sound more ominous than it is. This is reality. This is the way it is.

It Isn’t So Much Whether You Know the Answer…

Here’s the great news, though: “Getting it” is optional in the short run. Connecting with your teen or pre-teen is the first priority. You’d be surprised to know just how much kids pick up on parents’ values just by spending authentic time together. “My parents really, genuinely love me, and they believe such-and-so“ is more persuasive to kids than you might think.

It doesn’t erase the competition you’re up against, though. And there’s still the question of making safe passage into and through that perfect storm. I’ve found that the best way in is through good questions, for example,

  • Do you have any gay, lesbian, or transgender friends?
  • What’s it like for you when they talk about their relationships or their feelings?
  • Do your friends think of Christians as being anti-gay?
  • What do you sense they’re saying about your own views? Do they know what you think about it?
  • Do you know what you think about this issue?
  • Does it make you uncomfortable that our church preaches and teaches against homosexuality?

… It’s How You Treat the Questions

Be prepared for anything. You might be opening a completely unsuspected door to confusion, questions, doubts, and disagreements. This is the time to recall that unconditional love means loving them no matter what they say; and it’s better for them to have this conversation with you than with just about anyone else. (Your pastor or the kids’ youth pastor might be the exception.)

They’ll stay in it with you ask long as they’re sure it’s safe, which means you respect their questions and their doubts. You don’t shut them down or brush them aside. Remember: they’re getting bombarded by pro-gay and lesbian messages. They’ve got reason to wonder what the truth is.

After you’ve listened a good long while you can turn the flow in the other direction by asking, “Now, do you have any questions for me?” (They might have gotten to that long before you make the invitation.)

One night a while ago my daughter, Lisa, came practically storming into the den. She said, “Dad, I was just listening to a song that said, ‘Gentlemen, if you’re going to preach, for God’s sake preach with conviction!’ And guess what? The band that sings that song isn’t a Christian band. Why is it that non-Christian musicians can have stronger messages than Christian bands?

Honoring the Questions

To be fair, that wasn’t an accurate overall picture of reality. In some cases, though, it can be disturbingly true.

So we talked about it, and I had to admit that there were things about Christians in ministry, especially music ministry, that I’ve never understood, even though I’d spent ten years involved with touring music ministries. I was stumped.

That’s when I remembered an email I’d sent Lisa and her brother about a week earlier:

“I have an ice cream date scheduled for either or both of you if you can ask me a really hard question about the Bible, morality, faith, or anything like it that stumps me. It has to be a question that actually matters to you or a friend of yours. (I’ll count Facebook friends.) . . .

“Game on?”

The funny thing about it was that she didn’t realize she’d done it, until the next morning when I sent her an e-mail titled, “I owe you an ice cream.”

We went out and talked about her question. We came to the conclusion that it doesn’t really have a settled answer. Some questions do, though.

But Then Yes, It Still Matters What You Teach

The Bible — and common human experience, too — gives us great insight into how people thrive best. Part of that insight is that families do best when they’re headed by a mom and dad who are committed to one another in marriage and love one another. Individuals do best when they keep their acts of physical intimacy sacred within that space called marriage — which has always been, and in God’s eyes, still is, for a man and a woman.

In other words, answers matter. A lot. But relationship matters a lot, too, and you can build  your relationship with your teen by connecting with him or her on their questions. Then you can scope out the answers together, too.

Questions and answers can come in exactly that order: questions first, answers later.

 

Image source: Libby Levi at Flickr.com