The first time I used he/him pronouns for myself was on a bus with a random stranger.
It was on my way back from treating myself to lunch. I was sitting in a seat by the window, blasting G-Eazy in my one AirPod to make up for the fact that I’d lost the other one a few months back. The leftovers from said lunch rested on my lap, shifting slightly as the bus made its way up and down the many hills of San Francisco.
A group of teenage boys had gotten on at the last stop. The only available seats had been next to mine, so they all clustered in around me, talking to one another with a mixture of insults and expletives. The boys reminded me of my high-school friend group — I could recognize that particular vibe of insecurity and bravado anywhere. Struck by a sudden sense of nostalgia, I sneakily paused my music so that I could listen in on their conversation.
I know, I know, that was beyond creepy. In my defense, though, I had never done this before, and was only doing it now because observing them was like going back in time and observing myself among friends at sixteen.
Plus, they were talking about me. Or rather, about the leftovers that were sliding around in my lap.
“That food she’s got smells so good,” the boy next to me was saying.
“Maybe you should ask her if you can have it,” his friend across from him suggested.
“Naw, man, that’s fuckin’ rude. Plus, who knows where that food’s been.”
There were a few snickers.
“I’m hungry enough to just ask,” a third chimed in.
“Dude, we’re getting off in, like, four stops. Just be fucking patient,” admonished another. He sounded older, more authoritative, but I didn’t want to look, in case it tipped off the fact that I was eavesdropping. “Let’s not harass any strangers today, alright?”
“I don’t give a fuck,” the first one declared.
“Then do it, you pussy!”
There was a tap on my shoulder. The boy sitting next to me raised an eyebrow. “Are you gonna have your food?”
In high school, my best friends and I had regularly fought over/laid claim to each other’s food, electronic accessories, and other belongings, and I’d gotten good at defending my own property. When he asked me this question, it was as if I were a teenager again, intent on keeping my precious stuff to myself.
“Get your own fuckin’ food,” I retorted before I even knew what I was saying. “I paid good money for this shit.”
The boy’s eyes widened.
“OooOoOooOoooOOOOooOooOOO,” his friends intoned collectively.
“She really fucking told you!” the one sitting across from him cackled, kicking him in the shin.
That day, I was wearing a baggy sweatshirt, black pants, and no makeup. The look was intentionally androgynous. Even though I knew I was easily still seen as female, the fact that I’d just been assumed to be one when I wasn’t even dressed in a femme way touched a nerve.
“By the way, I use he/him pronouns,” I told him before I could stop myself. I placed a protective hand over my leftovers. “So if you’re going to talk about me, use he/him, please.”
“Oh, okay,” he said breezily, in the way that teens who grow up in an ultra-liberal environment do. “Sorry ‘bout assuming. And for, uh, trying to take your food.”
“No worries,” I said. “Good luck.”
I got off at the next stop. My leftovers were intact; my mind was spinning. First of all, I couldn’t believe that I’d just told off a bunch of schoolchildren like an adult savage. Second, was asking strangers for their leftovers actually a thing now? Last but not least, I’d finally taken the plunge and claimed “he/him” for myself, rather than letting “she/her” slide while fighting an internal battle, like I usually did. It was just one interaction on a bus, but it felt like the start of something that I couldn’t go back from.
I felt exhilarated, much like I had the time that I’d stood up on a high ledge for a photoshoot, my fear of heights be damned. Despite the fact that I’d always felt like a he/him, I’d been ambivalent and hesitant about publicly using those pronouns forever. Until now.
Apparently, a group of strangers who reminded me of my old friends were all I needed to actually take action.
The first thing I did when I got home was update my blog and social media channels to reflect the fact that I used he/him pronouns. I also changed my gender to “male” on Facebook. These were all small changes, but together, they represented me finally making a choice about something that I’d been uncomfortably undecided about for a long time.
To me, using he/him pronouns represented the final frontier in my social transition from female to male. Top surgery, hormone replacement therapy, and masculine presentation all seemed like cosmetic changes, to be implemented in order to affirm my identity. Coming out as a trans guy and changing my pronouns seemed like making changes to my identity itself.
Coming out represented the intention. Thus, it was the thing I was most afraid of doing. Telling people that I would use he/him pronouns was something I wasn’t sure I would ever be ready for. I was perched on the edge of decision for months, going back and forth and debating a million little things that would go wrong.
This was especially true because of my physical presentation. I knew, for example, that I’d be correcting people ‘til the end of forever if I wanted to keep my outwardly femme presentation. I also knew that I’d encounter a fair bit of intensive questioning from the more traditional side of the trans community — why did I use he/him pronouns if I didn’t even want to look like a guy? And so on and so forth.
I also was afraid of what my friends and family would say. They had been fairly supportive so far, but I dreaded finding out just where that support would run out. I didn’t want to see anyone close to me turn out to be a transphobe, or worse, a nonbeliever. I was used to adverse reactions from strangers on the Internet, but if someone in my actual life, someone I’d trusted before with other important things about myself, were to become hostile or invalidating … well, I wasn’t sure I was emotionally ready to face that specific kind of disappointment.
And what of professional situations? I had no desire to be that difficult employee who insisted on being a “special snowflake” in the workplace. Look at her, I mean him, that asshole who insists that she, I mean he, is a man while wearing dresses! I can’t be bothered to remember this stuff and handle all these technical details at the same time. It didn’t matter that I worked in tech in the super-progressive Bay Area, or that my workplace had rainbow flags everywhere and a list of rights for transgender employees on the bulletin board in the kitchen — I did not want to be That Person Who Made Shit Difficult.
Even if it meant having one foot in the closet. Even if it meant denying myself part of my identity.
I’d hovered on the edge for what seemed like forever, desperately wanting to be recognized as a man but afraid of what insisting on that recognition would bring. “I’m transgender, but I use she/her pronouns because it’s easier,” I would say to new people I met, ignoring the sinking, liar-liar-pants-on-fire feeling I got every single time I said it.
“I use she/her … for now,” I told one of my best friends, who was also transgender. “I would use he/him, but I’m fucking scared of what people might say, because of how I look.”
I knew I’d have to just do it sooner or later, and I guess that I’d finally reached my fuck-it point on the bus, where the fear of potential invalidation and hostility was overshadowed by the desire to live as I really was. I simply no longer had the desire to intentionally deny who I was out of fear.
Fuck it, I thought.
It was time to come out.
I woke up the morning after the bus incident feeling heavy and strange. It was like getting a hangover after an exuberant night out — you knew that you had a great time the night before, but you were in lots of pain now. Maybe you shouldn’t have taken all of those shots?
There was a text in my phone from my sister: Omg u out here going by male pronouns without telling me, she wrote. Had to find out via insta bio.
Fuck, I thought. What have I done? I’m not ready to explain.
I had obviously made a mistake. Sure, she/her hadn’t sounded right to me, ever, but it kind of worked with my aesthetic and my feminine name. Now I had to be a he/him in a dress. This was it. I was doomed to spend the rest of my life explaining myself.
I got up and paced around my room, trying to calm the feeling of panic that was rapidly spreading throughout my stomach and chest. I went to the kitchen, filled up a tall glass with water, and forced myself to gulp down the whole thing.
“Okay,” I told myself as I took deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth, like I’d been trained to do whenever I had to undergo a medical procedure that involved needles. At least there wasn’t any blood involved with this scenario. “Calm down. Let’s assess the situation and go from there.”
I went back to my room, flopped down on my bed, and closed my eyes. During times of distress, I intentionally separate my panicked thoughts from my normal, more rational ones and have mini-discussions between the two sides in my head. This for sure qualified as a “time of distress.”
The conversation with myself went something like this —
Panicked Me: Fuck me, I jumped off the fucking ledge without thinking. Why do I always do this shit without thinking? Now everybody knows and I can’t take it back.
Calm Me: First of all, you did not ‘jump off the fucking ledge without thinking.’ Did you not write multiple blog posts about how you wanted to go by he/him pronouns but didn’t because of certain reasons? Did you not list out those specific reasons? Did you not have in-depth nuanced conversations with multiple people about your pronouns?
Panicked Me: I did, but those were all theoretical discussions! I could theoretically discuss jumping off of a bridge, but it doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t hurt if I did it in real life!
Calm Me: I see the analogy you’re trying to make, but we’re not talking about jumping off a bridge here. We’re talking about asking society to use the correct pronouns to refer to you (us?). Haven’t you wanted this forever? Isn’t there a little part of you that dies every time someone refers to you as she or her?
Panicked Me: Yes, but I’m still fucking terrified! I want my mommy. Oh God, speaking of my mom, she’s going to see that I’m using he/him pronouns now and I’m going to have to have another super-awkward conversation with her. Dear Lord. FUCK.
Calm Me: Your mom already knows that you’re transgender, you fucking idiot. Sure, the pronouns will be an adjustment, but she already told you that she loves and accepts you unconditionally, remember? You lucky bastard. Not everyone has that kind of privilege.
Panicked Me [frowning]: I know. You’re right.
Calm Me: So, anyway, why are you terrified?
Panicked Me: Because my friends and the general public will have so many questions.
Calm Me: Your friends and the general public already know that you’re trans, too. You’ve been blogging about this shit for years, dude. It’s not like you’re making an entire surprise gender sundae with this pronoun change. You’re just putting the cherry on top of an existing one. Plus, the majority of people who know about your gender stuff have blatantly asked you why you don’t use he/him pronouns before, remember?
Panicked Me: Oh, right. Yeah.
Calm Me [smiling serenely]: So there’s no problem, after all. There’s no mistake. You’ve thought this through, everybody already knows, and there’s no need to be freaking out.
Panicked Me: I guess I’m just feeling some residual shock from the fact that I actually did it. It feels surreal, like reaching a dream that I was sure was out of reach.
Calm Me: Yeah, so just give yourself a little bit of time. Go walk around. Talk to your other trans friends. Hell, go buy yourself an actual ice-cream sundae with two fucking cherries on top. It’s not easy to come out, and it’s totally normal to feel weird after you’ve done it.
Panicked Me: You’re right. I feel weird, but free.
Calm Me: According to most trans people, the weird feeling will pass.
Panicked Me: I certainly hope so.
Calm Me: Listen to this. Mimi is twenty-two years old. He lives in the Bay Area. He wears a lot of dresses despite the cold-ass weather and runs a blog called Fake and Basic. He has identified as transgender for over a year, and he has finally reached the point where he is done with making concessions about his own gender in order to make others comfortable.
Panicked Me: Ooh, I like that. He has identified as transgender for over a year, and he has finally reached the point where he is done with making concessions about his own gender in order to make others comfortable.
Calm Me: That’s right.
Panicked Me: He has finally reached the point where he is done with making concessions about his own gender in order to make others comfortable.
Calm Me: He is done with making concessions about his own gender in order to make others comfortable.
Panicked Me [smiling]: Wow, that’s fucking huge.
Calm Me: You’re welcome. Just take it one step at a time. Everything will be just fine.
I opened my eyes, sat up in bed, and took a deep breath. The feeling of strangeness had yet to subside, but the panic was receding, leaving in its place a sense of lightness.
My sister had sent one more text: Does that mean u r my brother now?
Yes, I replied. I always was, though.
I don’t like doing stuff like this in a half-assed manner, so when I came out, I came out. I started using he/him pronouns in the workplace. Whenever someone close to me messed up, I politely corrected them.
Switching pronouns hasn’t been without its challenges. Some people did react weirdly, and I did have to field a lot of questions about the discrepancy between my appearance and pronouns from coworkers and acquaintances. It wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it’d be, though, and every time someone used he/him pronouns to refer to me, it felt like Christmas and my birthday had come at the same time.
I realized that I’d become used to being disappointed in my daily life — I thought that, given my circumstances and the way I liked to present, using he/him pronouns was at best a hopeless fantasy and at worst a burden to everyone around me and a complete insult to trans people. The acceptance and reactions of people around me since I’ve made the switch have made me realize that human beings are more adaptable than I’d previously given them credit for. Sure, people fuck up, but they’re quick to correct themselves and they make serious efforts, and it makes me happier than I could’ve thought possible.
Of course, I still appear as a “she/her” to the majority of the world’s population. They don’t know, and I can’t blame them for assuming, since it’s true that the majority of the population uses pronouns that match their outward presentation.
It’s a temporary solution, but I have essentially trained myself to not get offended when random strangers misgender me or call me “miss” or “ma’am”. I tell myself that it’s my outward presentation they’re addressing, not me as a person. If it’s someone I’m going to be having multiple interactions with, I say something, but otherwise, I leave it be.
I am sure that there will be many pronoun-related hurdles to overcome as I continue moving forward in life, but those around me have proven that they’re capable of respecting my identity. I used to think that insisting on correct pronoun usage made me a “special snowflake” and meant that I was asking for too much. Now, I know that it’s basic human decency for someone to make the effort. I’ve been respecting and remembering pronouns for years; it’s by no means impossible to do.
I’m so glad that I took this leap of faith — even with the unintentional misgendering and uncomfortable conversations, the euphoria I get from finally being seen in this way more than makes up for it.
Plus, at the end of the day, I’ll always have Calm Mimi to help me think things through. ♚