My mother took a job as a patient’s rights advocate at a mental health facility when I was about 20 years old. It was an old facility, up on the hill over downtown next to the state prison. The pair were largely what our small town in the hills of southwestern Virginia was known for.
She had been a social worker and a drug prevention counselor most of my life. I had spent time in her offices growing up, and was always aware of what kind of work she was doing and why. My mother shared that part of her life with me. So when she took this new job, I asked her what she would be doing.
“It’s my job to be sure people are treated the way they deserve to be treated. If they want to be called Jesus, people should call them Jesus. There are other rights they have, and I help ensure staff comply with them.”
I thought about that a while. Throughout school, we learn everyone’s name from their name tag or how they’re registered. We take for granted the name they give us is the name they wish to be called by, and generally do it with no issue. What if someone wanted to be called by a different name?
I had done the same myself my first two years of college. Growing up, I went by Alex, because that’s what my mother and family called me. In middle school, the name Alex Cox slowed down by the local southern draw became a mocking homophobic slur. So when I started college, I tried out my first name, Lawrence, with others to see how I felt about it. Although people were happy to call me Lawrence, it never felt right to me, so slurs be damned, I switched back to Alex when I transferred to university, and have been Alex since.
It was relatable that someone in a mental health facility might want to be called a different name for reasons apart from a psychological diagnosis. Even if it’s an aspect of their condition, it’s still their right to choose their own name. Everyone deserves to be called whatever they wish to be known by. It’s basic human respect, as well as great manners, to acknowledge another’s identity in the way they choose to present it.
As time passed and discussions of chosen gender pronouns became a more common topic, I realized it was a matter of what I had already learned and experienced. Gender is alongside our names in terms of our identity and presentation. It’s a matter of that same respect to call someone by their appropriate gender and pronouns as much as it is their name. That someone may choose either, and find offense when others don’t acknowledge their chosen name or gender, is natural.
Using incorrect pronouns, dead-naming (calling a transgender person by their former name), or misgendering someone intentionally is rude, disrespectful, and has no place in well-mannered discussion. It has nothing to do with how one may feel about gender issues and deserves any offense taken by others. Even when done unintentionally, over time, it betrays an inflexible mind which cannot adapt to new conditions.
It is easy to show good manners and respect by calling someone by their offered name and pronouns. It is simple acknowledgement of another’s chosen identity, as you would want others to acknowledge and respect your own.