Laura Jane Grace on the Problem with Pronouns
In this edition of Mandatory Happiness, the Against Me! frontwoman talks about how to deal with being called by the wrong gender pronoun. When is it hurtful, when is it awkward, and when is it just plain funny?
In Mandatory Happiness, Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace takes some questions from you, the reader. Got a question of your own? Submit it to and she will answer some on Noisey. All questions are confidential and your name will not be included.
I came out as trans a while ago, however nobody is even making an effort to use my name or pronouns. Do you have any tips on helping people use my name/pronouns?
Most days I have what feels like boundless energy. It's the weed and caffeine. Hippie speed-balling. I walk into the bank and the teller asks me "Sir, what can I help…" and I don't even let them finish. I don't raise my voice, and I watch my tone, and I respond in the most friendly, calm, natural way possible and cut them off, saying…
"Hi how are you, how's your day, I need a new debit card, my old one got stolen, here's my ID, this is my legal name, but I go by LJ and the 'Sir' is unnecessary."
And then I smile while handing them my license that still has an “M” marked under “Sex” and still says “Thomas.” They got me dead to rights, born with an “M” on my birth certificate. But I don’t care what the ID card says, I want them to respect what I’m telling them.
I say it fast and slurry, kind of jumbled on purpose, because I'm trying to overwhelm them with information. I want to charm them. Focusing on the pronouns they used in addressing me would be the same as focusing on the outfit they’re wearing and being reduced by it. That’s what they’re projecting out. I have participation in what they take in from the exchange. It may take some patience but my goal is to make them smile and share a laugh.
I made three laps around the world last year and every single airport interaction always included a "sir" addressed to me. Checking in, security, passport control, boarding, de-boarding, getting a cab, checking into the hotel, checking out of the hotel, the security guard at the club, some bartender, a waitress, some drunk dickhead telling me I look like Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star instead of a woman, another bartender, another taxi, and then do it all again the next day. Shoot me in the fucking head.
I can be not-so-good at patience too, especially if I haven't smoked that day. I have a breaking point, sometimes it overwhelms me and I snap and I cuss and I break something. There are also days when I don't have the energy to react or to correct and I just go along with it, kind of defeated, but really just numb. My hearing turns to whitewash and my eyes glaze over while staring off into the middle distance and I eat the bitter minutes.
On the road not too long ago, we ate at a fucking Applebee’s or some bullshit like that and I noticed that the waitress never used a single pronoun, male or female, when addressing anyone at the table during the entire course of our meal. I was so astounded that I waited until everyone in our party had left and took her aside, tipped her extra, thanked and praised her efforts, and asked if she even realized. She told me that it’s just what she always does. How uncommon.
Fuck a "sir" and fuck a "ma’am."
There are times when it is comical, too. It happens most when it matters least, like when doing meet ‘n’ greets at radio stations. There’s usually some disc jockey who is so used to saying “dude” and “bro” in their regular vernacular and slips one my direction and suddenly becomes self-conscious over whether or not I’m OK with being referred to as such and then gets stuck in this "dude… man… bro… man… dude… man… bro… man" loop.
I wait until the sweat starts to bead on their forehead and then slap my hand onto their back in a friendly way and steer the conversation the fuck away from the hang-up.
(For the record, “dude” seems pretty gender neutral to me at this point, but not so much the “bro” or the “man.”)
I know that at times, especially given my position as a minor celebrity, people are going to refuse to respect my name or pronouns, just to provoke me. This has happened with strangers and this has happened with people I thought were friends.
About a year ago, we played a show in Orlando and an old friend came out to hang. I hadn’t seen them since publicly announcing my transition. They got wasted on our liquor backstage and then we went out to the bars. He’s a bad drunk and by the end of the night was a mess of snot and spit, crying over his problems in a corner. When I realized he was going to be driving home, I stole his keys and took off running with them. He had been respectful up until that point, referring to me with female pronouns and as "Laura" but then the curtain dropped and in his rage, he immediately reverted back to using (screaming) male pronouns and my old name, “Tom.” It's actually an incredible advantage to have—a built-in litmus test letting you know who is worthwhile in your life and who isn't.
I don’t expect everyone to automatically know my name and what pronouns I want used. I’m fine with having to ask for it. People will slip up, especially at first. There will be an adjustment period. That doesn't mean they aren't trying.
But you and I can both tell the difference between someone trying and making a mistake and someone disregarding how you feel and not giving a damn. Once I’ve told someone how I want to be referred to, I expect them to respect it and if not, then I know what to do.
There’s a difference between caring about and being affected by something. I care about how people treat me but I do not want it to substantiate who I am. If someone can't get on board with who you are, I suggest cutting them the fuck out of your life and moving on.
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