I realized I used the wrong pronouns. This is what happened next.

By Kim Anton

We were outside our local ice cream shop, slurping dairy-free deliciousness from waxed paper cups. My 12-year-old daughter wasn’t looking at me and I wondered if she was fully engrossed in her sorbet, or humiliated by her mother’s naïveté? Cruelty? Ignorance? I watched her for a few moments and when I couldn’t take the silence anymore, I said, “I said, him.”

“Yeah,” she said, more to her spoon than to me.

“I should apologize, huh?”

“Yeah. I mean, if you want to,” she said.

I didn’t. I don’t like to be wrong, and it was an honest mistake. I didn’t mean to be offensive.

The subject of my blunder was the person working behind the counter at the shop. We sampled five or six flavors. The patient person was tall, about 6’2” I’d guess, and maybe 200 pounds, with a dark 5 o’clock shadow—and also wearing a dress that could have been made by Betsy Johnson, all ruffles and flow. Two long, blonde pigtails hung perfectly curled from the sides of a baseball hat that went adorably with the dress. The person was kind and made us feel welcome and taken care of in the store. 

As ambiguous as the person’s gender was, I got the message immediately. Which is why I’m not sure why, after our copious tasting exercise, I turned to my daughter and said, “Tell him what you want.”

She said she wanted the vegan chocolate mixed with lemon sorbet. She is dairy intolerant but she didn’t have to say that any more than the person helping us had to say, I’m not comfortable being a man but I’m not transitioning to being a woman either. Both things were clear—the allergy, the ambiguity—the discomfort of each was implied. 

I knew as soon as the word, the pronoun came out of my mouth that I’d made a mistake. So did my daughter. Still, when I said I should apologize, I was hoping she’d say, “Nah, it’s just a mistake. I’m sure it happens all the time. Don’t worry about it, that person has got to be used to it.”

But we both knew it wasn’t that simple.

I’m in my mid 50’s. Growing up, I didn’t encounter men in dresses unless they were comedians doing what would be wildly offensive now. I didn’t go to school with any trans people that I knew of. I’m acquainted with a few kids from my daughter’s school who are living in the gender they feel most comfortable in, not the one they were assigned at birth. It’s new, but it doesn’t matter to me other than knowing my friends and neighbors have children who are living the way they feel best.

I’m all for people being who they are. I find the new Texas Anti-Trans-Gender Directive appalling and dangerous and I know that going back in time is a recipe for more suicide and depression for transgender Americans. I vote for politicians who support and honor these new norms. When I hear offensive language, I speak up and advocate for human rights with my vote and money. I was thinking about these things when I looked again at my daughter for a pass. I told her I would apologize the next time I went in there. 

“Someone else could be working the counter by then,” she said, and it was true. The wound was fresh and needed to be dressed and even though I was middle-aged and the trans people I knew in my youth just sucked it up and carried on—or didn’t—and I never had to think about it before, we both knew what needed to be done. 

“You don’t have to,” she said. “It probably happens all the time. That person’s used to it.”

I looked at her judgy little face and I couldn’t disappoint it. I felt shame and defense well in my gut: How am I supposed to keep up with this stuff? How much don’t I want to go back into that store and tell this person I’m sorry?

“If you go,” my daughter said, “say I’m sorry if I mis-gendered you. Don’t say that I mis-gendered you. That implies you know and you don’t, so just apologize, just in case.” 

There is a right thing to do apparently and my 12-year-old, who is barely out of diapers if you want to know the way I see things, knows what that thing is. Thank goodness someone does. 

I looked at her a moment longer, still hoping she’d recant, and also wondering, Who is this kid? I tell her to be kind, to stand up for those who can’t or don’t and to treat everyone with respect. I never know if it gets through and as for this situation, I don’t remember ever telling my girl to call out a respected person of authority, AKA Mom, when they’ve mis-stepped. My embarrassment at admitting wrongdoing was all of a sudden dwarfed by my maternal pride. In the current climate of Don’t Say ‘Gay’ and trans rights being attacked, it’s good to know there are kids like mine, who are unafraid to set things right. 

“I want to be more like you,” I told her.

“Then you should apologize.”

So I went back into the store to eat some crow. Mercifully, it was empty except for the person.

“Hi,” I said nervously.

“Hi,” came the cheerful, kind reply.

“I, uh, I’m sorry if I mis-gendered you just now.”

There was a blush in the bearded cheeks and a quick wave of a strong hand, “Oh, no, don’t worry about it.” 

“Well, I am sorry,” I said, “I don’t know your pronouns?”

“Oh, um, my pronouns are they/them,” They said with tentative certainty.

“Ok,” I smiled, “Now I know.” My heart was pounding, and as nice as they were, I was still embarrassed so I nodded and headed for the exit.

“Thank you so much,” they called after me. 

I turned to smile again, “Of course,” I said. I didn’t feel anymore as if I would rather have my gums scraped than apologize.

“It means a lot. You have no idea. It means a lot,” they said.

I went back outside to my kid, where I proudly told her the turn of events. 

“It’s good that you did that, Mom. It’s good.”

“Yeah,” I told her, “thanks for making me. Next time, I’ll just ask them their name.”

Kim Anton is a mother of two living in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California. She writes about the joys and turbulence of family in the 21st Century. You can find her on Instagram @kimranton, and twitter @kimkimanton.

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