Auntie SparkNotes: My Friend Won't Explain His/Her/Their Pronoun Preferences
I have a close friend (let's call them Alex), who I've recently noticed has started to identify as they/them. They have never said anything to me about this pronoun usage, but I've noticed close friends of Alex's use their preferred name and pronouns (Alex isn't their given name). Now, I've known Alex for at least 9 years— we've been friends for 6 of those, and very close friends for 2 of those. Friends of Alex's who have known them for 1 or 2 years have started to refer to them as Alex and use their preferred pronouns. I don't really know what to do about this. I don't want to immediately start calling Alex something new (as far as they know, I still know them as their birth name, though I do use "Alex" when talking about them to close friends) in case they aren't quite comfortable with me knowing something so personal. But the pronoun change is quite obvious and I want to be respectful. I've even tried asking Alex about it, but when I did, they mumbled something incoherent and went on their phone. Since I've found out, I've somehow rarely ever referred to them by any name directly, only saying "you" or making express eye contact to get their attention. It's frustrating to do, and I'm worried that doing this is hurtful. I really don't want to overstep my bounds, but I also want to be a good friend.
I know you do, Sparkler! And not only that, you are a good friend. If there's one thing that's absolutely clear from your letter, it's that you are caring, sensitive, and trying very hard to figure out what your friend wants, so that you can get busy doing it.
Unfortunately, that is pretty much the only thing that's clear from your letter. The rest is a murky and very frustrating mystery—particularly once you get to the part where you asked your very close friend of nearly ten years what was up with all the sudden gender-neutrality and he (or she, or they) blatantly evaded the question.
But that's not your fault. You didn't do anything wrong! And whatever your friend is going through, it's actually not great of him to let you twist in the wind like this instead of just clearing up the confusion. You guys are extremely close; he can't have missed the fact that you're struggling to figure out how to act or what to say. And even if it's awkward or embarrassing or tough to talk about, talking about it is something he really should be doing—especially now that the question of his pronoun preferences has reached elephant-in-the-room proportions.
All of which is to say, I think you should take another shot at having a conversation. Be kind, but be direct: "I can't help noticing that people are using a new nickname and pronouns for you. I don't mean to pry, and I don't need to know the details if you don't want to share them, but I care about you and I'm incredibly worried now about saying the wrong thing just because I don't know what the right one is. Can you just help me out by telling me what you'd like to be called?"
Unless your friend is actively trying to confuse you, you'll come away from this conversation with a useful answer—and Alex will come away knowing that you're there for him (or her! or them! or whatever!) no matter what.
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