Dear Prudence

Terms of Disendearment

Prudie advises a transgender woman whose family won’t call her by her chosen name.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Q. Misgendering in the family: I’m a young trans woman who has recently come out to some of my extended family. This winter, I came out to some of the family members I’m close to first, including a grandma and an aunt in the city I go to college in. They were not completely opposed but were surprised and had some doubts about it.

Since then, I’ve been working on socially transitioning. Recently, while spending some time at her house, my grandma misgendered me repeatedly by using masculine endearments and passive-aggressive nicknames. I tried to correct her, saying that I didn’t mean to be rude and was just trying to help her remember. I kept correcting her that day and got no response. Otherwise, she was perfectly nice. Then when I drove my grandma and aunt to the airport, they both misgendered me without correcting themselves.

I haven’t had a talk with them since then. How do you think I should go about it? For what it is worth, I think my grandma may have been purposely misgendering me for only part of the time. I feel like they could come around in several years, but I’m really hurt now. And if I bring it up, both will profess their innocence, like they do when they treat my mom horribly. They’ve treated my mom better these last few years, but still—should I give up on these toxic people? They’ve supported more distantly related or unrelated trans people—just not me.

A: I think a better way of looking at this is not to view yourself as giving up on your relatives but offering them an opportunity to clear a (fairly low!) bar in order to maintain a relationship with you. You don’t have to consign them to the dustbin of your past, but you can make it very clear that you expect a good-faith effort to remember your name and pronouns. Some people will try to convince you this is an exhausting and difficult request—“But I’m so used to [your old name]! It’s so hard to keep pronouns straight!” That simply isn’t true. You’re a woman; you go by she and her. That’s hardly taxing.

It’s understandable, particularly at first, if they were genuinely doing their best to support you and made an occasional slip, but this was neither occasional nor unintentional; you politely corrected them, and they neither acknowledged their mistakes nor tried to amend them. The fact that your relatives have a history of mistreating your mother, while pretending not to notice their own behavior, makes me less than optimistic that they’re doing their level best. I think it’s very reasonable for you to let them know that one of the conditions of your spending time together is that they refer to you by your actual name and don’t intentionally misgender you. If they do it again, offer a gentle correction; if they repeat the error, you can gently say, “I’ve asked you not to refer to me by that name/as that gender. I’m going to go now.” You don’t have to close the door on them entirely, particularly since you think that on some level they possess something of a desire to do right by you, but you also don’t have to put up with years of accidentally-on-purpose misgendering until they finally deem you worthy of being referred to as a woman.

Q. Flaky fertile friend: I have a friend whom I was extremely close with up until about a year ago. We would text frequently and saw each other two to three times a week. Then, she had a baby. I enjoy spending time with her and the baby, but her communications have gotten extremely flaky: We’ll talk about having brunch on Saturdays, and then I text Friday morning to make sure that we’re “on” and hear absolutely nothing from her. Then, maybe I send a follow-up Saturday morning, and it’s all apologies and excuses. I have many other friends with babies (some with two or three) who seem to be capable of responding and communicating. How can I either push this friend to respond in a timely manner so I’m not on hold for plans or otherwise figure out if her silences mean more than a busy baby?

A: She had a baby a year ago! I think odds are very good that the only reason she has gotten flaky is that she is busy with her extremely new baby. Congratulations on your other friends with multiple babies who are also excellent at returning texts in a timely fashion, but I’ve got to side with your friend here, if only a bit. If you otherwise enjoy her company, consider offering to come by with pastries and coffee instead of asking her out to brunch. If she continues to flake no matter how much you try to accommodate her, then by all means back off, but I think anyone in the first year of motherhood should be granted a reasonable amount of slack.

Q. Family vacation without Dad?: My husband has been in a terrible mental state recently with depression and anxiety. When I tried to get him into discussions with our children to plan our summer vacation, he resisted. Finally he told me to make plans for what we wanted to do, and then he’d decide if he wanted to join us. It turns out that he doesn’t like what we planned and has decided not to go. The kids and I feel bad about leaving him at home, but this is his decision. Are we wrong to go on vacation without him?

A: You’re not wrong to take a vacation without your husband, but I’m not sure what, if anything, you’ve done in the way of supporting him during this bout of depression aside from plan a trip. I don’t want to assume the worst just because of a lack of details in your letter. It’s entirely possible you’ve helped him navigate through the list of potential mental health resources (a doctor, a therapist, alternate treatments, medication if necessary, and so on) and are actively supporting him through this particular crisis. If that’s the case, and your husband says he truly wants you and the kids to get away for a few weeks but just isn’t up to joining you right now, then you should by all means go, check in with him regularly, and have a great time.

If, however, you’ve left him mostly to his own devices during this “terrible mental state” and have primarily focused on getting away from your husband during his depressive episode, I think you should reconsider. Depression is often characterized by a lack of energy and difficulty making even minor decisions, and if your husband isn’t being treated by a medical professional, this reluctance to join you and your children should alert you to the seriousness of his condition. If your husband’s anxiety and depression are severe, he likely hasn’t decided he “doesn’t like” what you’ve planned so much as he finds himself incapable of feeling enthusiasm about any of the things he once cared about. If any part of you thinks your husband might consider harming himself while you’re out of town, I think you should err on the side of caution, stay home, and support your husband as he gets help.

Q. Houseguest/roommate problems: My roommate and I have a houseguest who doesn’t pay rent or have a bedroom to stay in (she sleeps on our couch). She plans to stay with us as long as her visa allows, which may be till September. I just finished a doctoral thesis and am struggling to pay the bills on this apartment, whereas she stays rent-free. She is a longtime friend of both my roommate and me, and we both care for her, but we are growing increasingly irritated by her presumptuousness. She throws things out without asking, criticizes the way we organize things, complains about spending money on groceries, and generally gets in the way.

My lease is up in July, and I would renew if not for this houseguest. My roommate can’t afford to move and would have to ask her to leave if I did, since an incoming person wouldn’t put up with someone permanently camped out in the living room. If I stay, the houseguest stays. I’m not sure what to do here. My roommate wants to keep living with me, because she doesn’t want to look for a new person, and we enjoy living together. I don’t want to screw over my roommate, but I also don’t want to continue to live like this, and it’s been only a month since the houseguest arrived. And before you ask: No, she never asked if she could stay or even if she could come in the first place—she just assumed she could and was even taken aback that there wasn’t a room for her. What do you suggest?

A: Tell her to start paying rent or move out. Then actually see to it that she pays you rent or moves out. This is a problem caused entirely by your reluctance to set a very reasonable boundary. The only way out is to speak up. In the future, if someone announces she is moving in with you, remember that as uncomfortable as it may feel in the moment, you have the right to tell her no. Even if she is impolite in her announcement, you are not bound to take someone in just because she “forgot” to ask for permission. Be bold!

Q. Not having a baby right now, thank you very much: I’m 33 and have a home, a decent job, and a great partner. We’ve put off having kids for a number of reasons—the No. 1 reason being that my partner has cancer, which isn’t curable, only manageable. My niece (who’s 31) is getting ready to have her first child in a few months. This means that all of the people around me are looking to me and asking (sometimes often) why I’m not having children or when I will have children. I’ve tried to ignore them, respond that this is none of their business, etc., but nothing works. Any suggestions?

A: “My partner has cancer, so we’re rather busy at the moment” is certainly a showstopper. If you are (understandably) reluctant to bring up your partner’s health to every busybody who asks after your reproductive planning, a simple “We’re not,” followed by “We don’t want any right now” should do the trick, remembering always that you carry an ace in your back pocket.

Q. Regretful snoop: My long-term boyfriend and I are moving in together in two days. In the past, we’ve had issues with telling others about our relationship issues and arguments, and we have agreed to not do so anymore. I’m aware this was a terrible decision (one I regret greatly), but he left his Facebook logged in on my phone, and I looked at his messages with a mutual friend. While we were arguing two weeks ago, he distorted the truth, made me seem like a horrible person, listed everything he hated about me, and asked for help dumping me. Now, things are going way better with us, and we’re excited to move in together, but—should I confront him about this? He broke a promise, and I feel betrayed by both of them, but I betrayed his trust (despite him often saying he wouldn’t care if I saw his messages because he “has nothing to hide”). Would I be better off talking to him about it or trying to forget it happened?

A: I think we have all been guilty of casting ourselves as pure victims when describing fights with our partners to sympathetic friends. (And again: Snooping never brings to light anything fun. Give yourself the gift of not snooping today!) That said, if your boyfriend was recently considering ending your relationship seriously enough to ask friends for help, I think it merits a conversation. I don’t know that you and your boyfriend ought to stay together, given all the details you’ve shared here. You two don’t trust each other, you fight often, you gossip about each other to mutual friends, you go through one another’s phones, and things have only been going “way better” for about two weeks. It might be better to end things now before your stuff gets all jumbled up together.

Q. Old love: I am a young man who just finished my first year of college. I really liked this girl in sophomore year of high school. We have shared many memories together, even though we have never dated. We both liked each other to an extent. We have not spoken to each other since high school, mostly because of me. I asked her to prom, and she lied and said she already had a date. Furious, I decided to stop talking to her. It has been more than a year now, and I want to give her one more chance because I want to believe that she has changed and will give me the time of day. Should I contact her and try to get one more chance with her or just try to forget about her?

A: I think you should leave this poor girl alone. She told a little white lie to spare your feelings when she turned you down, and you decided to stop speaking to her entirely. I think she’s better off without you.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Stay out of each other’s phones.

Click here to read Part 1 of this week’s chat.

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