Ask a Helping Han #6: Privacy and Pronouns During Gender Transition

Dear Han,

Just yesterday, my close AMAB friend, "S", told our friend group that they were transitioning to female. S is in the early stages of their transition and has told us that we can still use he-series pronouns or they-series pronouns as well as their birth name, but will eventually be switching to she-series pronouns and a different name when they start hormonal therapy. "S" is currently only out to some friends and their girlfriend, so we're keeping this information on the DL for now.

I am 100% supportive of S's transition and want to do my best to properly gender them going forward. I don't think this will be a problem most of the time, but I am not sure how to address S in the third person. When I'm talking about S to people they may not be out to, or when I'm talking to people who don't know S personallylike when I'm on the phone with my momhow should I gender them? Is it better to stick to their assigned gender so I do not accidentally out them or to use they-series pronouns that may raise some eyebrows but would properly gender S? Part of me just thinks "Oh use they-series, no one will notice and it's accurate to S's identity", but they other part of me thinks "People will immediately pick up on this pronoun switch and realize S is transitioning!".  Am I just WAY overthinking this and is their a simple answer?

This is not the first time this has been a question of mineam I just missing a simple solution here?

Thanks, Han!


I Don't Want to Misgender You OR Out You!


Dear IDWTMYOOY (WOW that’s an acronym!),

You rock for wanting to both respect S’s identity and also their privacy! I’m going to give you a really short answer here: since S has said that either “he” or “they” series pronouns are fine for the moment, continue to use “he” series with people who you aren’t sure are in the loop. As long as S has given you permission to do so, this is 100% okay! When S is ready to use “she” series pronouns, they’ll let you know— but for now, it’s perfectly okay to take the path of least resistance. It’s not unsupportive to use pronouns that S has explicitly stated are fine for the time being. You are not closeting them by respecting their preferences.

General rule: use whatever pronouns someone asks you to use to their face when you are referring to them in the third person, unless they explicitly ask you to do otherwise. If presented with options, err on the side of not outing someone. Sending you hugs for being a solid ally, and thank you for a question with a reasonably straightforward answer!




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Ask a Helping Han #5: Bowing Out of Weight Loss Bullying

Dear Han,

I’m a cis woman married to an amazing woman. She has struggled with mental illness during the course of our relationship and marriage, and takes antidepressants to help. These have caused her to gain weight. I love her no matter what she looks like, but her body image has been a big source of her struggles over the years. In her previous relationship, her ex would tell her she had gained weight and intentionally make her jealous by praising attractive women who didn’t look like her. She’s asking me to do the same for her as a motivation to help her lose weight. Han, I’m incredibly uncomfortable emotionally abusing my wife as motivation. I’ve expressed this to her and made it clear I’m happy to support her weight loss endeavors in a healthy way, but she seems upset by this. How can I help?


Trying to be a loving wife


Dear Loving Wife,

Oof, this is a really tough situation. I absolutely understand your discomfort with being purposely abusive to your wife to “help” her with her weight loss. I completely understand her urge to take the weight back off—while I’m very vocal in my hatred of the "skinny-equals-morally-superior" narrative that our culture is so deeply imbued with, I also know how hard it can be to watch your body change in ways that make you feel uncomfortable in your skin. This is especially rough when these changes are the results of medical treatments that are supposed to be making you *better* in some way.

As a personal anecdote, I put on a significant amount of weight my freshman year of college due to a combination of going on birth control and taking a mental med that inhibited my ability to feel full. I still remember screaming when I found out about it (I was… not great at reading up on potential side effects) something along the lines of “WHO THE FUCK THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA TO PUT A DEPRESSED TEENAGER WITH BAD SELF ESTEEM ON A MEDICATION THAT WOULD MAKE THEM FAT?!” But I digress.

I 100% believe that you should stick to your guns on not trying to make your wife feel bad about herself in order to support her weight loss. I recommend going back to her and seeing if she’s willing to have a conversation with you about it again. “Hey, I know that this is a thing that has worked for you in the past, but I just really can’t bring myself to treat you in a way that I don’t think is ethical just to help you lose weight. I’m 100% on board to help you put together healthy meal plans, cook together, go exercise together, or just hold you accountable when you make those plans for yourself—but I’m not going to compare you to other people or tell you I don’t love the way you look.” If your wife really needs someone to bully her into losing weight, she can always sign up for a boot camp-style fitness class—those people will yell at you plenty, and you can pay them for it!

I hope that with some conversation, your wife will understand that it’s unfair for her to ask you to do something that makes you profoundly uncomfortable to support her weight loss goals. You can stock up on healthy recipes, try to keep junk food out of your house, and suggest physical activities to do together instead of drinking or Netflix binging if you want to be able to help in a productive way. But just because her ex was “willing” to be mean to her to make her work harder, that does not mean you are obligated to participate. There are ways to be supportive other than negging, and hopefully your wife will realize that.




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Ask a Helping Han #4: The Improv Conundrum

Dear Han,

I have a background in theatre.  During the height of my acting activities in college, I started to worry that I was annoying my non-theatre friends by asking them to see me in show after show.  I also didn't want to risk disappointment if my good friends didn't show up.  I eventually stopped asking them to come.

Since college, I have gotten a "day job" and stayed involved in theatre doing behind-the-scenes work.  Two years ago, I joined an improv team and have really been enjoying it.  It satisfies my need to perform at a time when I don't have the time to commit to attending nightly rehearsals or memorizing a script.

We perform for the public several times a year.  Of course, we are trying to build our audience.  We advertise shows through Facebook, flyers, and some other venues, but our audience is still small.  I try to help by inviting my local friends to the Facebook event and telling them about the next show when I see them in person.  Now, the old worry is starting to creep back that I am annoying them by asking them to see the show.  I am aware that improv is the butt of many jokes.  For some people, "Can you come to my improv show?" is as welcome an invitation as "Can you come to my multi-level marketing scheme party?"  I wouldn't expect people to come to EVERY show.  Hopefully, they would tell friends and family about it and we'd get a greater following through word-of-mouth.  But of course, I love performing and want people to see me doing something I'm good at.

How do I handle asking friends to come to a performance, and letting them know it would make me happy to see them there, when that performance is a recurring event?  How do I do this without pestering them?


185 Advice Letters Walk Into A Bar . . .

Dear 185,

Congratulations on getting involved in improv! It sounds like it’s been a very positive experience for you.

Living in New York City, I have a lot of friends involved in various artistic endeavors that may or may not be interesting to the larger public. So many facebook invitations come in to see someone’s comedy act or improv show or a capella group or whatever that they largely become white noise. I might feel a twinge of guilt as I hit “ignore” on the invitation, but I justify it to myself by thinking “well, if they’ve invited enough people that it says ‘ignore’ instead of ‘can’t go’ on the RSVP, they probably just invited everyone they know—so they won’t notice if I’m there or not.” There have been, however, a handful of times that I’ve pulled my homebody, introvert self together enough to venture out and See A Thing. Invariably, this has happened because someone reached out to me personally to say “hey, I’m doing A Thing and I think you would really enjoy it. It would mean a lot to me if you came!”

You say you worry about annoying people, and it’s super considerate of you to take that into account. However, at four shows per year, I think you’re probably fine—I’ve blocked people from being able to send me event invites on Facebook all of twice, and it was because they were sending multiple invitations weekly to everyone they knew, and we weren’t close. There’s a big difference between inviting your entire social network to weekly events and inviting a few people who you think would actually be interested to something every few months. That said, I highly recommend the personal approach. It doesn’t have to be face-to-face; a Facebook message or email or text is totally acceptable.

Additionally, I encourage you to really give thought to who you invite: do you have friends that are into comedy or regularly go to performing arts/theater events? They’re a likelier bet than someone who’s heretofore shown no interest in those kinds of things. Are there people who it would actually mean a lot to you to have there, versus casual acquaintances? Stick with them. Also, pay attention to people’s cues—if you invite them a few times and they’re unresponsive, let it drop. Not everyone’s going to be up for it, and you’ll save yourself a lot of hurt feelings if you don’t keep inviting people who are going to say no.

Look, I’m going to be straight with you—your improv troupe is unlikely to develop a following of its own. Most people who go to improv shows do so because they either a) know someone in the cast, or b) are also improv performers. There are a handful of exceptions, but they’re generally the bigger deal, longer standing troupes that are considered feeders into the SNLs of the world: Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City, etc. This is disappointing, but it’s also freeing—you don’t have to try to build a long term audience for your group, just invite the people who you’d truly love to have see you perform, and who you think would have a good time.

Best of luck to you!




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Ask a Helping Han #3: Creative Imposter Syndrome

Dear Han,

Recently, I started a short and casual online writing programme designed to build people's confidence and get them writing creatively again. It's only been a few days, but it's been a great experience so far, and my initial terror is starting to give way to something a bit more like nervous excitement.

The problem is that I feel like such a fraud.

I'm not in a creative profession. When I was in school and university, I leaned pretty heavily to the humanities but I shifted direction in my professional life and went into accounting and management. I now work in the finance team of a large international charity. I like my job, but other than some casual bits of amateur dramatics, I haven't felt able to pursue creative interests in many years.

Something I'm particularly struggling with is that I write in a few very different styles. I might write something silly and cheerful about a witch with a taste for sparkly rainbow hats one day, and the next day go for something firmly on the bleaker side of the weird-spectrum. It feels really inconsistent, and I worry that it's not how you're supposed to do things.

I'm just a dabbler, so ultimately it doesn't really matter, but I don't want to stop writing. It is, in many ways, such a joy to start writing againbut I keep second-guessing myself, and I can see myself talking myself out of it entirely. Again.

How can I start to build and believe in my own creativity? How do I stop feeling like a fraud for doing any creative writing at all, even when it's just for myself?


Writer or Fraudster? 


Dear Writer,

My dear, you have come to the right place on this one! As a former art major turned nonprofit administrative employee, I have also stumbled down the road from creative to practical on my educational and career path. The good news is, you are not in any way a fraud! You don’t have to have a creative job to deserve to be creative—we all need to pay the bills, and in any case, some of us aren’t temperamentally suited to the chaotic nature of creative fields. Despite what the broader cultural narrative may tell you, there is no “correct” way to pursue your creative impulses—especially if you’re doing them for your own enjoyment, and not as a potential way of supporting yourself.

The arts—whether visual, musical, performing, or written—provide us value in so many ways. Some of them are readily consumable by the general public, and provide their audiences with new ways of seeing, feeling, or thinking. Some exist to push boundaries. Some exist to create beauty in the world. Some of them we make just for ourselves, to exercise those parts of our imaginations that need a good stretch every once in awhile. You don’t have to be writing the next great American (or British or German or whatever) novel to be allowed to write. You just have to enjoy writing.

As for committing to a style, I, for one, find it highly overrated. In academic programs, you’re often pushed to find your “true” voice or style in your art. I firmly believe that in art, as in life, we contain multitudes. I myself am a writer, an artist, a musician, a baker, and a craft enthusiast. I’ve written humor and heartache, personal essays and historical fiction. I’ve painted in oils and in watercolor everything from portraits to landscapes to abstractions. I’ve played piano and French horn, and I’ve sung in show choirs and classical ensembles. I knit, I draw, I sculpt. I do none of these things with any exceptional level of talent—most of them I’d say I am competent at, at best. Generally speaking, I complete about 7% of the projects I start (this figure is not in any way mathematically derived), and never in a timely manner. Once upon a time, this got me down—could I really claim to be an artist or writer when I never finished a painting or a story? Ultimately though, I realized that it didn’t matter. I wasn’t creating for anyone else; I was doing it because I enjoyed doing it. Because I had an idea in my head that was just itching to materialize. Most of the time, once I’d let it out, I was done with it; it wasn’t about the finished product, it was about the process.

Keep going to your workshop. Enjoy the hell out of your writing. Follow whatever thread strikes your fancy, see where it leads you, and if you get bored with it, let it go and find another one. There is no correct way to create. You don’t have to earn the right to do it. Keep on keeping on, and give zero fucks what anyone else may think about it. Maybe you will write a great novel some day, or maybe you’ll just end up with a notebook full of beautiful vignettes that it brought you joy to write. Do this for you, because you love doing it. If you stop loving it, stop doing it. But it’s your right to create as much as you want to for as long as it makes you happy.



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Ask a Helping Han #2: How to Handle Conflicting Mental Health Needs

Dear Han,

This year, my best friend of 13 years showed up to a party at my house a complete mess, with visible self-harm wounds. She lives across the country, and was in town for this event. I was shocked, as I haven't seen self-harm wounds on her before. She then got pretty drunk and proceeded to berate me for being a bad friend, not noticing how depressed she was, and not committing to our friendship the way she wanted. I was, of course, appalled. Long story short, we have since become much closer; I helped her find a therapist, talked to her about my own mental illness, and apologized for not seeing how much she was hurting. Our relationship has greatly improved since then, and we have both apologized for perceived wrongs. She is now in therapy and on medication and is doing better than I have seen her in years. That being said, she is still in a very delicate place emotionally. I know how this feels, so I want to proceed carefully.

Here’s the thing: she is constantly late. Like. Very late. She's basically nocturnal, and doesn't realize that people cannot always work around this schedule when she is in town. This holiday season, she kept me waiting for an hour and a half after our meeting time, because she "just couldn't get moving after she woke up" (at 3 pm; we were meant to meet at 6:30 pm). The following day she was supposed to come to my home, and was four hours later than planned because she overslept. Mind you, she did not set an alarm to make sure she woke up on timeand this was a behavior she had before she was depressed. To complicate matters, lateness is very emotionally triggering for me. it sends my anxiety rocketing and can lead to full panic attacks. I feel like I cannot confront her about this, because her mental health is so delicate right now, and her major criticism of me is that I am "mean" to her when things don't go my way; a specific example of meanness she has brought up is when I've snapped at her for doing things like being four hours late. Should I try and talk to her about this? She has anxiety about leaving her house and her comfort space, but I have anxiety about not sticking to plans. How can we balance our respective terrible brains?


Anxious and Off Balance


Dear Anxious,

Ahhh, the constant excitement of trying to balance various people’s mental illnesses! I do think this is worth addressing with your friend, and I actually think you can be pretty straightforward. The key is discussing it not at a time when it has just happened and you’re upset about it, but instead at a time when you’re calm and can bring it up in a way that hopefully won’t be interpreted as “mean.” Potential script:

“Hey friend, can I talk to you about something? I’ve been hesitant to bring this up because I don’t want to upset you, but I feel like discussing it is better than just silently stewing. The past few times we’ve had plans, you’ve been anywhere from an hour to four hours late. I know that when you’re having a rough time, you struggle with getting yourself going, and I understand that—but the thing is, it makes me incredibly anxious when things don’t happen on the schedule they’re supposed to; sometimes it even triggers panic attacks. If we make plans to hang out at a certain time, I’d really like it if you’d make an effort to actually be there when we agreed on. Is that something you can work on? I love spending time with you, but it really stresses me out when I have to spend hours sitting around wondering if you’re going to show up or not.”

If she tries again to frame this as you “getting your own way,” it’s extremely fair to push back—the plans that you are making are being decided by both of you, so if she wants to make the plans for later in the day, she needs to say so up front. If this were up to, say, half an hour late, I would tell you to cut her some slack—but hours late is extremely disrespectful of you and your time, and it’s okay to say so.

I also want to note that just because your friend is struggling doesn’t mean that you have to let her do whatever she wants. Between her being mad at you for not noticing her depression (that she didn’t tell you about) while she lived across the country and her calling you mean for communicating your needs to her, she sounds like she has pretty unreasonable and one-sided expectations of your friendship. I’d urge you to consider just how much catering to her you’re willing to do. It sounds like you’ve jumped through hoops to help her get the help she needs, and rather than be appreciative, she’s mad that you would have any expectations of her at all. Maybe take some time to think about whether this friendship is really working for you before you keep going out of your way to keep her mental health stable at the expense of your own.



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Ask a Helping Han #1: Dealing with Trump Supporting Parents

Dear Han,

I’ve been mulling over an issue I’ve had with my family for over a year now, and I still don’t know how to proceed. I have three sisters (one of whom is very similar to myself, ideologically, while the other two are in line with my parents) and my parents. In a specific context, my parents are wonderful people. They are kind, generous, and loving—but in a classic Christian conservative kind of way (e.g. they give to their church to help the poor, but don’t like that the government takes taxes to support social programs). Growing up, the rule was always “don’t talk about politics” for two reasons: 1) it was assumed that everyone was in agreement and 2) it was assumed that “it’s just politics” and therefore wasn’t very important. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve swung way to the left politically and have become about as liberal as it’s possible to be. This didn’t really come up with my family until 2016. My sister and I asked my parents not to vote for Trump, but they did. It devastated meI thought my parents were good enough people to realize how terrible he was, but they’ve fallen for every thing Fox News tells them. I used to speak to my mom every week to catch up on family stuff; I’ve only spoken to them 3-4 times total since the election. I don’t know what to do. I dream (literally, I have had several dreams along these lines) of reconciling with them, of them understanding what hurt they’ve caused…but I don’t know how to get there from here. Going back to how it was (i.e. not discussing politics) is possible, but feels like a compromise of my values. Never speaking to them again is possible but hurts to contemplate. Any advice for a middle ground?


Heldraga the Unseen


Dear Heldraga,

Unfortunately, you are far from alone in this conundrum. A lot of people have been having to reckon with the toxic politics of people they love over the past year. The ideological divide in our country has probably never been wider or harder to ignore. For a long time, people were able to hide their conservative or liberal leanings behind the idea of “big government versus small government”but this is no longer what our two main political parties stand for. The Republicans don’t want small government, they want (and are making blatant grabs for) all of the money, all of the power, and control over the choices of others based on their pseudo-religious, puritanical views of how people should livewhich are based less on religion, and more on trying to keep old rich white men in control. This makes conversations about politics both easier and harder to haveon the one hand, it’s easier to make a case for good versus evil, but on the other hand, the arguments are so much more rooted in our core sense of selves that it’s impossible for them not to get emotionaland everyone loves to dismiss an emotional argument.

Have you had a conversation with your parents about whether they still support Trump? I feel like this might be a good place to start. I think it’s possible to frame your conversation with them around the things that he’s done that are antithetical to the cores of Christian beliefs, which might help them understand where you’re coming from. Potential script incoming:

“Hi Mom. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t been calling as much this year. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been really struggling to reconcile the wonderful people that I know you and Dad are with your support for our current president. So much of what he’s done over this past year has gone against the way you raised meto be a kind, generous person who takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves. This administration has done so much harm alreadybreaking up families, taking healthcare away from childrenthat it hurts me to think that you would condone this. I wanted to talk to you to hear your thoughts on whether you still support him, and why you think it’s okay for him to treat people this way. I know this is an upsetting conversation to haveit’s really hard for me, too. I love you so much, but I’m scared for what will happen to our country if good people like you are willing to look the other way while our president leaves vulnerable people to die. Can you help me understand?”

I can’t guarantee that this conversation will lead to anything positiveyou may end up with very affronted parents. It’s possible that they won’t talk to you for awhile. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll give them something to think about. I think that the people we love, who we know to be good people at their core, are the ones we need to try the hardest to sway in their beliefs if we ever want to swing our country back away from where it’s headed. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d rather try and fail than not try at all.



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