You Can’t Tell a Book By the Cover

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by Asher O’Callaghan
ELM Program Director

“Thank you, ma’am!” For years, I cringed every single time I was called “ma’am”. I appreciated the respect that people were trying to show me. It’s just that I hated being reminded that the rest of the world understood me to be someone I wasn’t. It felt awkward and embarrassing and uncomfortable whenever I ordered a cup of coffee, or ate at a restaurant, or checked out at the grocery store. I’ve spent most of my life being perceived as someone I’m not: “young lady”, “sister”, “ma’am”, “her”, “she”, and “hers”.  

Thankfully, these days I tend to be perceived as a guy. I’m transgender, which for me means that I’m not the gender I was assigned to at birth. It’s been several years now since I transitioned into living as a guy, and most of the time I don’t even notice being called “sir”,  “he”, “him”, or “brother” anymore. I have the privilege of taking it for granted. But I’m reminded every time I see a friend get misgendered in public. And I’ll always remember how affirming and freeing it felt the first time someone asked me if I’d like them to start using he/him/his for me. It felt like – “Finally!! Someone is seeing and recognizing me for who I am.” It’s amazing what a difference words can make.

The moral of the story? You can’t tell a book by the cover. Even though we’re used to operating on assumptions about how people identify based on how they look, our assumptions often turn out to be inaccurate. And giving people the opportunity to ask for how they’d like to be referred to can make a big difference in helping someone feel welcomed, seen, and affirmed.


Have you noticed that ELM has some community practices regarding personal pronouns? Personal pronouns are the words that we use to refer to someone without using their actual name. Words like: she, her, hers, they, them, theirs, he, him, and his. All of ELM’s staff members include pronouns in our email signatures and we ask all new Proclaim Members about what personal pronouns they use. At every meeting of the Board of Directors and every Proclaim Gathering we include personal pronouns in our introductions. We ask everyone so that everyone has an opportunity to self-identify with whatever they feel most comfortable with.

A heads-up on they/them/theirs pronouns: You might be used to seeing the words they/them/theirs being used to indicate the plural – that there is more than one person being referred to. But these can also be used to indicate a singular person. For many people, gender simply doesn’t work as an either/or. And so a number of transgender or gender non-conforming people use the personal pronouns they/them/theirs. These pronouns are used in sentences the same way you might use he/him/his or she/her/hers. For example: Bob prefers they/them/theirs pronouns – Their family was proud to see them receive their seminary diploma.
Quick tips for allies: (want to learn more? click here!)
+ Pay attention to the ways you use highly gendered phrases like “sir”, “ma’am”, “ladies and gentlemen”, “brothers and sisters”. If you’re not actually sure of how the people you’re talking to identify, it’s better not to use these types of phrases.
+ If you don’t know what pronouns someone uses, feel free to ask: let them know what pronouns you prefer and ask them what they prefer.
+ If it doesn’t seem like an appropriate or safe space to ask someone what pronouns they prefer directly, you can always just substitute a person’s actual name or title until you have a chance to ask them. 


Asher & JackAsher O’Callaghan has gotten into the practice of asking others what pronouns they prefer because ELM was the first organization that asked him what pronouns he prefers. It felt awesome to be asked, so he has gotten into the practice of asking others. Asher is transgender and bisexual but is not an expert on all things LGBTQ+. He’s still learning and hopes you’re not intimidated when learning about new language in our community or new ways to be an ally –  It’s a process and we’re all learning together! In his spare time, Asher serves as a loyal staff member to Jack, his cat.

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