Dear Abby: Should we say ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ when gender is unclear?

Mom just wants to be polite to the trans and other non-binary people she meets.

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DEAR ABBY: My 13-year-old son and I recently had a discussion that maybe you can help clarify. We are seeing more about trans people these days, and I’m not sure how to address them.

I don’t want to offend anyone, but when you see a large male wearing pants, shirt, etc. but has pink hair and makeup, should I say “sir” or “madam”? My son says I should ask what pronoun they would like to be referred by, but I am not sure that’s a polite way to find out. I know this is also intertwined with sexual preference, but it still doesn’t mean it is clear-cut. What’s the most polite way to handle this? — CONFUSED IN THE SOUTH

DEAR CONFUSED: You are confusing “preference” with “orientation.” Preference implies that one’s sexuality is a choice rather than something that is wired into our brains. People do not choose to be gay, straight or gender dysphoric. Gender identity is about who you ARE. Sexual orientation is about who you LOVE.

As to how you should refer to or address a large male wearing a shirt and pants while sporting pink hair and full makeup, I agree with your son. It makes sense to ask the person, who, I am sure, is fully aware that their appearance is “different.” Asking the person’s name may also provide a clue.

DEAR ABBY: All my life I have followed orders. I haven’t been able to determine my own path. When I was young, I did what my mother told me. When I was old enough, I joined the Marines, and I did as they said. After I separated from the service, I did what my social group expected. After I had a child, I did what a parent should do to protect and provide. That took the next 35 years of my life.

I am 60 now, retired, and the master of my ship. Without “orders,” I don’t know where to go from here, and I am adrift. They say find a passion, do what makes you happy. But I am not passionate about anything. I like many things but feel no passion.

Being alive makes me truly happy. I love every day God gives me. But what to do with these days eludes me. What shall I do? Can you help me? — FOLLOWING ORDERS IN THE EAST

DEAR FOLLOWING: Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you lived and lived well.” Perhaps if you concentrate more on doing just one thing a day for someone else, you will discover the passion you are looking for. I can’t promise it will work, but it may be a step in the right direction.

DEAR ABBY: I live in New England, where it is very gray during the winter. I was inspired by the bright colors of a local Mexican restaurant to redecorate my house. I feel happier with all the lovely colors, but my neighbors feel I am being culturally insensitive because I am not Mexican. I disagree. I think I’m being appreciative. What do you think? — APPRECIATING IN NEW ENGLAND

DEAR APPRECIATING: I’m glad you asked. I think you have certain neighbors who should mind their own business and keep their criticism to themselves. I also think that you adopted the color scheme you did as a compliment.

Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Contact Dear Abby at or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, CA 90069.

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS and getting along with peers and parents is in “What Every Teen Should Know.” Send your name and mailing address, plus check or money order for $8 (U.S. funds), to: Dear Abby, Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Shipping and handling are included in the price.)

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