Pronouns matter. A few months ago I lost a friend over pronouns. There were other factors, but the breaking point happened when this former friend was complaining about a neighbor of ours, a trans woman. I agreed that it sounded like the woman was being a jerk, but after my former friend told me the story, she called her “it.” I asked her not to dehumanize our neighbor that way, things escalated, and I haven’t talked to her since. I had to change a number of regular routines to avoid my former friend, and the whole experience was very upsetting, but I would do it again in an instant. All for a neighbor who’s never said a word to me. Sometimes pronouns are a big deal.
I mention this now because there’s another case that’s a lot less clear-cut. Last week I went to the vigil for Islan Nettles, who was murdered in Harlem. I’ve been trying to figure out how lives like hers could be saved in the future, but Janet Mock is worried about pronouns, and her post has been going around the net, so I want to respond to it.
My heart dropped each time I watched your face cringe with each misgendering. This is more than semantics, more than a family issue, this is our lives. We all know Islan was beaten to death because she fought hard to be Islan, to be she, to be her.
We don’t all know that. I didn’t know that at the time, so I asked.
— Angus B Grieve-Smith (@grievesmith) August 28, 2013
Jen Richards was angry:
— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) August 28, 2013
Laverne Cox told the Huffington Post:
I know as a trans woman, and I think so many trans women in the audience understand, that when we’re misgendered, that is an act of violence for us. It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.
No. Misgendering can be a whole range of things, from an honest mistake to incitement to violence, but in itself it is not an act of violence. It’s not part of the cause of Islan Nettles’ death. Nettles was not murdered because she was a trans woman. Here’s what the New York Post reported:
Paris Wilson, 20, is said to have made a pass at Nettles and was shocked to learn she was not born a woman, sources said.
Humiliated in front of his crew, Wilson then got into a heated argument with Nettles and the other women, hurling derogatory slurs at the group.
The two eventually came to blows, but Wilson eventually overpowered Nettles, beating her to a pulp, sources said.
The problem with Richards’s argument – and with Mock’s – is that you don’t have to use female pronouns for this to happen to you. It happened to B. Scott in 2009:
I was just called a faggot by Lewis Dix Jr. of the Jamie Foxx @Foxxhole radio show because he saw me and was confused/attracted.
people don’t know what gays like me go thru. he came from across the room to speak to me cuz he was attracted and then I said I was a man.
If this had been at a different kind of party – if it had happened on the corner of 148th and Bradhurst, with a violent enough person – B. Scott might have been killed that night. It wouldn’t have been because he was a trans woman, because Scott called himself a man right then. It wouldn’t have been because of pronouns, because Scott doesn’t reject “he” pronouns.
Scott has recently begun identifying as trans, and a few weeks ago I gave props to Mock for accepting him as such, even when Monica Roberts wouldn’t. But she stopped short of identifying him as a “trans woman.”
My wife pointed out that this happens to non-trans women as well. If a man finds out that a woman he’s attracted to is lesbian or that she not interested in him, or if she responds in the “wrong” way, he can feel humiliated and take it out on her.
There’s a whole range between B. Scott’s 2009 presentation and pronouns and Janet Mock’s current presentation and pronouns. Ultimately, the “right” pronouns are not the matter of faith that Mock makes them out to be. It’s not “trans woman” = “she” pronouns. It’s what the person wants. It’s respectful to use “she” pronouns for Chelsea Manning because Chelsea Manning told her lawyer to tell everyone to use “she” pronouns.
Some people want one set of pronouns, some want another, some don’t care. When I present as a woman I prefer “she” pronouns, but if I were killed in a dress I would expect (and prefer) that my family and most of my friends would use “he” pronouns, because that’s how they’ve known me.
From what I’ve heard it sounds like Nettles’ pronoun preference was closer to Mock’s, but it’s not obvious that she would have objected to anyone using “he” pronouns, especially not her family, and maybe not even a certain well-meaning but clueless Gay Man of African Descent. That’s why I asked for some evidence that she cared.
Here we have someone who wasn’t murdered for pronouns and didn’t necessarily object to her family using “he” pronouns. We have a family who says they’re ready to fight for justice and community leaders who say they want safety for all.
The intent of the pronoun user matters as well. When my former friend referred to our neighbor as “it,” I could hear the hate in her voice. In Delores Nettles we have a woman who has shown she is ready to fight for justice for her child, and we tell her that she’s not doing it right because she said “he was a beautiful woman,” instead of “she was a beautiful woman”?
Those of you who are putting the focus on pronouns: I want to know how you think pronouns are the solution. You’ve already schooled Vaughn Taylor. Suppose that tomorrow you could get everyone on that stage, in that park, to switch to “she” pronouns forever, just the way you want. Suppose you could do that for everyone in Harlem, in New York, in the whole country. What would that accomplish?
Please tell me how “she” pronouns would have saved Islan Nettles’ life, when so many unquestioned “shes” have been killed in Harlem. I’m looking forward to your evidence. I’ve got a Ph.D. in language change, and I’d be happy to help guide your research if you need it.
I completely understand if Mock, Richards and a lot of other trans people were carried away by the anger and frustration they felt at the moment. But if we want to actually solve this problem and save lives in the future, we have to put the pronoun issue in perspective. This is not about pronouns, or about being accepted as women.
This is a danger for transitioned trans women like Nettles, but not for trans women alone. Trans women don’t own Islan Nettles’ murder, they don’t own murders of gender-non-conforming people, and they don’t own murders of women. Transitioned trans women don’t know how to make Harlem safe, and they don’t have the right to dictate other people’s response to this tragic killing.
I hope that Mock and Cox will back off the pronoun agenda and refocus their efforts on building safe, welcoming communities for all women and gender-non-conforming people. And I hope that everyone who’s reblogged and linked Mock’s post will now re-read the New York Post‘s description of the events leading up to the murder of Islan Nettles – or any other detailed account – and try to think of one thing that might have prevented it. And write that up, too. Thanks.