Articles / pronouns / Verbal Hygiene

The pronoun conflict

I know a lot of people who have pronouns.  Sometimes these are pronouns they want to hear used to refer to them, but often the pronouns that matter most to them are the ones they don’t want to hear, pronouns that hurt them, that trigger unpleasant feelings.

I do my best to keep track of these, avoid the triggering pronouns and use the affirming pronouns.  I would do this under any circumstances because it’s basic human decency. I also have feelings about pronouns, and I appreciate when people use the ones I find affirming and avoid the ones that make me uncomfortable.

There’s actually a big difference between the way I want to hear pronouns and the uses I described above, and that puts us into potential conflict over pronouns.  Some people only have one (or maybe two) set of pronouns that are always welcome.  For me, there are times when I want to hear “she” pronouns and anything else will make me uncomfortable, and other times when I want to be referred to with “he” pronouns and other pronouns would feel weird.

If you met me, how would you know which pronouns I want you to use at that time?  I try to make it easy for you by giving you lots of gender cues.  If I’m wearing a dress and makeup and speaking with typical women’s language features, that means I want “she” pronouns, but if you see my beard stubble and I’m wearing clothes you would find in the “men’s” section, I want to hear “he” pronouns.

There are other ways of handling pronoun use. I’ve talked with some people who vary their gender presentation like me, but still want to be referred to with only one set of pronouns regardless.  They may wear a dress and makeup one day and wear pants and speak with a deep voice the next, but still want to be referred to with the same pronouns.

Other people may consistently present gender cues that are typically associated with one gender while wanting to hear a pronoun that’s typically used to refer to people of a different gender.  As always, I’m happy to do what I can to help them feel validated and avoid triggering them.

The conflict comes when people have gone beyond simply asking for the pronouns they want to hear and made generalizations about all trans people.  The first rule I heard was to ask all trans people for “their pronouns.”  The obvious flaw there soon became apparent: asking only trans people for their pronouns highlights a person’s transgender expression and may out them to other people.  And as I mentioned, some people may be presenting gender cues typically associated with one pronoun but want to be referred to with different pronouns.

The rule was then modified to asking everyone for their pronouns, whether or not there is anything noticeably unusual about their gender presentation.  Some trans people I know have said that this arrangement is not satisfactory, because they are not out to everyone about their gender, and would prefer to let others assume the pronouns to use based on their gender presentation.  If someone asks them their pronouns directly, they may feel like they are faced with the choice of lying by stating their closeted pronouns or outing themself by stating the pronouns that feel best to them.

For me it doesn’t work to tell people my pronouns, because people almost never ask that question of the same person more than once.  The last thing I want is to have someone use “he” pronouns for me when I’m wearing a dress.  If someone asks me my pronouns when I’m in “guy mode,” and I tell them “he pronouns,” how do I make it clear to them that I don’t want them to use those pronouns if I’m in “gal mode” next time?

I could try to explain about my genderfluid expression, and sometimes people are genuinely interested and we have a valuable discussion.  Other times they’re simply interested in what they need to do to avoid giving offense, and sometimes they seem to be indicating, “I see that you’re doing something unconventional with gender, and I want to support and affirm you.”

The last two speech acts are perfectly valid, but in those cases it feels like it would derail the conversation for me to try to explain that those pronouns would not necessarily be the right ones next time.  I try to just say “my pronouns match what I’m wearing,” but I get some confused looks. So this exhortation to “ask people their pronouns” has made things more difficult for me.

This pronoun conflict is part of a pattern that I’ve observed many times: there’s a group of influential trans people who mistake their circle of friends for the entire population of trans people.  They come up with something that works for them and take to their platforms to demand that their solution be applied universally.  In this case it was “Normalize asking people their pronouns.”

Every time this happens, I hope that the next time people will approach whatever problem they find with more humility and care, release a proposal where more trans people can review it, and wait for feedback.  I’m encouraged that some people seem to be listening to the semi-closeted transitioners, if not to genderfluid people.  I guess we’ll see what happens!

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