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!

What I want from Lyft

Screen captures of Lyft profiles for Angus Grieve-Smith and Andrea Grieve-Smith, with gendered photos

This year, all Pride Month I got Pride-themed Facebook ads from Lyft that say, “All expressions of gender identity are valid.  That’s why we’ve added a range of pronouns to the app #TwoIsTooFew. ” Some of my friends might call this an empty corporate gesture, while others might appreciate it.  I have to be honest: it doesn’t do that much for me.

I don’t have a single set of preferred pronouns.  As a genderfluid person, I want people to use the pronouns that go with what I’m wearing: “she” if I’m wearing a skirt and makeup, “he” if I’m wearing pants and have visible beard stubble.  I also have different first names that go with each gender presentation.

Hey Lyft marketing department: what would be cool for me is the ability to create a profile for each gender presentation: one that says “Andrea” with “she” pronouns and a picture where I’m wearing makeup, and one that says “Angus” with “he” pronouns and a picture with visible stubble.  I’d be fine if they were linked to the same passenger score. Really, I just want the drivers and my fellow passengers to treat me in an appropriate way for whatever gender presentation I’m using, no surprises, no questions.

As you can see in the featured image, I was able to change my profile name and picture twice in less than five minutes, so I appreciate that (Facebook will only let me change my name once every sixty days). I set my pronouns to “Prefer not to say.” But how about storing two names and photos? That way it’s clear I’m not trying to fool anyone.

Actually, that’s what I want from the government too.  For example, I’d like two NYC ID cards, one for each gender presentation. I know someone with two credit cards, one for each gender.  This makes sense for a genderfluid lifestyle, right?

I know a lot of people with genderfluid presentations who would appreciate multiple profiles or cards.  For some reason it doesn’t come up when people are offering app upgrades or new city services. And I think that’s because most of the people who claim to represent “the trans community” are binary transitioners, incapable of imagining that anyone else in the community could have different priorities than their own.

Not because she was a trans woman

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.

Jen Richards was angry:

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.

More on the vigil for Islan Nettles

On Wednesday I went to a vigil in Harlem for Islan Nettles (pronounced [i’lan]). Earlier this month, a young man named Paris Wilson saw Nettles as an attractive woman and flirted with her. He then decided that she was “really a man” and felt humiliated in front of his friends. He attacked her, first verbally and then with his fists, hitting her until he smashed her skull. She died a few days later.

"This is not going to happen again… we're going to get some justice" -Delores Nettles
“this is not going to happen again… we’re going to get some justice”
-Delores Nettles. Image: NY1
It was important for me to go to that vigil. This is a danger that I face, as someone who may sometimes be seen as a man in a dress. As a white person who lives in Queens and goes out in Manhattan, my danger is much lower than those faced by nonwhite people who live and go out in poor neighborhoods, but I deserve better, and people like Islan Nettles deserve as much safety as I do.

I was moved to see Nettles’ mother, sister and uncle stand on stage and demand justice for their loved one, with the silent support of many other family members. I was gratified that politicians like Scott Stringer and Inez Dickens helped to get space in Jackie Robinson Park at such short notice, and then stood with us in the crowd instead of dominating the stage. I was glad to see lesbian and gay religious leaders call out their colleagues for their lack of support. I appreciated seeing nonwhite trans women like Chanel Lopez and Laverne Cox take the stage for justice and safety.

There were aspects of the event that concerned me. The event was run by relatively gender-conforming lesbians and gay men, who might not have been able to completely appreciate the specific dangers faced by black trans women like Nettles. There was an older queen who was presented as a friend of Nettles, but their relationship wasn’t entirely clear to me. Was she Nettles’ gay aunt? Or just an acquaintance?

Overall I came away heartened to see that many people coming together for justice and safety. I’ve occasionally worried, if I were murdered, how many people would care about some trans person? Seeing hundreds of people at this vigil was a bit reassuring.

There were a number of trans people in the audience who were heckling the stage. Some said, “Let the trans people speak!” Some corrected gender references made by people on stage, yelling “she!” when someone said “he,” and “woman!” when someone said “man.” This has become a major issue, and I’ll write about it soon, but I wanted to give some background first.

Remembering M. M. Smith

Thank you for your thoughtful piece on Michael Madison Smith, the eunuch politician and statesman. Over the course of her long life, Smith made so many changes that have improved all our lives today. As the first transgender senator of the United States of America, Smith showed us all that we can succeed without shame. As a key member of the Cherished Leader’s Forward Action Team, he convinced the Leader (MHSRIP) to cancel Jenna Bush’s proposed Great Purge and saved the lives of millions of gay, lesbian and bisexual Citizens. In her private life, he and her spouse, Nicole Stephen Kleinbort, reclaimed the term “eunuch” and founded the Two Spirit Lodge, which continues to protect and enrich the lives of eunuchs throughout the Domain. Truly a remarkable life.



Grand Bullock, Two Spirit Lodge
Raleigh del Mar, Carolina del Norte