Think about how many times a day you use pronouns. How many times you say something like, “When will he be here?” or “Do you know her?” or “Give the plate to him” or “He’s late” or “Her coat is over here.” Now, imagine that every single pronoun is a pinprick of hurt, a reminder that — on a very basic level — who you are doesn’t correspond with who people think you are.
For many, many trans and genderqueer people, as well as other gender-variant people, pronouns can be a source of frustration and anxiety, hurt and unease. Being referred to by the wrong pronoun — particularly by family and friends who should know better — can feel as though people don’t really respect their genders. It sends the message that the person can’t escape the gender they were assigned at birth.
“Mr.” or “Ms.,” “ma’am” or “sir,” “ladies” or “gentlemen” — there are so many everyday ways that people can linguistically be miscategorized and made to feel invisible. Sometimes, it’s because of being grouped with the girls instead of the guys (or the guys instead of the girls); sometimes, it’s because neither grouping feels comfortable.
Not all people prefer gendered pronouns; not all people want to be referred to in other gendered ways (“ladies,” “sir,” “girlfriend” and the like). Issues arise because there aren’t many widely recognized gender-neutral options in terms of pronouns and appellations. What is there, for example, other than “Mr.” and “Ms.”?
There are a few more options when it comes to gender-neutral pronouns. People have been searching for an English, gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun for over one hundred years (admittedly, mostly to avoid the awkward “he or she,” not in order to include non-binarily gendered people), although none of them have really been adopted into mainstream usage. Within trans and genderqueer communities (written, online, and in person), I’ve noticed two particular sets of gender-neutral pronouns: ze/hir and they/them/their (used similarly to she/her and he/him/his, respectively).
Here is one of my favorite posts on gender-neutral pronouns, written by one of my very favorite Chicago people — the charming, articulate, and just generally amazing Kate Sosin — and posted on his blog, The New Gender. Go read it — it’s lays everything out so nicely that there’s really no point in me trying to rehash it here.
Their post on pronouns in general is also excellent. While I totally agree with them on everything they say in the post (particularly about asking what people’s preferred pronouns are and not outing them in front of other people), the last two are so key that I want to repeat them here: Correct others who mis-pronoun people and Don’t act like someone’s identity is work for you. Absolutely. As usual, Kate has gotten things so spot on.
When you know someone has just been mis-pronouned (for example, you know that your transmasculinely-identified friend exclusively uses masculine pronouns, and he was just called “she”), it’s generally awkward. For the friend in question, it may be more than awkward. If you know that the friend would prefer a different pronoun in that context (and that’s important — don’t, for instance, out someone to their grandmother by telling her that her “granddaughter” actually wants to be called “he” if she didn’t already know that), you can politely correct the person who misspoke. I’m not going to make blanket statements for all people, but your friend may be appreciative of the brief reprieve from having to constantly correct people and potentially make himself vulnerable. If nothing, allies are nice.
And secondly, it’s true that changing the pronouns you use for someone you know, or using pronouns that aren’t the ones you’d expected that someone would use, is difficult. It can be frustrating to remember and embarrassing to mess up. That’s totally understandable, and I feel that way, too, sometimes. That said, it’s really important to not take out that frustration or confusion on the person in question. And just imagine — you may only have this heightened sense of gendered pronoun awareness occasionally, but the person you mis-pronouned probably has to deal with it all the freaking time. That’s a lot.
So, basically, ask people what their preferred pronoun is. Respect that, even if it’s not what you expected it to be (or if you don’t think they look “like a boy” or “like a girl”). Go check out K.Sosin’s The New Gender because it’s awesome (and he’s offered to let me guest blog if I feel like doing so sometime, which is really cool). Also, I really love Dean Spade’s essay “Once More. . . With Feeling” (published in Morty Diamond’s From the Inside Out but can also be found at Spade’s zine Make), which deals with pronouns, pronoun enforcement, and the need to disrupt the “oppressive processes that fix gender as real, immutable, and determinative of one’s station in life.”
And, hey, give a thought to this whole gendered linguistic thing as a whole. Do you honestly have a personal investment in which pronouns other people use? Rethink greeting groups of (presumed) women as “ladies,” making sweeping statements about “us guys” or “we women,” or otherwise adding unnecessarily gendered terms into conversations, particularly when you aren’t positive that everyone wants to be included by that term.
Keep in mind that, although pronouns can be incredibly significant and have a huge impact on people, pronouns are in many ways just words. Sometimes people play with which pronouns they prefer. Some have no pronoun preferences. Some people’s preferences change depending on how they’re feeling. And that’s all fine. We don’t need to have some ever-fixed preference for pronouns in order for the desire for a certain pronoun to be real. Sometimes pronouns are indicative of gender identity; sometimes pronouns are a political statement. Sometimes pronouns are a chance to explore new ways of being; sometimes pronouns are simply expedient ways of referring to people.
What’re your preferred pronouns?