Is It Wrong To Reject Someone’s Preferred Gender Pronouns?

With Caitlyn Jenner’s recent transition all over the news, a lot of people are thinking and talking about trans issues for the first time. The overall response seems positive to me–many people are acknowledging Caitlyn Jenner’s courage and honesty. At the same time, others are outraged and wish to express their hostility to trans people by refusing to use Caitlyn’s name and gender pronouns.

I had all this on my mind when I saw the following query pop up in the search terms (edited to correct spelling):

is it oppressive not to use someone’s preferred gender pronoun?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “not to use.” I would say it is rude, mean and very disrespectful to refuse to use someone’s gender pronouns. But it is totally understandable to accidentally screw up someone’s pronouns.

So, genuine mistakes are one matter. Friends and family members deserve patience when someone changes their gender pronouns. This shift takes time and we all slip up now and again. I’m a trans man and I have messed up other people’s pronouns plenty of times.

Refusing to use someone’s pronouns, like some people are doing now with Caitlyn Jenner, is another issue entirely. When you outright reject a person’s new name and pronouns, you make a loud and clear statement that you are opposed to their transition and their understanding of themselves–which is exactly the point. People do this in order to make a statement, and it works. If your intention is to reject trans folks and generally alienate all gender-nonconforming people, well, boycotting our names and pronouns will definitely get you there.

When you reject someone’s transition, you are claiming that you understand this person better than they understand themselves. You are claiming that your views on gender are the be-all, end-all of the human experience. In addition to being hurtful, it’s also very arrogant, and suggests a complete unwillingness to listen.

There are a lot of good reasons to use preferred gender pronouns. You don’t have to be an expert on trans issues to see that this is a sensitive subject and that these little words mean a lot to people. So you can either make a statement about your absolutist views on gender, or you can show care towards your fellow human being. In this case, you really do have to pick between these options. There is just no way to reject someone’s pronouns without being very rude and hurtful.

The question is, should we honor others’ wishes about their own self-expression? Or should we police their self-expression because we think we know better? Should we grant people the small kindnesses they ask of us? Or is it more important to make a point?

Consider an issue that is highly important to you and ask yourself how you’d feel if someone refused to acknowledge this part of who you are. For example, say you were raised as a Christian and later converted to Judaism. You are very devout and want to be known as a Jew. How would it feel if someone insisted on calling you a Christian at every opportunity and refused to respect your conversion, because of their own religious beliefs?

Could this type of behavior be called oppressive? Ok, not to be a dick here, but if I may quote the dictionary,

oppressive, adjective

1. burdensome, unjustly harsh, or tyrannical:
an oppressive king; oppressive laws.

2. causing discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate, etc.:
oppressive heat.

3. distressing or grievous:
oppressive sorrows.

Refusing to use someone’s pronouns is burdensome and unjustly harsh–you are intentionally hurting someone’s feelings and forcing them to bear the burden of your discomfort with the reality of gender diversity. In a way, it is tyrannical, in that it is one small part of the systemic marginalization of trans people. It certainly causes discomfort by being excessive–you’ve decided that your beliefs mandate that you trample other’s wishes and make them feel bad. And finally, yes, it is distressing and grievous. Seriously, it just makes people feel horrible and it makes you look like an asshole.

Rejecting someone’s name and pronouns is one of the fastest ways you can damage your relationship and express hostility. Using the right pronouns costs you nothing and is a sure way to express solidarity, respect and support.

The choice is yours.


Ask me a question.

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18 comments

  1. pasunhomme

    I agree that insisting on using the pronoun given to someone at birth is cruel and disrespectful. But refusing to use the pronoun of the second sex for someone who was previously assigned to the male gender, and using a gender-neutral pronoun instead, is not. To offer another analogy in addition to yours of the Christians and Jews, imagine if someone was perceived as white by most people for most of their life and came out as black and insisted on your calling them your nigger. Would it be disrespectful to refuse?

    • rimonim

      Hi Nickie! I know you prefer to use neutral pronouns for everybody, and I respect that stance. What disturbs me is the way trans people are singled out for disrespect. So if you would use “ze” or another neutral for a trans woman or a cis man or a cis woman or anyone else, I get that and I agree that it is not cruel.

      However, if someone specifically targeted trans women (or other trans people) for neutral pronouns, I would consider that disrespectful.

      The race analogy is tricky as that trait can’t change, unlike gender or religion–though certainly many mixed race people do “come out” about their identity or background. It sounds like you’re saying that for you, gender pronouns are the equivalent of a slur. I don’t share that view but I do respect it, so long as it’s applied to people consistently.

      • pasunhomme

        According to the fucked-up consensual reality nigger wasn’t originally a slur. It came from negro, which means black. It was simply descriptive. Likewise, “sir” comes from “sire” which means “lord.” So, when you’re saying “sir” you’re basically reinforcing the feudal order. Might as well say “massa” or “my liege.”

        “Woman” is most certainly a slur, and “man” is an honorific. Think about how often bros get together and say “hey man!” or “you’re the man!” Could you ever say “hey woman!”

        Who says “race” can’t be changed? If an octaroon straightens their hair and puts on some business-professional clothes, white people gonna be much nicer to them than if they’re sporting corn rows and a Malcom X shirt.

        Gender couldn’t be changed seventy years ago.

        Honestly I can’t imagine having the gall to refuse to use the preferred pronoun for a transsexual in real life. But I understand why it’s happening. It highlights the mainstream transgender movement ignoring and even reinforcing “traditional” sexism, to use Serano’s term. Caitlyn Jenner should not define what a woman is.

      • rimonim

        Wow, I am extremely uncomfortable with the equivalences you’re drawing here in terms of race. I just…wow. Sir is the equivalent of the n-bomb? Dang, I don’t even know how to wrap my mind around that.

        It’s pretty off-topic from this post, so I’d like to drop that issue for now. I do feel the need to say that I really disagree, and that as someone who is not Black (and I’m guessing that description might apply to you as well) I choose to listen to the African-American community on this type of issue.

        Please feel free to weigh in on pronouns and trans stuff, but no more race stuff on this thread.

      • pasunhomme

        Gotcha. I can be pretty polemical. Will stay in bounds.

        In the end, my basic response to “Should we grant people the small kindnesses they ask of us? Or is it more important to make a point?” is that it’s pretty effing important sometimes to make a point.

      • rimonim

        That’s true. The problem here is both that people are being unkind (calling Caitlyn “he” to deliberately thwart her wishes) and that people are making a really mean and untrue point, i.e. that Caitlyn is Really A Man, i.e, that trans people’s genders are fake and illegitimate, while cis people’s genders are Real True Treasures of Nature.

        But yeah, sometimes it is more important to make a point. But when it comes to names and pronouns? I don’t personally see disrespecting individual’s harmless (IMO) wishes as a useful activist strategy. I don’t think we can solve problems by disrespecting each other.

      • Milo

        Acknowledging that humans can change their gender whenever they and their bodies damn well please is, IMO, a sufficiently radical stance to take given the world we live in and the world many of us would like to live in. That’s the point I’d like to make. :|

      • rimonim

        Hey Nickie–I did not let your last comments through moderation, because I am not digging the tone the conversation was taking. I try to maintain a certain vibe in this space, and your last couple comments crossed the line for me in terms of harshing on trans people and overall debateyness (if you will). If you wish to designate a spot on your blog, we could continue the conversation there.

  2. Petra's Metamorphosis: the Life of an Unfettered Butterfly

    It is very disrespectful to not follow ,their requested pronouns. if they request it. If the person doesn’t say anything. That using neutral pronouns is fine. If you are not sure. I do it very often even with cisgender people. It is all about giving respect to get respect.

    All the race stuff above is way off topic and disrespectful and not even close. I will leave that alone.

  3. Jonathan

    > It highlights the mainstream transgender movement ignoring and even reinforcing “traditional” sexism.
    The trans (and gender variant) community is hugely diverse and has multifarious issues with gender which intersect with issues of sexism in all kinds of ways. But I’d hesitate before calling us a “movement”, or suggesting that we’re capable (as a tiny percentage of the population) of reinforcing traditional sexism to any meaningful extent, supposing we even wanted to (which we generally don’t).

    > Caitlyn Jenner should not define what a woman is.
    She isn’t. She’s defining who she is. Other people should not define who Caitlyn Jenner is.

  4. Sam Hope

    Love this blog, as usual. I did some training on gender and gender variance last Saturday, and what I observed in some of the more conservative participants on the training was an utter fear of subverting the rules they have been indoctrinated in, that if someone has a particular type of anatomy, therefore they have to be given a particular set of pronouns to go with that. You could see them actively squirming in their seats to allow themselves to correctly gender someone. I think until people open their eyes and see that this is indoctrination, not the natural order, we’re getting nowhere.

    In other news, I feel pretty strongly that using “they” for someone who obviously identifies as a woman is deeply disrespectful, in that it “others” her and puts her outside the circle of care for womanhood – no small thing when you realise that trans women are at highest risk of violence and sexual assault and therefore need to be protected within the sisterhood.

      • rimonim

        You know what Nickie, I’ve had enough; I’d like you to bow out of this thread. I have enjoyed talking with you in the past, so I have tried to be patient here–but this conversation is just bugging me. You really seem like you’re trolling. I invite you to start a thread at your own blog. We can continue this discussion, but not here.

  5. Clare Flourish

    Caitlyn Jenner has no right to define what a woman is, and I have just written about that. My friend’s refusal to use “she” or “Caitlyn” is linked to the Vanity Fair cover. But all Vanity Fair cover shots are photoshopped, and present an impossible ideal, as do many Reality series- Made in Chelsea, etc. Don’t pick on the trans woman, and certainly don’t pick on all trans women, because we suffer most from the beauty myth.

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