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,
1. burdensome, unjustly harsh, or tyrannical:
an oppressive king; oppressive laws.
2. causing discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate, etc.:
3. distressing or grievous:
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.
Pronouns–those tiny little words that can hurt like a broken bone or be as delightful as a birthday present. For many trans and gender-nonconforming people, gender pronouns are an important aspect of self-expression. Whether you want different pronouns because of your gender identity or your views on the gender system, it’s a challenging task. If coming out is safe and feasible, you might be ready to ask your loved ones to start using a new pronoun. How do you go about getting other people to call you by the right words?
1. Ask for what you want. Requesting different gender pronouns can be a nerve-wracking prospect. You might be wondering whether people will take you seriously as a she or a he, whether people will play grammar police when you request singular they, or whether friends and family will be willing to learn a new set of pronouns like ze/hir/hirs. It can be tempting to look for a compromise and ask for whatever you think is most likely to stick. This might be a good option if you think there’s no way friends and family will come around or if you just don’t feel that strongly about it. In general, though, I think it’s worth it to ask for the pronouns you really want. You’re already going out on a limb–you might as well go all the way out!
2. Be patient…for awhile. Adjusting to a pronoun change can be pretty tricky. We tend to use pronouns without thinking about them. Even people who are 100% supportive will probably screw up at first. I’m trans, and I have messed up people’s pronouns numerous times. For some reason, it seems new pronouns take longer to stick than a name change.
So when you first change your pronouns, be patient with friends and family who make genuine mistakes. I’m not talking about people who are disrespectful, cruel, and/or refuse to accept your new pronouns. I’m talking about people who love you, who are good to you, who plain old mess up sometimes. When people use the wrong words, politely remind them and move on. They should be able to acknowledge the mistake and move on quickly, too. So long as people are actively cooperating, allow a grace period for adjustment.
3. Boycott the wrong pronouns. It’s been almost a year since you came out about your pronouns to friends and family. Some people have completely adjusted, some mess up occasionally and then correct themselves, and some call you the wrong pronoun on a regular basis and don’t correct it or apologize. You’ve talked this over with everyone and politely corrected people, dozens and dozens of times. It’s time to end the grace period and stop playing along with folks who claim it’s too hard to change.
At this point, I suggest completely refusing to respond to or acknowledge the wrong pronouns. This is an approach I took and it worked really well for me. The questions I asked myself was, “What would a cis guy do if someone called him she?” I figured he would a) assume the person was not talking about him, b) be shocked and even offended if he realized they were, and c) correct the mistake with indignation and a sense of complete entitlement to the correct pronouns. So, I made it my mission to react in this way, figuring that I am just as entitled as anyone to the right language. I don’t recommend flipping out on people or anything–just acting as if it’s completely obvious that others should use your preferred pronouns, and refusing to play along when they don’t.
For example, a mispronouning would often happen in my family when we got together for dinner and my mom started telling stories about when I was younger. As my mom began an anecdote referring to something she did as a child, I would get a very confused look on my face. She would pause, noticing my confusion–often, that would be enough and she’d correct herself. If that didn’t happen, we’d have a short exchange along these lines.
Me: Wait, who is this story about?
Mom: You, of course!
Me: Oh! Huh, okay. You said she so I thought you must be talking about [female relative].
Mom: Oh, did I? Sorry about that. Anyway, when he was little…
I suggest a “fake it til you make it” approach–act like you can’t imagine being called the wrong words, are shocked someone would make such a mistake, and are obviously deserving of the proper terms. I found that after a few weeks of acting this way, it became second nature.
This worked really well on two levels. First, once using the wrong words stopped being a viable strategy to communicate with me, the last holdouts came around. Second, and perhaps more important, getting mispronouned didn’t sting so bad, because I was not participating in it.
4. Spend time with people who get it. Coming out about your pronouns, correcting people when they mess up, adjusting to the change yourself–it’s an exhausting process. Recharge by spending time with friends and family members who see you for who you are and show it.
When I was knee-deep in my transition, after an exhausting family dinner in which I’d been mispronouned ten or twenty times, it was such a relief to come home with Alma and know I could finally relax. I also drew strength from close friends who got my masculinity and had no trouble seeing me as a dude and calling me he.
To stay in balance during this difficult change, spend plenty of time with folks in your life who just get it. If none of your friends or family members fall into that category, seek out other people for solidarity. You might be able to find trans support groups or meet-ups in your area, or feminist or queer organizations where you can meet like-minded people. If this is not available where you live, connect with people online as much as you can.
5. You are more than your pronouns. At the end of the day, remember that you are a whole person. You are an incredible being of great dignity and power. Whether or not other people get your pronouns right, you deserve respect, happiness and love. Be good to yourself. Don’t let others’ ignorance compromise your self-worth.
Readers–what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you changed your pronouns? If you’re considering changing pronouns in the future, what holds you back?
Preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) are a perennial issue for transgender people. It’s confusing to friends and family when we ask for a new pronoun. Strangers misgender us and go for the wrong word. Well-meaning people struggle to use gender-neutral pronouns or keep slipping up and using the pronoun of our assigned sex. Those little syllables can make us cry, puke, or scream–or they can make our day. Here are a few reasons we should all take the time to get pronouns right.
1. The Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Would you like it if someone referred to you with the wrong gender pronouns? What if everybody referred to you with the wrong pronouns?
2. Set an example. Are you an awesome trans person or ally who knows your friends’ and colleagues’ PGPs? Be an example for those who don’t know the right words or are struggling with a pronoun change. If people hear you referring to someone as he/she/they/ze/etc., they’re likely to follow suit.
3. Give a gift. When I was early in my transition, the words he/him/his were music to my ears. It truly made my day when friends, classmates and strangers got my pronouns right. Do a good deed–use someone’s PGPs today.
4. Mental acuity. Do you value your ability to learn new things and remember important information? It is really tricky adjusting to a friend’s pronoun change or learning to use unfamiliar pronouns. Keep your mind limber and expand you vocabulary. As they say, you either use it or lose it.
5. Embrace change. It can be genuinely disorienting, even stressful, when a loved one comes out as transgender. It can also be confusing when you get to know a person who uses pronouns you haven’t heard before. By using PGPs, you commit to embracing the change life has thrown your way. This flexibility will serve you well in all endeavors. Plus, next time, you might be the one going through a major life change and hoping your community will rally around you.
6. Build relationships. I vividly remember how friends and relatives reacted when I started going by male pronouns. I remember those who cared about my wishes and made a good faith effort to change. And I remember those who griped, moaned, and generally appeared to care more about individual syllables than about me. This one thing didn’t make or break any relationships, but it’s no coincidence that none of the complainers are part of my life now.
7. It’s the right thing to do. Enough said.