In which I write about me and my feelings on political linguistics. [~2,500 words.]
I’m often tempted to not see pronouns as a really serious issue. There’s so many macro-aggressions against the trans community in the news with bathroom bills and the regular murder cases (up to nine murdered trans women already in 2016, putting us on pace to break last year’s grisly record) that these micro-aggressions often seem just that–microscopic next to the larger issues of employment, housing, and social discrimination. It’s easy for me to convince myself I don’t care what pronouns people use for me because I’m more worried about being able to use the bathroom in a public space or being assaulted for my identity.
But the truth is that pronouns do matter. And not just on the superficial level. Using the wrong pronouns is more than just an insult to a trans person’s identity; it’s a threat to their health and safety.
It’s a weekday afternoon and I’m at the bank. I’ve never been in to my bank wearing make-up and tight pants, but this is a branch in a big city and it’s not like I’m making regular check drops, so I’m not too worried about seeing someone I know. But the bank–like institutions ranging from government facilities to bars that card–triggers a latent anxiety I have whenever I’m going to be asked to hand over an ID or my debit card that has the name M****** on it waving like a red flag.
I get up to the teller to deposit my thin freelancing check and a few rolls of coins. (I pinch pennies like a sadistic dominatrix.) There’s some kind of confusion on the teller’s part about how to make the deposit, because I want paper bills back from the check but am depositing the coins. It seems like the computer can’t figure out how to deal with the fact that I’m depositing and withdrawing cash simultaneously.
The teller leans over to the teller at the next window, hesitates, and says, “I can’t figure out how to do what he wants to do.”
And there it is, simple as that.
The other teller helps finish the transaction, and I thank them both and leave the bank, determined not to tear up. It’s so rare that I wear my purple eye shadow and I don’t want to fuck it up.
When it comes to pronouns, I’m told by the literature what I ask of people is due to my preference. Preferred pronouns is the nomenclature in the same way that gender identity is; both are used to flag an issue of gender as outside of the normal concerns of sexism and gender discrimination, as specifically related to transness. This is why gender identity has made its way into non-discrimination clauses for Equal Opportunity standards–the implication is that the normal stipulations about gender discrimination don’t cover trans people as they were written for cisgendered women.
I use she/her/hers and they/them/theirs pronouns. The she/her/hers trinity is a pragmatic choice for me. It’s how I want to be read by baristas, waiters, and bartenders. To a certain extent, there’s a novelty to it for me, as well. The idea that people will read me as feminine and validate that femininity is still so new and, frankly, wonderful–like it fills me with wonder.
But as someone who identifies with a non-binary identity, they/them/theirs is closer to my real feelings about my gender. It expresses, for me, the reality that I’m neither man nor woman. It’s political in so far as I see the gender binary as a system of classification used primarily to perpetuate oppression against one class by another. (Tangentially, this is why I’ve had to explain to people why I would ever want to transition into a feminine identity; the realities of misogyny make it difficult for some people to see the value in embracing yourself.)
That’s why I like they/them; it gives me a space outside of or in between the spaces of masculinity and femininity. I’m no proselytizer for it, but the concept of gender nihilism (termed also as gender abolitionism or post-genderism) has a lot of appeal to me. Not because I dream of a future where we all wear the same shiny silver jumpsuit, but because I dream of a world where clothing, activities, and social roles aren’t tied to a flawed understanding of biology that leads to expectations and conventions assigned coercively at birth.
But I also know that much of the world is not ready for my gender nihilist manifesto, especially when there are people in line behind me trying to get lattes. (Just coffee with room for cream for me, thanks.)
The point being that I like she/her because it’s affirming for me, but also I like those pronouns as a social pragmatist. If I’m really going to be asked to pick A or B on a daily basis (and it’s become evident that, in many day-to-day interactions, that is the choice I have to make), I’m going to work for the option that makes me feel a joie de vivre instead of the one that reminds of me of a decade’s worth of death wishes.
And I really do have to work for feminine pronouns. Because even when I do my make-up, pick out an outfit that’s literally marked as for women, and try to shift my voice, most people–like that bank teller–are intent on using the pronouns that conform to their sense of gender identity instead of the ones I try to telegraph with red lipstick and a purse.
It’s a Saturday night and I’m leaving a 5 A.M. bar with new friends. The group I came with, a couple of middle-aged trans-feminine ladies, left earlier, but I was too into the New Wave marathon the DJ was spinning to give up until the bitter end.
The people I’m with now, acquaintances of my acquaintances, have invited me to get some cheap, greasy food at a little diner down the street. We get in, and it’s a tight space, made all the tighter by the fact that there’s only three seats at the counter and we have four butts.
There’s some awful drunken confusion around about how to negotiate the seating until the only man in our group starts to loudly complain, “Ugh! He ruined everything.”
It takes me a tick to realize that he means me. He means that I ruined their late night bite with my very presence due to this logistics issue of too many butts and not enough stools.
This guy continues to bemoan how he’s [I’ve] made everything harder and how he [I] has complicated what should’ve been a simple trip to a greasy spoon.
Like I said, it’s a small room, and everyone at the counter can hear this guy outing me. A fire starts in the skin on my neck and creeps up into my face, and I’m pretty sure it’s not from the PBRs I’ve been drinking all night. I say a quick good-bye as heads start to turn. Eyes down, I make it out the door and tap into my phone to order an Uber.
I’ve never been publicly outed like this before, and I’m so anxious that I deliberately go around the corner, checking over my shoulder to make sure no one followed me out of the diner. Maybe this sounds like paranoia, but it’s pretty hard to take it easy as a trans person in a society that’s openly hostile to your existence. As a wise man once said, “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”
I sweat and bite my lip on a corner while I wait for my car. When it shows up, I cringe when the driver asks me if I’m Max. I say yes, but I hate to do it. I should really change my Uber profile.
Pronouns as a linguistic tool have been in use at least since ancient Greece. I struggle to imagine myself back to a world without some form of pronouns, but most language older than even 100 years ends up feeling like abstract thought experiments to me.
The student of language in me understands that pronouns are really useful. They save us from having to say someone’s name every time we refer to them. They let us refer to a large group with a single syllable. They let us whisper under our breaths about someone who might be across the room without perking their ears up with the sound of their own name.
From a purely linguistic perspective, I wouldn’t be opposed to being referred to as it. Everyone wants to act like such pissbabies about using the word they because it’s a plural (even though a person will use the singular they on a regular basis in instances when they don’t know the gender of whoever they’re referring to–like I just did), so a singular, gender-neutral pronoun seems like an easy fix to shutting down this lazy grammar fascism and laying out for people that a person’s identity isn’t confined to a false binary of choices.
But it has a ton of problematic baggage around it when it comes to the trans community. It is used to dehumanize trans people, to lower them to a sub-human level of existence reserved normally for animals, plants, or objects. I’m hesitant to invite this kind of dehumanization into my own lived experiences.
That’s why they has come into vogue as a gender-neutral pronoun; it still implies a level of humanity. I’ve had people–cis people–tell me they still find they dehumanizing and that they would rather to refer to someone who uses they pronouns as that person or just by their proper noun name.
My standard response to this has become that someone else’s feelings about using an individual’s preferred pronouns aren’t the point of having preferred pronouns. When someone tells you it’s dehumanizing to be referred to as he or she, finding a way around calling them they is only going to draw attention to the fact that you see them as unworthy of the agency to dictate their own identity.
But the larger issue, as I’m reminded of by my experience around 5:15 AM in that greasy spoon, is that you need to use the right pronouns in order to protect the trans people you might know. Misgendering them, whether or not the “pass”, can either open them up to new scrutinies or confirm the suspicions of people nearby who might have something they want to say (or, worse, do) to communicate the fact that they’re offended by trans people’s existence.
It’s a weekday evening, and I’m wrapping up an individual therapy session. My shrink, an intern at a big LGBT center near my apartment, asks me to fill out some form recording my current state of mind with regards to anxiety and depression. We’re pushing against the end of our session, and my scheduled time must make me the last client of the night for the center’s behavioral health services because this isn’t the first time someone comes knocking to clear out our room.
My therapist answers it. I can’t see who’s outside the door while I’m circling Never, Sometimes, Often, or Always on the page.
But I hear my therapist say, “He’s just filling out that form–”
He catches himself, does that little shake of the head with squinty eyes you see people do when they know they’ve said the wrong thing. “She’s just–they’re just filling out that form,” he says. I can’t see the reaction of the person outside the door.
But I feel an intense and deep pain almost immediately. I almost laugh, but then I’m not sure that it’s actually laughter.
He closes the door slowly and sits back down in the chair across the room from me. I’m trying to finish the form, but he wants to talk about what just happened, wants to know what it’s like to have someone I trust, someone who’s dedicated himself to giving me a safe space, do something like that.
I try to brush it off, but he tells me not to minimize it. I’m definitely hurt, and I mumble something about how hard it is to have people expose their internal perceptions of you with slips like that. But it’s too raw for me to really analyze it now, especially because we’re out of time and I’m late for a meeting.
We agree to talk about it next week.
I find it so telling that people will apologize, often profusely, for misgendering a dog but that misgendering a trans person seems to often illicit a reaction that distances the speaker from their culpability in the interaction. I get that, in these situations, the speaker doesn’t want it to be their fault that they got someone’s pronoun wrong. But the implication then becomes that it’s the fault of a trans person for making what’s supposed to be an easy linguistic short cut into something complicated. The sense is that I’m the one causing this pronoun trouble.
That’s why I put that Looney Tunes clip at the top of this post. I think, to put it simplistically, people often see trans people as the Bugs in that situation. That is, they view trans people as a wily rascal who is tricking them in order to get what they want. They feel that they’re Daffy and Elmer Fudd is their sense of what it means to be politically correct and that by confusing them about whether or not it’s duck season or rabbit season, I’ve made them a target of their own morality.
But the reality for me is that I feel I’m much more the Daffy in that situation. Bugs, with his quiet cool, is the systems of gendered society that confuse me. Like Daffy, I wish I felt like I could manipulate these systems to work for me instead of constantly feeling like the system is manipulating me. I wish I understood why people are so set on using gendered pronouns for people who are hurt by them, but my Bugs isn’t going to explain that to me.
And the Elmer Fudd to my Daffy is not my own sense of morality. He’s often a very real threat to my physical safety and/or my mental health. He may not be outright malicious, and he can often seem like the hapless dope that the real Elmer is. He’s a hunter, and he’s going to shoot something; he’s just trying to figure out what. So, like Daffy, I feel that I’m constantly harassed by an Elmer who feels some strange need to point a gun at something and will pull the trigger before he figures out what’s really in his crosshairs.
My work, at this point, is an attempt to avoid becoming the Daffy at the end of the clip. My hope is that, even after three shotgun blasts to the face, I can do something more than fake a laugh and grow bitter.