Saturday, October 23, 2010

Warren Blumenfeld on The Media, Suicide, and Homophobia

The Media, Suicide, and Homophobia
A Commentary by Warren J. Blumenfeld

What can clearly be referred to as a continuing epidemic, within only the past few weeks, a number of gay young men have taken their lives by all indications as a result of the unrelenting homophobic taunts, harassment, and attacks they had to endure by their peers: Seth Walsh, 13, hung himself from a tree outside his California home; Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself in Indiana; Asher Brown, 13, from Texas shot himself in the head; Tyler Clementi, 18, first-year student from Rutgers University took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. And though we are not yet certain of the precipitating factors, now we hear of the tragic suicide of gay student, Raymond Chase, 19, from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

Throughout the past week, I have attempted to monitor the media to determine any themes in the way they have represented these tragic incidents. For many of the news outlets, it appears they are portraying these events as some sort of new trend they have deftly unearthed.

In reality, however, the media and our society generally suffers from a collective memory loss. This issue has arisen numerous times over the decades, but then appears in the media from time to time as if it were a unique and previously unrecorded development.

Back in 1989, for example, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its "Report on the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide," which found that "A majority of suicide attempts by homosexuals occur during their youth, and gay youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.  They may comprise up to 30 percent of (the estimated 5,000) completed youth suicides annually.” [U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide," by Paul Gibson, in Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide, ed. Marcia R. Feinleib, Washington, DC, January 1989.]

The report recommended that "mental health and youth service agencies can provide acceptance and support for young homosexuals, train their personnel on gay issues, and provide appropriate gay adult role models; schools can protect gay youth from abuse from their peers and provide accurate information about homosexuality in health curricula; families should accept their child and work toward educating themselves about the development and nature of homosexuality"

The causes for these suicides have also been known and documented for decades as well. For example, Kevin Berrill, Director of the Anti-Violence Project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force at the time of the 1989 report’s release stated correctly pinpointed the societal impact:  "The increased risk of suicide facing these youth is linked to growing up in a society that teaches them to hide and to hate themselves.” 

Initially, however, the report was suppressed by the George Herbert Walker Bush administration under pressure from right-wing groups and by conservatives in Congress.  After the findings, William Dannemeyer, who was at the time a conservative Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California, called for then-president Bush to "dismiss from public service all persons still employed who concocted this homosexual pledge of allegiance and sealed the lid on these misjudgments for good." HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan wrote in a letter to Dannemeyer that the study "undermined the institution of the family." [Quoted in Chris Bull, "Suicidal Tendencies," The Advocate, April 5, 1994, p. 37.]

The findings of the report, however, were leaked to the press and finally released. 

Other studies confirmed these findings.  Gary Remafedi, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota, and author of Death by Denial: Studies of Attempted and Completed Suicide in Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual Youth, found in a 1991 study of 150 gay and lesbian youths in Minneapolis, more than 30% said they had attempted suicide at least once as a teenager. 

“The youths who are at the greatest risk for suicide are the ones who are least likely to reveal their sexual orientation to anyone. Suicide may be a way of making sure that no one ever knows. It's homophobia that's killing these kids.”  [Gary Remafedi, quoted in Bull, Chris, "Suicidal Tendencies," The Advocate, April 5, 1994, p. 38.]

Some media recently have labeled the high profile suicide of Tyler Clementi as a national “wake up call” to the problem of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender suicide.

Don’t blame me if I’m cynical, but didn’t we hear the same warning back in 1998 after the brutal homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard. Hundreds, maybe thousands of LGBT people have suffered vicious attacks, many ending in murder since 1998. Why then do the media not continually cover these incidents. If they did, our nation would not need a “wake up call.” We as a society might remain awake and vigilant.

I suspect in a week or so, even as the suicides and homophobic assaults continue, the media will move onto its next so-called “trend.”  In a few years, maybe ten or so, they will issue yet another “wake up call” and (re)discover homophobia and its impact on the lives of our youth all over again.

Instead, we as a society must not depend on the media to alert us to the realities. As a society, we must take responsibility for the consequences for our inaction. More importantly, we must take responsibility for eliminating the stigma and the stereotyping of anyone and any group along the complete spectrum of human diversity.  
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Associate Professor of Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies at Iowa State University. He is co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States.

         Permission granted to forward or publish this commentary. Any editing must be cleared by the author:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An Open Letter to My Friends Who Go to Michfest

By Annie Danger
(Feel free to share widely, just credit where appropriate) (To Annie Danger! Not to this blog!)

Dear you,

I want to talk about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Rather, I’m feeling like I have to bring up this conversation and push it forward and I’m pretty frustrated with that because, well, I don’t want to have to talk about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I understand and respect that it is important to you. I know you love it, and I am asking you to do more loving, not less.

I feel like I have to bring it up because I feel pretty shitty that so many of my friends attend and how they do or do not talk to me about it. Perhaps you are one of those friends?

To note: I do not want to start a fight. I am making a request for greater engagement with the curious politics of coalition building and alliance. I understand this is a complex-feeling issue with a lot of history. This may be a call out, but it is with a revolutionary ethic of love that I send it. In this ethic, I do my best to drive my activism and my life with a difficult and powerful combination of respect, recognition, honest and open communication, affection, commitment, and trust for all people in this world. Especially my allies.

This letter comes from trying to put my years of resent through this filter of loving: I feel hurt and I am writing because want to trust that you have my back as a transwoman. I am having a hard time separating your attendance of MWMF and your silence with me about this issue from your level of respect for me; for my body. I don’t want to feel this way and I am willing to do the work to let go of a decade of resent, but I need your help. Will you help me?

I have spent a lot of time trying to make this letter driven by more than anger and resent. When you go to Michigan, I push you away. I keep you at arm’s length as an ally of transwomen. As an ally of me. What I hear is that the festival is a powerful and welcoming other planet where women’s lives, pains, struggles, and hopes are more commonly understood. This is allegedly a place of healing based on welcoming. A harsh toke for me: This is a place where I, on a body level even more than a political one, am profoundly unwelcome.

There is no place I’ve ever been where my body and my experience of gender feel safe, wanted, welcome, supported, normalized, trusted, trustworthy. There is little or no safe space for transwomen. Not even at queer land, where we are often wanted in the abstract but not so much welcomed in practice. People don’t seem to know how to think about transwomen. And for us to make a squawk about our treatment often runs the risk of being called out as misuse of the male privilege we were raised with. To be woman enough to share womyn’s spaces, we must be good girls—we must be quiet.

So here we are, 35 years into the MWMF and nearly 11 years into my life as an out, hormone-enhanced transsexual. I have spent this decade- plus fairly actively turning my back on the arguments around Michigan because it was simply not my fight: I cannot imagine going there and feeling safe. Even the naming of womyn with a ‘y’: I respect and understand the place from which this nomenclature comes. But it must also be said that it drips gender essentialism in its disassociation from male language, tells me I am not important there, not a priority.

So I disengaged. There are a lot more pressing issues, in general or specifically about trans-inlcusion and the safety of transwomen, than trying to get a bunch of terrified separatists to let me pay them to camp in their woods and attend their party. And when more and more friends kept going, and when you proceeded for years to forget that it is an issue for me—to chat all about it like it was just someplace I didn’t happen to go; to tell me you wished you could get me there and never go much further than that; to discuss my absence while at the festival but not much of why—I proceeded to turn my back in small ways on you, too. Just the tiniest, most pernicious ways: silent distrusts, people held so close, but at arm’s length when it comes to recognizing and caring for my life, my struggle as a transwoman, or my body. And now I feel pushed, finally, to say something because my lover is going. My love. And because of this, I am struggling to believe she really sees and loves my trans body because of it.

I am also speaking up because, in only the most technical of senses, I could finally go: I can purchase a ticket as an out transsexual woman (though one cannot find that information on the MWMF website). I have considered going. I have had hours and hours of conversations recently—with decade-long Michfest workers, with transwoman friends and their lovers, with women’s-movement organizers who have never been to MWMF, and with those who know me best—about this possibility and I have come to a very solid conclusion: I have no moving reason to put myself through that emotional shredder. I cannot go there and not interact with this issue of trans-exclusion. It is on my body. To go and try to have fun, to do anything but loud and firey activism about this issue would be to leave my body. To disassociate further from a body I fight daily to be in.

And, yes, this issue of my friends at Michigan is a trigger point for a whole world full of transphobia. I feel your attendance with all the weight of a decade of distrust around trans issues. My experience of transwomanhood is one that runs a baseline of distrust: I do not tend to expect anyone except for other transwomen (not genderqueers, not my queers, not trans men) to really see or make room for trans women. But I do hope they would. I am asking for help: I want to build this trust. I am tired of crying alone and feeling like I have to take care of transwomen because no one but transwomen is willing to really take a stand for us. I want to build this coalition. I want this tired old issue to move in new, healing directions. I want to let go of all this resent. I want us to be a stronger, smarter community. But reaching a hand out on my end requires so much clear, concerted effort on your end. Show me you are as committed as I am to justice around this issue. I am tired of ignoring this issue.

There are a lot of different contexts to this issue, so many needs to meet, so many ways to talk strategy, so many enormous feelings to unpack and source, and I know I have work to do here, too. But under all the complicated ways to have this discussion, I keep feeling horrible about your support of this institution. I don’t want to. I respect that it is powerful and I do my best to remember that it is powerful in ways I simply cannot imagine. I know you do some sort of work on behalf of trans issues while inside the festival, but I do not know what it is and I see no results. What I do hear is all the fun times, amazing things to learn, deep connections, healing, and fucking that happens. You are much better at letting me know that part. I hear from you your defenses but not your explanations. I am writing this because I want more. I want you to actually show me that you have my back.

I understand that change is slow. That, technically, there are changes afoot. But I am writing to remind you that in the meantime, you have to actually show me that you respect the very real issue of transwomen’s lives.

I am not, necessarily, asking you to not attend. I am asking you to answer, with action, this: How is this more than just a party in the woods? What does it mean that you can go and I cannot? I cannot forget that my body is not valid there. You cannot remain silent with me about this and expect me to trust you.

I am asking you for proactive communication. I am saying that by the simple act of going to this place, you are engaging this issue of trans inclusion. So please stop feeling funny and being mostly quiet about it. Please restrain yourself from feeling defensive and instead engage me on this before I have to engage you. That may not involve calling me to discuss this. I am asking you to show me you are my ally. I am asking you to speak up. I am asking you to make transwomen visible in this place where we are made invisible. I am asking you to be loud and loving and creative. I am asking you to rock the boat.

I hear many people who attend are in support of trans women attending, but I do not feel welcome. The culture of separatism amongst the organizers and the legacy of this bigotry are much stronger than the words “I really think most people would want you there.” This is not your fault, but if you are going to go there and remain close to me, I am requesting that you make it your issue in a much more visible way. Please do things while you’re there that show me that you really respect my body. My life. My womanhood. Please let me know about them. Please be willing to push a little harder. Please show me I can trust you to have my back. Please, if you’re willing: stand up, step it up, and be a louder ally. I am asking you to love me as much as you love this festival.

Annie Danger

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Identity is Strategic

“… the use of any word for myself—lesbian, transperson, transgender, butch, boy, mister, FTM fag, butch - has always been/will always be strategic…”
-Dean Spade, in “Resisting Medicine, Re/modeling Gender,” Berkeley Women's Law Journal, Volume 18, p.15 (2003)

On May 17, I went to Sacramento with Transgender Law Center for the first ever California Transgender Lobby Day. I memorized a list of talking points and prepared to have three nearly-identical 15-minute conversations with three different representatives.

After a day of very thorough preparation for my first every lobbying adventure, I realized there was one question not yet answered. How was I supposed to introduce myself? We wanted our representatives to know that we were a group of both trans people and cisgender allies there to express our concern about issues of importance to our communities (including healthcare access, employment, mental health access for youth, and inclusive data collection). So of course we wanted to introduce ourselves by saying something about who we were and our relationship to the community.

At first I thought I’d say, “My name is Davey and I’m a transgender constituent ….” The problem with this straightforward approach is that people often get confused when I keep it that simple. If I say I’m transgender to someone who doesn’t really know any transgender people, they tend to assume I’m a trans woman. Oops.

The obvious alternative was to say, “My name is Davey and I’m a transgender man ….” The only problem with this is that it’s not true. I don’t identify as a man. The word transman itches me almost as bad as the word woman. Hmm.

Of course most legislators are unlikely to understand MtF / FtM, if only because acronyms are confusing.

What I’d like to say, if it has to start with, “I am a [one word identity],” is that I’m genderqueer. But that word does not go very far with legislators, or most people outside of trans communities. And, I reminded myself, we don’t need legislators to “understand” us, we just need them to do the right thing.

I decided to tell the legislators a label they could recognize, even if it wasn’t a perfect (or even good) reflection of how I understand myself. I bit the bullet and told them I was a transgender man. They seemed sympathetic to our requests. And after each meeting I quoted Dean Spade to myself: … the use of any word for myself … has always been/will always be strategic….

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Getting Pronouns Right - Part 7

Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because You Don’t Like Him/Her

This is the seventh and final installment of a longish and very drafty article on – you guessed it - getting pronouns right. Soon I'll embark on the process of editing down to a more digestible portion. Most of this work will happen offline. Holler (comment) if you want to be a reader!

There are lots of ways that our feelings about someone – whether conscious or unconscious - can come out in our behavior, including in our pronouns use. The simplest example if you just don’t like someone, and so don’t feel motivated to do the work to call them the right pronoun.

For example, years ago, a younger trans man in my community showed a clear pattern of calling me “he” during those times when he respected and looked up to me, and “she” during those times when he resented or disliked me (such as when someone he wanted to date started showing interest in dating me).

On the other side, one of the people in my life for whom I’ve had the most trouble getting pronouns right happens to be someone who really gets on my nerves. This is completely unrelated to her gender, and of course a totally unfair reason to keep slipping up. Once I was able to recognize what was going on for me in that situation, I was able to call her the pronouns she prefers even though I still disliked her. We continued to have conflict, but we could give each other the basic courtesy of respecting each other’s genders, and were free to identify more clearly what the conflict was actually about.

It’s my belief that I’m not obligated to like everybody, but I am obligated to treat everybody with basic respect and dignity, and that includes respecting their gender whether or not we enjoy each other’s company.

Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because You Don’t Want Him/Her in Your Club

Sometimes, the pronoun you default to for someone depends on whether or not you perceive them as part of your in-group in terms of gender and/or sexual orientation. One person I interviewed described very specifically how her ability to change pronouns for a friend who was in transition was directly related to how she saw that person’s gender in terms of her own gender. The interviewee is a queer and genderqueer woman, and so was her friend. When her friend’s gender experience shifted and he started requesting male pronouns, the interviewee struggled because she was used to seeing their genders as similar. She thought, “If he’s a guy … what does that mean about me?” Of course, she knew that it didn’t need to mean anything. But her feeling that her friend was “like her” or in her in-group made it difficult for her to separate this person’s gender from her own.

In a more everyday example, when I am introduced to heterosexual non-trans men, it seems that those who call me “he” are generally those who also treat me like “one of the guys” in other ways. They see me as part of their in-group. Non-trans men who persist in calling me she also tend to treat me “like a woman” in other ways. More specifically, they treat me like they treat women who are butch or otherwise queer, which is to say they usually ignore me completely, and occasionally get hostile or defensive of their guy space. This goes for most non-trans men who persist in calling me she, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Sometimes sexuality or flirting is an overt part of this pattern. When I am introduced to a group of heterosexual non-trans women (who are overrepresented in my professional field, so it happens pretty often), there are usually a few who have absolutely no problem getting my pronouns right from the start. These women often end of flirting with me sooner or later. Those who struggle and call me she rarely flirt with me, even after they’ve managed to call me he most of the time. I can only guess that women who are attracted to men, and also find me attractive, have an easier time thinking and talking about me as a man than do women who don’t happen to be attracted to me. Their own attraction to me convinces them of the plausibility of my gender.

Exercise: Exploring the Interpersonal Factors

Start by picking one specific person for whom you often have trouble getting pronouns right.

· How do you feel about this person? personally? professionally?

· If you were to describe them to a good friend on another continent (who would never meet them, so you wouldn’t feel bad about gossiping) what would you say?

· Do you find the person attractive? If so, how do you see this as aligning, or not, with your sexual orientation?

· Who else in your life does this person remind you of? And how to you feel about those people?

· How has your relationship with this person been positive? How has it been negative?

· If relevant, say aloud to yourself, “[The person’s name] is like me. [The person’s name] is one of us [or ‘one of the guys/girls/however you describe yourself and your gender peers].” How do you feel when you say it? Do you want this person in your “club”? How might this be related, or not, to the person’s gender?

It's true, there's no conclusion at the end of this essay. No point writing one, since I'm going to tear this up for several more drafts. Comments welcome anyway.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Getting Pronouns Right - Part 6

This is the sixth (and 2nd to last?) installment of a longish and very drafty article on – you guessed it - getting pronouns right. I will post one installment per week until ‎you have the complete draft. Comments are welcome at any time, but I’m not going to rewrite it until I’ve gotten the whole thing written!

Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because Deep Down, You Believe In Binary Sex/Gender

Do you believe that trans people exist? Of course you do, that’s why you’re bothering to read this. You believe that a person can be a gender other than the one typically associated with their body type – for example, that someone whose body is like those we usually describe as male can be a woman.

Have you ever found yourself saying or thinking anything like the statements below? Have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking anything else along those lines?

If X’s voice weren’t so high, it’s be easier to call X “he.”

If X didn’t have that 5 o’clock shadow it’d be easier to call X “she.”

If X didn’t have such obvious breasts it’s be easier to call X “he.”

If X wasn’t so tall it’d be easier to call X “she.”

If X didn’t walk like a football player it’d be easier to call X “she.”

If X didn’t sashay around like a pansy, it’d be easier to call X “he.”

It’s hard for me to call X “he” because X is so nice.

It’s hard for me to call X “she” because X is so athletic.

It’s hard for me to call X “he” because X is so emotional.

It’s hard for me to call X “she” because X is so angry.

It’s hard for me to call X “she” because X is so butch.

It’s hard for me to call X “he” because X is so fem.

It’s hard for me to call X “he” when I see him fawning over that boyfriend of his.

It’s hard for me to call X “she” when I see her arm in arm with her girlfriend.

I know X likes to be called “he,” but X just feels like a woman to me.

I know X likes to be called “she,” but X just feels like a guy to me.





You’re not the only one! During my interviews, and in my everyday life, numerous people have admitting that a trans person’s ability to be “pass” convincingly as a non-trans person of their gender tends to make it easier for them to use the person’s preferred pronoun. For example, some of my grad school classmates said it would have been easier for them to call me ‘he’ if my voices wasn’t so high.

The thing is, many trans guys have high voices, if they haven’t taken hormones. It’s sort of part of the definition: A trans guy is a guy whose body is like those we usually describe as female. Of course there’s a wide range of vocal tone and expression for people of all genders. But on average, trans guys who have not been on hormones have voices that sound like “women’s voices.” If the reality of a trans guy having a “female” voice – or female breasts, hairline, skin tone, fat distribution, etc. – gets in the way of your calling them the right pronoun - what does that imply?

To me it implies that you’re acting on a working assumption that guys have low voices and women have high voices. Whatever you know about the individual in front of you, when your auto-pilot kicks in, you assume that anyone who sounds “like a woman” must be a woman. That may not be what you believe when you’re being thoughtful, but on a less conscious level you don’t really believe that someone with a voice/body/etc. like that can be a guy. In other words, deep down, you don’t really believe in trans people.

At least, that’s the way you’re acting. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault, either (I do it too sometimes!). We have all been taught to believe in binary gender since birth, or maybe before. So we need to check ourselves. Do we believe in trans people? If we do, then we need to exercise that belief – act in accordance with it – so that it grows stronger, and eventually, overpowers our conditioning.

This same pattern also plays out in slightly more complex ways. For example, people often find it easier to call someone the right pronouns after they’ve started to medically transition, even though they know the person is trans. So, if it’s not that we don’t believe in trans people per se, it’s that we don’t believe someone is “really” trans until they have started to change their body. This is problematic for the obvious reasons: 1) trans people are trans whether or not they choose to change their bodies, 2) this assumption creates external pressure that may lead some trans people to change their bodies who wouldn’t necessarily want to otherwise, and 3) it still buys into the sex/gender binary – men have male bodies (or constructed male bodies) and women have female bodies (or constructed female bodies). That’s a tiny step farther than not believing in trans folks at all, but only a very tiny one.

What’s even more complicated is that some people find it easier to call someone the right pronoun after the person has announced plans to take physical transition steps, even before their bodies start to change! Several people suddenly found they were able to call me ‘he’ after I told them I was going to start taking testosterone. During the six months I spent jumping through medical system hoops and finding a doctor who would write me a prescription, my body didn’t change, but people’s belief in my gender did. For them, it wasn’t as simple as I had to have a masculine body to be a guy. I had to have the intention to have a masculine body. This behavior pattern implies an underlying assumption that trans people who change their body are “really” the gender they say they are, while trans people who don’t change their bodies are not as real or legitimate. Further, it implies that non-trans observers have the authority to judge the legitimacy of a trans person’s identity, rather than granting each person autonomy to define and describe their own gender.

Finally, there’s another set of underlying assumptions about gender that sometimes come out through people’s behavior around pronouns. Sometimes it’s not about bodies, but about womanly or manly behavior. People have told me that it’s hard to call a trans woman “she” if she walks “like a guy,” speaks directly to the point, or shows confidence in her viewpoints. Someone once told me she kept slipping up and calling me “she,” because she had trouble thinking of me as a guy, because I was so “nice.” Wow. So in this case, it seems to me that the underlying assumption is not only that body type dictates gender, but that gender dictates personality. Anyone whose mannerisms don’t match the cultural expectations of manly behavior, for example, doesn’t really count as a man. And that’s not only transgender oppression – it’s also simple sexism.

If you notice some underlying beliefs poking through in your behavior around pronouns, whether those assumptions are about bodies or gender norms or something else, here are some questions to consider:

  • If an assumption is coming up for you with regard to a particular trans person in your life, and getting in the way of your using the pronouns that person prefers, what else in your life might also be affected by the same assumption? (This is not a rhetorical question. Really take the time to think how else this assumption might come up for you.)
  • Do you really believe these assumptions? Do you want to believe them?
  • If not, what do you believe? How can you remind yourself of what you really believe? How can you exercise those beliefs?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Getting Pronouns Right - Part 5

This is the fifth installment of a longish and very drafty article on – you guessed it - getting pronouns right. I will post one installment per week until ‎you have the complete draft. Comments are welcome at any time, but I’m not going to rewrite it until I’ve gotten the whole thing written!

Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because I Never Heard that Word Before!‎

In conducting my interviews, many people said that they have the most trouble getting pronouns right when someone wants to be called third-‎gender or “neutral” pronouns. It makes perfect sense that these are the hardest, because they are words that are not part of standard English. On ‎another hand, we all have experience successfully incorporating new words into our vocabulary. For example, there's text (as a verb), rip (as in ‎digital music), and download. And new coinages ‎are not limited to the technical: there’s also queer, genderqueer, Islamicist, and green-washing. We’ve even done it before with pronouns! Several ‎generations of us are now accustomed to seeing s/he in print (even if we still can’t agree how to pronounce it), and many of us use “they” singularly ‎to talk about a hypothetical third person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant.‎

The moral is, it just takes practice. See above for some ways to practice getting someone’s pronouns right. In addition, you can try this: ‎
Exercise: Third-Gender Journaling
This works especially well if you already keep a journal. Continue writing about whatever it is you usually write about, only use gender ‎neutral pronouns – for everybody. You’ll be surprised how quickly they flow “naturally” in your writing. Then it just takes a little getting used ‎to, to use them in speech.‎
Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because You’re Just Not Trying

Lots of people reported to me that they get pronouns right almost all of the time, except when they’re tired, busy, frazzled, or thinking about ‎something else. This is of course unsurprising. And yet when I think about my work week, and consider how much of the time I feel a little bit ‎frazzled, I realize it’s not okay with me to be messing up on something so important so much of the time!‎

If you tend to mess up someone’s pronouns when you’re stressed out or distracted, it communicates that treating that person with respect is not ‎your top priority in that moment. It also implies that calling them the right pronoun is not your default, but rather you’re having to consciously remind ‎yourself to use the right pronoun every time.‎

If this is your pattern, I suggest the following:‎
  1. Take care of yourself! It’s not cool that you’re multitasking so hard that you don’t have the energy left to be conscious of your words. Take ‎a day off. Get a massage. Take a walk. At the very least, make sure to take all your lunch and coffee breaks. You deserve it.‎
  2. ‎See the motivation and commitment exercises above under “Why Pronouns Are Important.”‎
  3. ‎Continue to the next section … there may be more behind your slip-ups than general overwhelmed-ness.‎

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Getting Pronouns Right - Part 4

Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because It’s a Change

This is the fourth installment of a longish and very drafty article on – you guessed it - getting pronouns right. I will post one installment per week until ‎you have the complete draft. Comments are welcome at any time, but I’m not going to rewrite it until I’ve gotten the whole thing written!

When I started interviewing people in my community about what makes it difficult for them to use the right pronouns (or names) for particular trans people in their lives, some distinct themes emerged. One of the most common responses was, simply, it’s hard because it’s a change.

This makes a lot of sense as far as it goes. When someone we know goes through a major life transition – changing careers, getting married, having kids – it may take a while for us to adjust to the change. This is as true of gender transitions as of any other kind. We are used to calling someone one thing, and now they want to be called something else. It makes sense that we might not consistently get it right, right away.

And yet, there are limits to this explanation.

First, “it’s hard because it’s a change” only makes sense if you knew the person before transition. If you meet someone who goes by “he,” and lets you know that (or someone does) the first time you meet him, the “it’s a change” explanation tends to fall flat. If it feels like a change, even though you never knew the person to go by any other pronoun, this is probably a sign that there might be something else going on.

Also, even if you did know the person before transition, the “it’s a change” explanation implies that the pronoun slip-ups have nothing to do with gender – that a pronoun change is no more challenging than any other kind of change. People often cite the example of names. People change their name for many reasons, and it often takes their friends and family a while to get in the habit of using the new name. Pronoun changes, some people claim, are just like that.

If you can honestly say that it would be just as hard if your friend changed his name from Steve to Daniel, as it would be if she changed her name from Steve to Stephanie, then I’ll believe you that “it’s hard because it’s a change.” Otherwise, I’ll argue that the change is probably part of it, and also that there is more to be explained.

That said, when you’ve known someone a long time, “it’s a change” really is at least part of what makes it hard to get their name and pronoun right. In that case, it should be relatively easy to get it right. All you have to do is practice!

Exercises to Practice Pronouns:

Gossip (not really)

Talk about the person when the person is not around, using the pronouns the person prefers. You don’t have to be talking about the person’s gender, just make a point to include the person in your regular chit chat about how your day went. Or, if you know the person in a confidential setting, try talking about the person to yourself in private, such as while you’re in the shower. Get used to thinking, saying and hearing the person’s name paired with the pronoun the person prefers.

Toy Story

Give names to several common household objects in your home. For any object that has gendered associations for you, give it the other gendered name. (For example, your mixing bowl might be Jack and your chopping knife might be Dolores.) While you’re going about your daily routine, tell stories about the objects using the pronouns appropriate to their names. Tell the stories aloud. Actually saying and hearing the pronouns is an important part of this learning process.

Once you’ve got that down (after at least a few days, or however long it takes for the objects’ new genders to feel “natural”), switch pronouns but not names. (So now the mixing bowl is still Jack, but now “she.”) Once that feels natural, switch back. Switch back again. Add additional objects or try using third-gender pronouns* to make the game more challenging.


This one works particularly well if you have a close personal relationship with the person. With the person’s consent, set up a deal where every time you mis-pronoun (or misname) your friend, your friend has permission to mis-pronoun (or misname) you right back. For example, if you accidentally call your friend “she,” even though he prefers “he,” he could then say, “Thanks, Frederick,” even though your name’s Amy. Pick a name ahead of time, and not just any name – pick the inappropriately gendered name you would least like to be called.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t make the situation “even”. After all, you’re consenting to be mis-gendered, whereas your trans friend may get mis-gendered fifty times a day. What it does is to provide you with immediate feedback about your behavior, so that you notice when you mess up. It also creates a mechanism for giving you this feedback that can be light-hearted, and doesn’t have to interrupt the conversation. By volunteering for this treatment, you are demonstrating your commitment to getting your friend’s pronouns right.


Do it together! If one person in your community is transitioning, don’t be afraid to connect with other people in your community about what that means to all of you. Talk with other allies who are also trying to be respectful. Agree to remind each other when you mess up, so that it’s not always the trans person’s responsibility to do it. Consider getting together to discuss any issues that might get in your way, or to go over the reflective exercises on the other handout.

When you’re slipping up on someone’s pronouns because you’ve known them before transition, you have a unique opportunity to be a really valuable ally by doing your work and getting the pronouns right. Many trans people lose friends during transition, some who are outright transphobic and others who mean well but just can’t get over their shit enough to step up and support their friend who’s transitioning. By calling someone the right pronouns even though it’s hard, you are showing them that you are one friend they won’t have to lose. You are also showing them that the image of them that you have in your head is an image of who they are now – not an image of them in the past, or as you wish they would be. You’re saying, “I see you, I recognize you, I believe that you are who you say you are.”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Getting Pronouns Right - Part 3

This is the third installment of a longish and very drafty article on – you guessed it - getting pronouns right. I will post one installment per week until ‎you have the complete draft. Comments are welcome at any time, but I’m not going to rewrite it until I’ve gotten the whole thing written!

Community Norms about Pronouns

In many trans-friendly spaces, there is a community norm that we don’t make assumptions about anyone’s gender or pronoun preference. We ‎assume that gender identity – one’s internal sense of self with regard to categories like man, woman, transgender, genderqueer, and so on – ‎cannot be measured by others, only reported by oneself. In these spaces it is usual to ask everyone to introduce themselves to the group by ‎sharing their name and preferred pronoun, because we assume that we can’t tell by looking. It’s also normal and acceptable to ask someone ‎individually, “what pronoun do you prefer to go by?” ‎

On the other hand, some trans people want their pronouns to be obvious. They assume that by expressing their gender in an obviously masculine ‎way, for example, they are sending a clear signal that people should call them male pronouns. And it’s true that more often than not, an ally can ‎make a good guess at someone’s pronoun preference based on their gender expression (that is, behaviors that are associated with gender, ‎including chosen appearance, mannerism, and chosen name).‎

However, assuming that everyone’s gender will be obvious is problematic, because it tends to rely on stereotypes and cultural norms that just aren’t ‎true for everybody. I’ve seen some overeager allies get totally flummoxed when they call someone “he” assuming the person is an FtM trans ‎person, only to discover that the person identifies as a butch woman and would rather be called “she.” Gender expression and gender identity vary ‎independently. A feminine person does not necessarily identify as a woman. A masculine person does not necessarily identify as a man. And ‎masculine and feminine are culturally-specific, time-bound, basically made up categories that mean different things to different people.‎

Most of us go around guessing about people’s pronouns most of the time, and never notice until we guess wrong. But even in the 99% of times that ‎we guessing right, I’d argue that there is a problem with guessing. When we assume it’s okay to guess about people’s pronouns, we assume that ‎people’s genders are necessarily so obvious that we don’t have to ask. This puts a great burden on people whose gender and/or culture varies from ‎the dominant expectation. Rather than making it everybody’s responsibility to pay attention to how each person wants to be talked about, it ‎becomes trans people’s responsibility to present our genders convincingly. To be convincingly female, for example, means conforming to ‎stereotyped and stylized versions of what it means to be a woman, which are unrealistic and restrictive to all women, trans and non-trans alike. The ‎practice of suspending assumptions and creating opportunities for people to describe their genders on their own terms – or to decline to describe ‎them – resists sexism and transgender oppression and opens up the possibilities for everybody.‎

Exercise: Community Norms

What are the norms about pronouns in your community? Have you ever heard anyone ask someone else their preferred pronoun? Have ‎you ever shared pronouns as part of group introductions in a meeting or class? How sure are you of the pronoun preferences of the ‎people you work or study with? ‎

If you have never asked an individual their pronoun preference, give it a try. Start by asking someone in a one-on-one setting what ‎pronoun they prefer to be called. Be prepared to explain where the question is coming from, as people unfamiliar with this practice may be ‎really confused! Tip: Don’t start by asking the one gender-nonconforming person in the group. It’s good to notice if you’re actually really ‎unsure of one person’s pronouns, but don’t let that trick you into assuming that you’re right in your assumptions about everyone else's ‎preferences!‎

Or, if you’ve never talked about pronouns in the group, give that a try. This works especially well if the group already has a routine of going ‎over group guidelines or of having an introductory go-round. Explain to the group or to a group leader that you’ve been reading and ‎thinking about gender, and that this is one way some communities makes sure to create a safe and welcoming environment for ‎transgender and genderqueer people. Again, be prepared to explain where you’re coming from! (Consider having copies of this article ‎handy.) ‎