Sunday, February 28, 2010

Getting Pronouns Right - Part 1

This is the first 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!

“It’s hard for me to call you ‘he’ because you look so feminine.”

“It’s hard for me to call you ‘he’ because you’re not like most guys.”

“It’s hard to call you ‘he’ because your voice sounds like a woman’s voice.”

“It’s hard to call you ‘he’ because you’re just so nice.”

“It’s just so hard. We’re trying.”

“It takes time. You have to have more patience with us.”

These are just a few of the rationales people have confessed to me to explain why they get my pronouns wrong – why they mistakenly refer to me as “she” even though they know I prefer “he.”

Pronouns are a constant source of annoyance to many trans people. As trans people we go through all kinds of transitions – social, medical, personal, and often spiritual. In the context of these major life changes, it seems like pronouns should be a minor footnote. Yet for many trans people, working to get people to call us the right pronouns takes up an enormous amount of energy.

Those who would be our allies also put a lot of energy into pronouns. For the most part, people are being truthful when they say “We’re trying. It’s hard.” But what is so hard about it?

Pronouns are words that we use in place of nouns, to avoid repeating those nouns. When we’re talking about trans issues, we’re talking about the third-person singular pronouns: he, him, his, she, her, and hers. In standard English, third-person singular pronouns are always gendered. Problems arise when people use the wrong pronouns for someone who is transgender, or for someone who is not transgender but whose gender expression is sufficiently unusual that people get confused about it. For example, a trans man (FtM, or female-bodied and male-identified, roughly speaking) may want to be called “he,” the pronoun that aligns with his gender identity, and other people may resist or have difficulty complying with this request, and instead call him “she,” the pronoun that aligns with his assigned gender.

At times I have been tempted to say, there has to come a time when trying leads to doing. If you’ve been trying for six months, a year, or three years, and you’re still calling me the wrong pronouns, I am tempted to say that you must not be trying very hard.

On the other hand, if you’ve been trying for three years and it hasn’t worked yet, then maybe trying harder isn’t the answer.

When I started this project, I decided to start with the assumption that most people who use the wrong pronouns when referring to a trans person are genuinely well-intentioned, and that their failure to get pronouns right is not for lack of trying. Rather, I think there are specific barriers that get in the way of people’s using the correct pronouns for a trans person. If we can uncover and explore these specific barriers, then we can create tools to make it easier for would-be allies to get it right, right away.

I had some ideas what the barriers might be. I got my ideas from two sources: First, from the excuses people made when they got my pronouns wrong (such as, “It’s hard for me to call you ‘he’ because you’re not like most guys.”), and second, from my own reflections about times when I had trouble getting someone else’s pronouns right. After all, trans people are not immune to the gender-stupidity that makes such an easy thing, so hard to do. I know as well as anyone how important it is to get pronouns right, and it usually comes very easily for me. Yet every once in a while, there’s someone whose preferred pronoun just doesn’t seem to stick for me, and I have to struggle to use the right one.

But I didn’t want to write about what makes my pronouns hard for people to get right, or what makes it hard for me to get some other people’s pronouns right. I wanted to write something more general, that could help other people figure out what was getting in the way in their specific situations. So I decided to seek more information. I conducted informal, semi-structured interviews with about 25 friends and acquaintances about their experiences with pronouns. I asked them about their experiences speaking about people in their lives who are trans or gender non-conforming, and also, when relevant, about their experiences as trans or gender non-conforming people being spoken about. The ideas and suggestions in this article are derived from my own experiences as well as the results of these interviews.

Stay tuned for next week's section!