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.) ‎

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Getting Pronouns Right - Part 2

This is the second 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 Pronouns Are Important

From time to time a participant in one of my Trans Competency trainings will express their frustration at trans-people’s “over sensitivity” with regard ‎to pronouns. “What’s the big deal?,” they ask. “It’s just a word.”‎

For many reasons, pronouns are not “just words.” When you use a gendered pronoun about someone, you are in effect announcing that person’s ‎gender. Most people feel attached to their genders, and so when you get their pronouns wrong, it doesn’t feel good.‎

Imagine for a moment that people are calling you the wrong pronouns. If you usually get referred to with masculine pronouns (he, him, his, etc), ‎imagine that people keep calling you feminine pronouns (she, her, hers, etc), and vice versa. Perhaps your friend is introducing you to someone. ‎‎“This is Howard, she’s been a friend of our family for years. Yeah, our kids go to school with her kids. She makes a mean barbecue…” How would ‎it feel?‎

If you can imagine that, you might have the beginning of an idea of how it feels for many trans people – but only the beginning. When you call a ‎trans person the wrong pronouns, you’re probably not the first person to do so that day. You may not be the fiftieth. And while most non-trans ‎people can comfortably assume that their gender is obvious and legitimate, trans people’s genders are contested. Most trans people – especially ‎those whose transitions are recent, or who don’t “pass” as the gender with which they identify, or who don’t identify with one of the two socially ‎sanctioned gender categories at all – are accustomed our genders being questioned, ignored or denied in every interaction.‎

Of the trans and gender-nonconforming people I interviewed, most described feelings very similar to my own with regard to being mis-pronouned. ‎To simplify the storytelling, I’ll use myself as an example. ‎

I identify as FtM (female to/ward male) and as genderqueer. In some queer spaces I go by third-gender pronouns*, and in my everyday interactions ‎I go by masculine pronouns (he, his, him, etc.). At this point in my life I “pass” as male about 50% of the time. To the extent that strangers let me ‎know what they’re assuming about my gender, about half are assuming I’m male and the other half are assuming I’m female. This means that about ‎half the time when someone announces my gender by using a gendered pronoun about me, they get it wrong.‎

The effect on me when someone calls me the wrong pronoun ranges from a slight annoyance to a major disruption in my day. Sometimes, when ‎I’m having a really good day and feeling generally self-confident, I feel confused by it. Someone says something including the word “she,” and I look ‎around trying to figure out who they’re talking about, before I realize that they mean me. This experience gives me the uncomfortable sensation that ‎people are looking at me, and seeing someone else. In these situations I feel invisible and unrecognized. Yet in some ways the times when I feel ‎confused about people’s mis-gendering me are among the least painful for me. Even though I feel unrecognized, I still have a strong sense that I ‎know who I am.‎

On other days, being called the wrong pronoun can be far more painful. In trans communities there is a term, “clocking.” Clocking is what happens ‎when a trans person wants to pass – wants to be taken for a non-trans person of their self-identified gender – and someone notices or figures out ‎that they’re trans. For me, I don’t particularly want or need to “pass” as male, but I do want to be acknowledged as a guy. If people think I’m a trans ‎guy, that’s fine. If they’re not sure what my gender is, that’s fine, too. But when someone reads me as female and then uses a feminine pronoun for ‎me – effectively announcing me to be a woman – “clocked” is very appropriate to describe how that feels. ‎

In these situations, rather than feeling that other people are misreading me, I find myself worrying that I am not expressing my gender adequately. ‎Internally, I berate myself for not passing better, for not being convincing enough as a guy or as a trans person. I feel as if I’ve been caught in some ‎incompetency, like I’m not masculine enough, not trans-masculine enough, not trans enough, or not “really” trans. And yet of course I know that I ‎am, among other things, a trans guy. So when I fear, however fleetingly, that I’m not “really” trans or not “really” a guy, what that really means is that ‎I fear I am not “real” at all. Far more frightening than feeling invisible, I feel on the precipice of non-existence.‎

So far I’ve been describing how it feels for me (and many of the trans and gender non-conforming people I interviewed) when someone who doesn’t ‎know me calls me the wrong pronoun. An additional element is introduced if the person calling me “she” actually knows me, and knows that I prefer ‎to be called “he.” In that case, I feel profoundly disrespected and not safe. If someone can’t go to the trouble of using the right pronoun for me, how ‎can I feel confident that they will respect any of my other personal boundaries? If they don’t see me for who I am, and if I feel invisible or even ‎unreal in our interactions, how can we even carry on a conversation?‎

Some other reasons it’s important to use the right pronouns for trans people have to do with practical safety concerns. There is still pandemic ‎violence against trans people in most places in the world – including most places in the U.S. For many trans people, “passing” as a non-trans ‎person of their gender is one way to be less vulnerable to transphobic or homophobic violence. ‎

Just because you know your friend, relative, or acquaintance is trans, that doesn’t mean everyone knows. If you accidentally call your MtF friend ‎‎“he” in public, you are not only announcing her gender incorrectly, you are also announcing her status as a trans woman, and exposing both of you ‎to the possibility of a violent reaction from strangers who might overhear.‎

Exercise: Motivation
Think of one trans person for whom you have difficulty using the right pronouns. Who is this person? What is your relationship to this ‎person? In your own words, why is it important for you to get this person’s pronoun right? Take some time to write down your ‎thoughts about this. Put the paper in a place where you will see it at least once a day. For example, you might tack it to your bulletin ‎board at work. If possible, read over it from time to time. Even if you don’t read it every day, simply noticing that it’s there can serve ‎as a gentle reminder.‎

Exercise: Commitment
If it feels appropriate, talk to the person about why it’s important to you that you get their pronoun right. Saying it aloud to the person most ‎affected reinforces your own motivation, and also let’s the person know that you’re trying.‎

Only do this if y’all are close, and if you have asked for and received permission to talk to this person about your own process around the ‎person’s gender. You are putting a lot of effort into learning to be a better ally, and that might make you feel like you are close to this person. ‎Recall that most people have a lot to learn about transgender issues. The trans person you’re thinking of may have witnessed dozens or ‎hundreds of people go through the same process with regard to the person’s pronoun that you’re going through now, and may not want to be ‎close with you in this process.
*Third-gender pronouns are third-person singular pronouns that are not masculine or feminine. They are parallel to he/him/his and she/her/hers. Some people call them “non-gendered” or “gender neutral” pronouns. Third-gender pronouns have been used in three main ways: 1) referring to a hypothetical person, as a gender neutral and grammatically sensible alternative to “he or she” or “they,” 2) a generic pronoun referring to anyone, as a way to remove unnecessary gender references in conversations, and 3) a specifically gender-queer alternative to binary gendered pronouns, often used by trans folk who do not identify with either of the two socially sanctioned genders. There are many sets of third-gender pronouns that have gained traction in trans communities. One popular set is ze/hir, where ze is the third-person subject pronoun (parallel to he/she), and hir is the third-person direct and indirect object and possessive (parallel to him/her, and his/her/hers). For example, “Where did ze go?” “Oh, I saw hir a minute ago. Ze went to the hallway to get hir backpack.” For extensive background and grammatical details about third-gender pronouns, check out the Wikipedia entry.

More is on the way!