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*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.
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.
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.
More is on the way!