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!

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