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.) ‎

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gender is identity, it's role, it's presentation. And gender identity, role and presentation are absolutely tied into culture, class and era. And, yet, there are some amorphous notions that constitute what are understood as "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics in most "Western" cultures. And as long as there are some vague standards of gender behavior, some people will be mis-labeled.

If someone is biologically male, has a beard, wears three-piece suits...and identifies as a woman: wonderful. I will refer to her using feminine pronouns if that is what she wishes. As much as I'm aware of the complex relationship between sex and gender, it may well be difficult, given how most folks have been socialized to perceive others. But, ultimately, this is more about being POLITE and avoiding hurt feelings than gender consciousness.

I will never have the opportunity to know the idiosyncratic inner worlds of most people I encounter in my life. Rather than go through an interview process every time we meet someone new, it seems more progressive to cease using gendered pronouns. If we assume gender is identity (pure and simple) and cannot be assumed, we are pretty much guaranteed folks will be offended. Let's just start using the same pronouns for EVERYONE. Everyone is referred to using ze/hir (or similar), regardless of gender presentation. Actively refuse to use "he/his" and "she/her."