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.)