This is the sixth (and 2nd to last?) 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 Deep Down, You Believe In Binary Sex/Gender
Do you believe that trans people exist? Of course you do, that’s why you’re bothering to read this. You believe that a person can be a gender other than the one typically associated with their body type – for example, that someone whose body is like those we usually describe as male can be a woman.
Have you ever found yourself saying or thinking anything like the statements below? Have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking anything else along those lines?
□ If X’s voice weren’t so high, it’s be easier to call X “he.”
□ If X didn’t have that shadow it’d be easier to call X “she.”
□ If X didn’t have such obvious breasts it’s be easier to call X “he.”
□ If X wasn’t so tall it’d be easier to call X “she.”
□ If X didn’t walk like a football player it’d be easier to call X “she.”
□ If X didn’t sashay around like a pansy, it’d be easier to call X “he.”
□ It’s hard for me to call X “he” because X is so nice.
□ It’s hard for me to call X “she” because X is so athletic.
□ It’s hard for me to call X “he” because X is so emotional.
□ It’s hard for me to call X “she” because X is so angry.
□ It’s hard for me to call X “she” because X is so butch.
□ It’s hard for me to call X “he” because X is so fem.
□ It’s hard for me to call X “he” when I see him fawning over that boyfriend of his.
□ It’s hard for me to call X “she” when I see her arm in arm with her girlfriend.
□ I know X likes to be called “he,” but X just feels like a woman to me.
□ I know X likes to be called “she,” but X just feels like a guy to me.
You’re not the only one! During my interviews, and in my everyday life, numerous people have admitting that a trans person’s ability to be “pass” convincingly as a non-trans person of their gender tends to make it easier for them to use the person’s preferred pronoun. For example, some of my grad school classmates said it would have been easier for them to call me ‘he’ if my voices wasn’t so high.
The thing is, many trans guys have high voices, if they haven’t taken hormones. It’s sort of part of the definition: A trans guy is a guy whose body is like those we usually describe as female. Of course there’s a wide range of vocal tone and expression for people of all genders. But on average, trans guys who have not been on hormones have voices that sound like “women’s voices.” If the reality of a trans guy having a “female” voice – or female breasts, hairline, skin tone, fat distribution, etc. – gets in the way of your calling them the right pronoun - what does that imply?
To me it implies that you’re acting on a working assumption that guys have low voices and women have high voices. Whatever you know about the individual in front of you, when your auto-pilot kicks in, you assume that anyone who sounds “like a woman” must be a woman. That may not be what you believe when you’re being thoughtful, but on a less conscious level you don’t really believe that someone with a voice/body/etc. like that can be a guy. In other words, deep down, you don’t really believe in trans people.
At least, that’s the way you’re acting. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault, either (I do it too sometimes!). We have all been taught to believe in binary gender since birth, or maybe before. So we need to check ourselves. Do we believe in trans people? If we do, then we need to exercise that belief – act in accordance with it – so that it grows stronger, and eventually, overpowers our conditioning.
This same pattern also plays out in slightly more complex ways. For example, people often find it easier to call someone the right pronouns after they’ve started to medically transition, even though they know the person is trans. So, if it’s not that we don’t believe in trans people per se, it’s that we don’t believe someone is “really” trans until they have started to change their body. This is problematic for the obvious reasons: 1) trans people are trans whether or not they choose to change their bodies, 2) this assumption creates external pressure that may lead some trans people to change their bodies who wouldn’t necessarily want to otherwise, and 3) it still buys into the sex/gender binary – men have male bodies (or constructed male bodies) and women have female bodies (or constructed female bodies). That’s a tiny step farther than not believing in trans folks at all, but only a very tiny one.
What’s even more complicated is that some people find it easier to call someone the right pronoun after the person has announced plans to take physical transition steps, even before their bodies start to change! Several people suddenly found they were able to call me ‘he’ after I told them I was going to start taking testosterone. During the six months I spent jumping through medical system hoops and finding a doctor who would write me a prescription, my body didn’t change, but people’s belief in my gender did. For them, it wasn’t as simple as I had to have a masculine body to be a guy. I had to have the intention to have a masculine body. This behavior pattern implies an underlying assumption that trans people who change their body are “really” the gender they say they are, while trans people who don’t change their bodies are not as real or legitimate. Further, it implies that non-trans observers have the authority to judge the legitimacy of a trans person’s identity, rather than granting each person autonomy to define and describe their own gender.
Finally, there’s another set of underlying assumptions about gender that sometimes come out through people’s behavior around pronouns. Sometimes it’s not about bodies, but about womanly or manly behavior. People have told me that it’s hard to call a trans woman “she” if she walks “like a guy,” speaks directly to the point, or shows confidence in her viewpoints. Someone once told me she kept slipping up and calling me “she,” because she had trouble thinking of me as a guy, because I was so “nice.” Wow. So in this case, it seems to me that the underlying assumption is not only that body type dictates gender, but that gender dictates personality. Anyone whose mannerisms don’t match the cultural expectations of manly behavior, for example, doesn’t really count as a man. And that’s not only transgender oppression – it’s also simple sexism.
If you notice some underlying beliefs poking through in your behavior around pronouns, whether those assumptions are about bodies or gender norms or something else, here are some questions to consider:
- If an assumption is coming up for you with regard to a particular trans person in your life, and getting in the way of your using the pronouns that person prefers, what else in your life might also be affected by the same assumption? (This is not a rhetorical question. Really take the time to think how else this assumption might come up for you.)
- Do you really believe these assumptions? Do you want to believe them?
- If not, what do you believe? How can you remind yourself of what you really believe? How can you exercise those beliefs?