Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because You Don’t Like Him/Her
This is the seventh and final installment of a longish and very drafty article on – you guessed it - getting pronouns right. Soon I'll embark on the process of editing down to a more digestible portion. Most of this work will happen offline. Holler (comment) if you want to be a reader!
There are lots of ways that our feelings about someone – whether conscious or unconscious - can come out in our behavior, including in our pronouns use. The simplest example if you just don’t like someone, and so don’t feel motivated to do the work to call them the right pronoun.
For example, years ago, a younger trans man in my community showed a clear pattern of calling me “he” during those times when he respected and looked up to me, and “she” during those times when he resented or disliked me (such as when someone he wanted to date started showing interest in dating me).
On the other side, one of the people in my life for whom I’ve had the most trouble getting pronouns right happens to be someone who really gets on my nerves. This is completely unrelated to her gender, and of course a totally unfair reason to keep slipping up. Once I was able to recognize what was going on for me in that situation, I was able to call her the pronouns she prefers even though I still disliked her. We continued to have conflict, but we could give each other the basic courtesy of respecting each other’s genders, and were free to identify more clearly what the conflict was actually about.
It’s my belief that I’m not obligated to like everybody, but I am obligated to treat everybody with basic respect and dignity, and that includes respecting their gender whether or not we enjoy each other’s company.
Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because You Don’t Want Him/Her in Your Club
Sometimes, the pronoun you default to for someone depends on whether or not you perceive them as part of your in-group in terms of gender and/or sexual orientation. One person I interviewed described very specifically how her ability to change pronouns for a friend who was in transition was directly related to how she saw that person’s gender in terms of her own gender. The interviewee is a queer and genderqueer woman, and so was her friend. When her friend’s gender experience shifted and he started requesting male pronouns, the interviewee struggled because she was used to seeing their genders as similar. She thought, “If he’s a guy … what does that mean about me?” Of course, she knew that it didn’t need to mean anything. But her feeling that her friend was “like her” or in her in-group made it difficult for her to separate this person’s gender from her own.
In a more everyday example, when I am introduced to heterosexual non-trans men, it seems that those who call me “he” are generally those who also treat me like “one of the guys” in other ways. They see me as part of their in-group. Non-trans men who persist in calling me she also tend to treat me “like a woman” in other ways. More specifically, they treat me like they treat women who are butch or otherwise queer, which is to say they usually ignore me completely, and occasionally get hostile or defensive of their guy space. This goes for most non-trans men who persist in calling me she, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Sometimes sexuality or flirting is an overt part of this pattern. When I am introduced to a group of heterosexual non-trans women (who are overrepresented in my professional field, so it happens pretty often), there are usually a few who have absolutely no problem getting my pronouns right from the start. These women often end of flirting with me sooner or later. Those who struggle and call me she rarely flirt with me, even after they’ve managed to call me he most of the time. I can only guess that women who are attracted to men, and also find me attractive, have an easier time thinking and talking about me as a man than do women who don’t happen to be attracted to me. Their own attraction to me convinces them of the plausibility of my gender.
Exercise: Exploring the Interpersonal Factors
Start by picking one specific person for whom you often have trouble getting pronouns right.
· How do you feel about this person? personally? professionally?
· If you were to describe them to a good friend on another continent (who would never meet them, so you wouldn’t feel bad about gossiping) what would you say?
· Do you find the person attractive? If so, how do you see this as aligning, or not, with your sexual orientation?
· Who else in your life does this person remind you of? And how to you feel about those people?
· How has your relationship with this person been positive? How has it been negative?
· If relevant, say aloud to yourself, “[The person’s name] is like me. [The person’s name] is one of us [or ‘one of the guys/girls/however you describe yourself and your gender peers].” How do you feel when you say it? Do you want this person in your “club”? How might this be related, or not, to the person’s gender?
It's true, there's no conclusion at the end of this essay. No point writing one, since I'm going to tear this up for several more drafts. Comments welcome anyway.