The Trouble With Pronouns

The trouble with pronouns is that they indicate how you are seen by other people. They are not labels that you place upon yourself (although you can have a pronoun preference). They are solely for the benefit of other people who are talking about you. I never use my own pronouns because (unless I’m feeling particularly smarmy) I don’t talk about myself in the third person. This also makes it hard to correct folks who use a pronoun I don’t care for. While a savvy friend can follow up with a sentence using my preferred pronoun, I have to break the flow of conversation to make a statement about how I identify and what words I like. No pressure, right?

The trouble with pronouns is that there are only two of them in common usage and it is assumed by society that these words correspond with one’s sex and gender identity. All are binary and congruent:

He = male = man

She = female = woman

Of course, genderqueer and non-binary trans* folks have been using gender-neutral and alternative gender pronouns for awhile now, but they have not yet caught on in mainstream society.

I consider “they/their” to be gender-neutral because you don’t know the gender to which someone is referring to. This is very helpful to me when I don’t know someone’s gender identity. The main pushback against this from mainstream society is that it’s a plural term being used on an individual, which is not grammatically correct. I love how in a society where no one even knows how to spell anymore because of txt and lolcats, folks take issue with pronoun grammar. Like the English language is some static monolith that can never be changed.

I consider “ze/zir,” “zhe/hir,” and other such terms as “alternative” gender pronouns. They are not (imho) gender-neutral because they imply a definite resistance against binary gender pronouns, which is not a neutral stance. I personally like these pronouns the best because of the political stance and the fact that they probably most accurately reflect my gender identity as a non-binary genderqueer trans* person. However, they are the hardest to get mainstream society to use because hardly anyone has ever even heard or them (and probably can’t imagine that there are more than two genders in the world! mind-blowing, I know). Thus, it puts a lot of pressure on both the person who prefers these pronouns and zir friends who actually  use them because there is a lot of education that needs to happen and it’s not always a good time and/or place to have those conversations about sex/gender. Also, it gets tiring after awhile and gives zir a lot of (probably unwanted) attention just to have people see you the way you see yourself.

Which brings me back to the point about pronouns being for other people’s use. While the media inundates us with gendered images of how we’re all “supposed” to be, we are also constantly told that we’re supposed to “be ourselves,” we’re not supposed to care about what other people think, that trying to control how other people see you is a lost cause.

So, what do we do? Some options that I’ve tried:

  • Educate people about gender-neutral and alternative gender pronouns. This can be exhausting and awkward, but is totally necessary and I applaud anyone who takes it on. I’m personally super shy and very bad bad about correcting people about my pronoun. Also, I usually only correct to “he” and don’t even get into “ze” and genderqueer stuff with most people.
  • Stop worrying about being “mis-gendered” by people who are not integral to your life. People make mistakes. Also, if you appear androgynous, then you can’t expect everyone to get your gender correct 100% of the time. Different people in your life can have different levels of understanding concerning your gender. You’re the only one in the world who will understand the nuances and complexity of your own gender completely (and even you might even confuse yourself sometimes).
  • Change yourself to look more like the gender you want to be seen as. I’ve been thinking about this and am not sure how I feel about it yet. Since I look androgynous and am on the FTM spectrum, I usually use “he” for mainstream pronouns because people look at me and the default is “she” a lot of the time. I wonder if I went back on testosterone if I would be more comfortable getting “he” all the time and if I might be more confident correcting to “ze” once people see my base/default gender more accurately.
  • Use different pronouns in different spaces. Right now, I use “he” in the mainstream world (although a lot of people still say “she”) because it’s easier for folks to understand binary language and easier to explain trans* than genderqueer to cis folks. I indicate “ze” as my preferred pronoun in queer/trans* space because I know people will respect it and I want to be seen as non-binary because they already know/suspect the trans* part. The difficulty with this is that my poor partner never knows when they are using the “wrong” pronoun because I haven’t picked one pronoun to rule them all and they are worried about respecting my gender identity and feel awkward when they are used to saying one thing and then the scene shifts and other folks are using other words for me and they want to be seen as supportive (because they are).

I wish that there was a common gender-neutral option and that genderqueer/trans* stuff was more universally understood in mainstream society. Until then, I guess I’ll just put on my sassy pants and see what happens!

Mine are tight and red =;-)


Posted on July 1, 2013, in Identity, Language and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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