Note: Recent increases in trans-led discourse quietly and not-so-quietly hostile to nonbinary people are incredibly concerning, though not surprising. This sort of thing tends to happen when a particular marginalized group sees some increase in positive media attention. Still, what I write below is incredibly disappointing to see from binary trans people as well as cis people, particularly in a time in which the framing of (gender)queerness as frivolous and dangerously excessive is at a right-wing-fueled high. While this post is about the trend of trans pushback against pronoun-sharing, it’s part of a larger phenomenon I’ll consider going into detail about later.
I think I speak for most of us “very online” people when I say we’ve been having a pretty unhappy Pride month. Don’t worry, this isn’t me launching into another unnecessary take on Kink At Pride™ that hasn’t already been summed up better by actual participants in the subculture. Considering that I’ve been “eighteen” online since second grade, it’d be pretty ridiculous of me to clutch my pearls about some kid seeing a leather* harness. And anyway, young kids, even more so today than when I was little, have full-on lockdown drills at school, in anticipation of the very real threat of an armed assailant murdering them and their teachers. (So, like, tell me: is that sparkly dildo really such a big threat? Is this the hill we really want to die on, considering that kids are actually dying? But I digress…)
Instead about ranting to what I hope is a pro-queer, anti-reactionary echo chamber about tired parade arguments, I want to write a brief note about pronouns, gender, and (il)legitimacy, after observing several somewhat-worrying trends in recent trans discourse. Namely, I want to think about pronouns, what we ask of them, and what we should be asking (of) each other.
I’m going to preface all of this with a story, mostly because I can’t resist writing a post on this blog without some kind of “round-up,” especially given that it’s been more than two months (shock! horror!) since I’ve posted anything here. These last two months have been incredibly eventful –– I mean, I got vaccinated, for starters –– most recently culminating in a weeklong trip to see one of my closest friends, and beloved chosen-family member, Elliot. Just as they are my chosen family member, their family is my family, and when I’m at their home, I am home. It means I do the dishes there, and that I can use the upstairs shower.
Relatively recently, Elliot’s sibling came out as trans, following the familiar pathway from wanting to try “she/they” to “they/them,” in addition to an awesome mix of neo/xenopronouns for those in-the-know –– I’ll be using heir/hers/heirself for heir in this post. I only learned about heir engagement with different sets of neopronouns through a tangential conversation about –– who’d have guessed? –– noxious queer discourse online, after swapping tales of 2014 Tumblr with their 2021 Twitter analogues. It occurred to me that these pronoun exchanges, while still a much-cited cliché in mainstream trans culture (and particularly entry-level anti-transphobia campaigns) have recently faced increasing criticism, even outright vitriol, from trans people themselves. That is, I’ve noticed a pronounced hostility to what’s generally been referred to as the pronoun go-round, or the name-pronoun introduction, coming from the people who are, for lack of a better term, supposed to have my back on this stuff.
Since I started undergrad in 2016, and probably peaking in 2017, articles of the following type have been floating around the internet: some cis woman complains that she, for the first time in her life, must deign to declare her pronouns to be “she/her/hers,” because The Trans Agenda has the audacity to suggest we not assume peoples’ pronouns on sight. I’ve gotten pretty used to rolling my eyes at these types, particularly the TERFs convinced that confirming someone’s pronouns before referring to them is an elaborate plot to contaminate the Female Body Politic and destroy the butch species. Or something. That said, I’ve also observed a significant number of social media posts by trans people –– including those I respect and care for –– slamming the pronoun-sharing convention, and even calling for an end to pronoun-shares altogether. I’ve seen hostility even to listing one’s pronouns on Zoom, where our ugly little thumbnails are connected to our names whether we like it or not.
Make no mistake. Aggressive pronoun-checks can be, and absolutely are, microaggressions. So is the tendency to “they” binary trans people deemed “non-passing.” No one should be required to share their pronouns, and certainly, no single declaration of pronouns should ever be binding –– circumstance, safety, comfort, and felt-identity are hugely influential on the identifiers we claim at a given time. Surely, too, trans objections to pronoun-sharing are vastly more nuanced, and generally in better-faith, than any cis objections, and often stem from the above experiences. Yet the degree to which some trans and cis views on pronoun go-rounds seem to be coalescing –– taking a tone not-dissimilar from 2015-16’s classroom content warning discourse –– concerns me, as a longtime they.
At most basic and most emotional, what concerns me is the shared assumption that to ask for one’s pronouns in a general social setting is frivolous, excessive, mockable, and unnecessary; such language is regularly levied at nonbinary/genderqueer/GNC people ourselves, whether through dismissals of the forms of identification we create on our own or through the modes of presentation and behavior we choose to reclaim. A common excuse for the cissexist exclusion and outright hostility toward trans-specific social protections, too, is that the trans population is so small (even marginal!) that to spend time, effort, and money on said protections would be wasteful (given global population demographics, I dare say white americans may not want to follow this logic to its conclusion). Parallel arguments emerge in cis-dominated social settings –– countless out nonbinary people, myself included, have the painfully awkward experience of being the one to bring up pronouns to a heretofore oblivious group of people; being the one person to introduce themself with pronouns (or correct an instance of misgendering) thereby becoming a small spectacle and alienating themself from the group.
This doesn’t tend to happen in queer or trans-dominated spaces, because, largely, sharing pronouns early on in a group gathering remains a social norm. This, I argue –– and here is my second, more practical point –– is not only to protect the feelings of people in a community**, but also simply to know what to call each other. I see this tendency to forget what purpose, exactly, pronouns serve: they’re ways of referring to ourselves and others. Third-person pronouns help us specify who, in a situation, we’re talking about. For some, no pronouns, but instead only a name, is the preferable mode of third-person address. For many others, though, using pronouns as well as a name feels most natural. When introductions include pronouns as well as names, we ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding how to refer to each other –– this is the same reason strangers wear name tags in unfamiliar social settings. I don’t need to know anything in particular about your identity, or even community affiliation, but I do need to know what to call you.
Some have rightfully raised concerns about privacy and disclosure for closeted people in these situations, or those who simply don’t know which pronouns they’d like to use. To those concerns, I’ve observed spaces respond (effectively, it seems) by adding a caveat to their introductory message: pronouns, if you’re comfortable. They simultaneously normalize the sharing of pronouns, and provide an escape hatch for those who need it. I firmly believe that, whether a space is marked as “queer” or not, no one should have to define, legibilize, or prove their identity in order to gain access. If such strict exclusionary practices were kept up across all queer spaces, a massive number of “overly-invested allies” would not have realized that they themselves were gay or trans. Pronouns, too, are a form of legibilization that no one should be required to participate in. However, if the option is not presented as normal or even acceptable in a given space, an entirely new form of exclusion is enacted, wherein the only legitimate trans people are those whose genders can be inferred without specific introduction.
By claiming that social situations involving pronoun introductions is bad, unnecessary, or laughable, you imply your confidence in your ability to be gendered correctly without this extra explanation. This necessarily relies on cisnormative assumptions as to what [gender] looks like. If we do indeed agree that there is no one way to “look” trans (or, as the case may be, to look like a man or a woman) to claim that sharing one’s pronouns in an interpersonal setting is somehow unnecessary is to contradict this, and to reinforce cissexist standards that further contribute to our collective erasure.
If, indeed, we want to create a big-tent space in which people can explore alternative possibilities to the cissexgender(ed) regime into which we’ve been indoctrinated, we need to maintain that space’s enthusiastic openness to those whose relationships with sexgender are not easy to parse. Equally, it is necessary to use pronoun-sharing introductions with fairness across groups, settings, and demographics –– not only for those who may not “look” trans, but in order not to single out non-passing trans people. Being the only one to be asked for pronouns is embarrassing and, in for many, actively degrading. It also simply sucks to continuously correct people, and to feel like you are being yourself in the wrong way. Further, for those who use multiple sets of pronouns, these intros are an opportunity to make those options and preferences available to others, and to open up a dialogue about potential changes in those preferences. Before I spoke to Elliot’s sibling, I hadn’t known “heir” pronouns existed –– now, I do. Not only did heir get to explain to me what heir wanted to be called, I also got to learn something that brought me closer to heir and expanded my awareness of the breadth of trans experience.
If every single person, regardless of who they are or what they look like, is being offered the opportunity –– and pronoun exchanges are just that, opportunities! –– to self-define, the asking is no longer a judgement on the individual person being asked. It can be seen for what it is: a clarifying practice that helps social groups better interact with each other. It also serves as a reminder that pronouns are not special parts of speech reserved for trans people, but universal parts that only some have the privilege of forgetting about.
*At the risk of being That Vegan, I’m really more concerned about the leather part.
**It always perplexes me to hear the assumption that trans people are “oversensitive,” given that our two options are either to exist in a world hostile to our existence, or not exist at all. I’m pretty sure everyone reading this is already aware, but: perceived oversensitivity is the result of having burnt through so much patience already.