Yes, that title’s funny, but actually.
Pronouns are serious. Our entire language is basically built up to screw us, whether it be because of the lack of singular non-gendered pronouns or the fact that it’s socially polite to address someone as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ when you meet them (basically asking you to guess their gender on the spot), the English language is pretty slow on the uptake when it comes to gender identity and the breakdown of a gender binary.
And I can talk about the breakdown of the gender binary for days – how male vs female is a false dichotomy and how personal identity is super complicated – but instead how about I link this cute video by Hank Green.
Now let’s rewind to when Hank says “Sex does not determine the pronoun you should use, gender does.”
I feel like all of us, or most of us at least, are at a point in our cultural understanding where we can get this – we can understand that a person’s genitalia does not determine how they think, feel, or identify. Laverne Cox and Kaitlyn Jenner were certainly huge contributions in that massive overhaul of thinking, but nothing is perfect, and the fact that our language and social customs actively work against that certainly doesn’t help.
To illustrate this, I’m going to tell a story involving my mother who is a nurse. My mother is very open-minded and accepting (she’d kind of have to be to have me for a kid, what with me being as preachy as I am) so please take this story knowing that my mother did not intend any offense or bigotry but she was viciously screwed by language and social customs.
My mother is a nurse. A baby nurse, to be exact: she helps the birth-giver through delivery and then keeps the former-fetus alive after that until baby can be taken home without dying. Now, as you can imagine, in her twenty-odd years of doing this, the formula has been ‘woman gives birth, father cheering.’ She has dealt with lesbian couples and single mothers with two men on standby ready to adopt the child, but by and large, her first instinct is ‘mother and father’. Does that give her the right to assume? No, but we’re giving my Mommy the benefit of the doubt.
Mom’s dealing with a woman who’s about to go into labor. This woman’s partner is standing nearby, and when the woman is about to be wheeled into the room, my mother asks “Is he coming in, too?”
My mother swears she was given no indication that she’d said anything wrong. She was given no forewarning that the person accompanying the laboring woman used non-male pronouns, nor did either person make a fuss at the time. But a couple days later, my mother was brought in to the office because of a complaint that she ‘hadn’t respected the couple’s wishes’.
Now, take this with a grain of salt, because my mother was very defensive while telling me this story and she may have made it sound more mild than it was, but either way, my mother made a mistake – an innocent one – and had been apprehended for it. She felt attacked by the trans community, worried she would lose her job, it was a hot mess.
There’s a lot built into that story – about traditional ideas of gender and family, about the gendering of names (“Their name wasn’t ‘Amanda’ or anything, it was a male sounding name!”), about the lack of communication in delicate social situations in the medical profession, about the value of labels in shaping one’s identity – whatever, I’m here to focus on how this could have been avoided.
Because I, too, struggle sometimes. Not with using pronouns that I know are wrong, but of assuming gender based on situation or conditions.
Like just now, I was making a blog post on my personal tumblr, and I wanted to reference this one artist I admire and I said ‘Her art is amazing’ but then I paused. Because of the fandom and the friend-group I knew this artist was a part of within the fandom I had just assumed they were female. I checked myself and then I checked their blog to see if that could tell me what was up. They didn’t have any indication in the description or an about me page. And furthermore, they go by Playlist, so it wasn’t like the name could give me any clue. (Name is not an indication of gender. I checked myself again.)
I ended up rewriting the sentence to say “I blame Playlist, the art is amazing.” to avoid the thing altogether.
This could be avoided! Just put your pronouns in the description of your blog or your twitter or whatever! My sidebar description doesn’t have it (It’s a haiku, I couldn’t mess up the rhythm) but I do have an about me page where the first bullet is ‘She/Her’. And My twitter bio refers to be as she also. Just in case.
But that kind of thing doesn’t really help in real life. Yeah, you could put ‘She/her’ on business cards or something but no one really uses business cards, do they? Not casually, at least. So here’s my proposal:
When you meet someone new, you have to give them your name anyway, right? So would it really be that big of a deal to give them your pronouns right after?
“Hi, I’m Jessie, she/her.”
They’re either going to know what that is or they won’t, and if they don’t you can explain it and open the door for them to give you their pronouns as well. But more importantly, if they do know what it means, they could be grateful to you. Coming out as trans can’t be easy, I imagine, but if someone else opens up with their pronouns, it makes it much easier for the trans person to give you theirs without making it a big thing. If we normalize sharing pronouns, we can eliminate the guesswork and misgendering that plagues a lot of the trans community.
Imagine my mother: “I’m Tammy, I’ll be your nurse. She/her”
And then the pregnant woman gives her name and she/her.
And then the woman’s partner gives their name and they/them.*
Now Mom doesn’t go through that embarrassing/potentially career destroying pronoun slip-up and the couple is grateful to have a nurse that is socially conscious enough to know that that language is fake and gender is a lie. Tada!
Adopt this introduction, I’m serious. It may seem weird at first because this isn’t in the oral tradition of language but it will really help break down the barriers we’ve created with language, I’m sure.
I’m going to start doing this and I’ll let you know how it goes. And you all should do the same!
*I never did get what the woman’s partner’s pronouns ACTUALLY were, I’m just guessing on this one. It’s a hypothetical anyway, y’all get the point.