This is a submission to the May 2021 Gender Exploration Carnival on the theme “Pronouns.”
Content Warning: Transphobia and conservatives, mostly in part 3
Part 1: In which I state what my pronouns are
So, I use they/she pronouns, and when I say that I like they/them, I mean that I really like they/them. I like that they/them is neutral, that it’s the pronouns you use for people of uncertain gender. I’m agender, I have no gender, they/them feels like the perfect pronoun set to describe that.
People have been using they/them pronouns for my Internet persona on and off for years, because on the Internet I’m just a username on a screen and there is often no way for people to make assumptions about what my gender is. In real life it’s different. Once last summer a member of my grad school cohort was talking to someone who was looking for a roommate and he said something like, “[Redacted Real Name] was looking for a roommate. They might still be looking.” That remains the only time anyone has ever called the in-real-life meat-space me they/them. It’s the only time anyone has ever combined my (quintessentially female) real name with any pronouns but she/her.
I use she/her pronouns too, but I’m not sure that they count as my pronouns because in a perfect world, I wouldn’t use them. She/her pronouns are basically me saying “people are going to be calling me she/her for the rest of my life anyway, so I may as well just be okay with it.” I don’t necessarily mind she/her pronouns because they are familiar (I mean, people have been using them for me my entire life), but I like they/them about a million times more.
In other words, use they/them pronouns for me and you’ll make my day.
Part 2: In which I angst about being asked what my pronouns are by people I don’t trust
Stating your pronouns in ubiquitous in most of the Internet circles I run in, and I’m totally fine with that. In fact, it’s kind of euphoric. On the Internet I’m not afraid to ask for they/them pronouns. Hell, on the Internet I wouldn’t even be afraid to ask for tey/tem pronouns (which is my favorite neopronoun set). Real life is different. In real life, the stakes are a lot higher and I’m too scared to say anything other than she/her.
Unsurprisingly, since stating your pronouns is becoming a thing in real life, this is an issue.
I mind she/her the least when it’s just someone else’s mistaken assumption. Yeah, sometimes I do mentally correct people (example: “Actually, it’s ‘They already did that.’”) and I’m sometimes surprised by how desperately I wish my mom would use they/them pronouns for me, despite knowing that she never will, but it’s still mostly alright. It’s saying that my pronouns are she/her that’s really hard. I can handle other people misgendering me (especially since I’ve never done anything to tell them anything different so I can’t actually blame them for assuming I’m a woman), but misgendering myself is bad.
At the beginning of last semester, my university decided to implement a new feature on CANVAS which allows people to display their pronouns alongside their names. Great, I guess, except that I don’t trust that I’d be safe coming out to my cohort and therefore I don’t want to come out to them. Eventually, I decided that it would be worse to look like the kind of cis person who won’t state their pronouns than to misgender myself so I set my pronouns to she/her and it hurt every time I posted a discussion response for the entire semester. A couple times, I almost changed to the “she or they” option (which I still have issues with because of the way it positions she/her pronouns first, you’ll notice that I said I use they/she pronouns above), but talked myself out of it every time.
The issue is that people seem to assume that when I say “My pronouns are she/her” what I’m actually saying is “I’m a woman.” Since people are making that assumption, until I say that people can use she/her for me at least some small subset of people are aware that they can’t be sure what my gender is. In that instance, the above-mentioned cohort-mate is being polite by using they/them because he can’t know for sure what pronouns I use. Once I say that people can use she/her, I’ve removed that element of “can’t know” and I can be shunted away into the Cisgender Category with no more thought.
This is frustrating, because I’ve known a number of nonbinary people who use she/her pronouns exclusively and that using she/her pronouns doesn’t mean that you’re a woman and shouldn’t be interpreted that way. I also know a lot of nonbinary people who have the same response to being asked to state their pronouns in these kinds of situations that I do. I’m not sure if I’m the right person to say that “it seems like the (cis?) people who decide to do these sorts of things haven’t considered the fact that asking everyone to share their pronouns does not mean it’s actually safe for anyone to do so” but that’s how I feel about the whole thing.
I’ve experimented with saying “She/her is fine” instead of saying “My pronouns are she/her” as a way of refusing to confirm people’s assumptions about what I am and I like this better. The one time I tried it was with a therapist, however, and she caught that it wasn’t actually an answer, which was nerve-wracking because I didn’t have the guts to ask for anything else. However, there’s the issue that since I’m closeted and appear to be cis this might get read as me being “woke cis” or whatever, so I don’t want people to make those assumptions about me either.
In other words, I like stating my pronouns online, bit in real life it’s the bane of my existence.
Part 3: In which I rant about how I do have preferred pronouns but I’d really prefer if you just asked me what my pronouns are
I hate the “preferred pronouns” construction (and the “I identify as” construction, too). Like, really hate the preferred pronouns construction. This is somewhat contradictory to my actual experience, since, as discussed above, I use multiple sets of pronouns and have a defined preference. “My preference is they/them/theirs, but I will accept she/her/hers as well” is probably the most accurate description of what my pronouns are. Why, then, would I still prefer to be asked “What are your pronouns?” not “What are your preferred pronouns?”
The answer to that lies in the fact that I’m that person with Republicans for family members. I grew up surrounded by nastiness about how ridiculous and unreasonable it was for nonbinary people (and trans people in general) to even exist let alone ask for pronouns other than the ones people assumed for them. That form of bigotry mocked words like “preferred” and “identify” because, “look at those dumb, politically correct liberals who think that you can have opinions on your own gender. Can imagine that?”
Every time I hear someone ask “What are your preferred pronouns?” or say “I identify as…” I hear that bigotry. I hear the conservative agitator going on about how he identifies as a cheetah and you can’t tell him he’s not one because people are allowed to say that they’re anything they want these days, and my chest tightens with panic.
I’ve talked about this before in other places when talking about why I don’t like “I identify as” and I think the way I described it there was good so I’ll repeat it here with some minor edits for clarity:
“To me ‘I identify as’ seems like a way of giving ground to the people who will claim you’re not what you say you are. Saying “I identify as agender” leaves space for an interpretation where you’re actually a woman who just thinks they’re agender in a way that saying “I am agender” does not. People are still going to interpret you as a woman who just thinks they’re agender either way, but when you say “I am agender” you state your identity as a fact that they are ignoring. “I identify as agender” makes your identity an opinion that they are allowed to disagree with.”
I don’t know what to do about this, because I acknowledge that in my case “preferred pronouns” is probably more accurate than “pronouns” is, but the baggage I have with it makes it hard to interact with the saying in good faith. Also, it occurs to me that “preferred pronouns” might still make the mistake of assuming that if you were given the option to state your pronouns you’d state the set you like the best.
I wonder if it might be better if instead of asking people (especially asking strangers), “What are your pronouns?” or “What are your preferred pronouns?” we instead asked, “What pronouns would you like me to use for you?” That might take some of the pressure off of having to choose between saying what your pronouns actually are and staying safe. I wouldn’t have a problem telling my professors and cohort-mates “You can use she/her for me” because I do want them to use she/her for me (because I don’t trust them with anything else) and saying “you can use these pronouns for me” is not at all the same as saying that those are actually my pronouns.
Is that actually a good idea? Who knows. Would anyone but me find this an acceptable workaround? Who knows. I think it might work for me though.