Preferred Pronouns – Asking a Hard Question

One of my pet projects in my silly little queer poly feminist sex-positive life is to deconstruct ideas of politeness, and thereby better understand why we treat people the way we do, and whether some attempts to be “polite” are actually undermining our abilities to be better people.

As always, I’m leading in with a big grand statement rather than just telling you what’s on my mind. As the title suggests, what is on my mind tonight is preferred pronouns. Knowing which pronoun to apply to a particular person is primarily a relevant concern for the queer community, but it should be an issue for consideration among all American English speakers. (I don’t know a damn thing about etiquette or linguistics in any other cultures or languages, so I won’t even try to speak to them [Haha, speak to them! See what I did there?])

It’s becoming an increasingly accepted practice among the queer community that when you meet a person who is not blatantly masculine or feminine – or, in many circles, when you meet anyone at all – you ask him/her/ze/them for his/her/zir/their preferred pronoun. If you somehow got on my blog and don’t know what I mean by that, here’s a for-instance.

I’ve just met someone at a party. It appears to me that this person is biologically male, but this person is wearing a dress and makeup. The individual is introduced to me as Robin. Robin’s gender is ambiguous to me, so I say to Robin, “Hello Robin, it’s very nice to meet you. What are your preferred pronouns?” Robin then tells me he, she, ze, they, or some variation. Sometimes a person will even tell me “I don’t care.” This discloses to me Robin’s chosen gender identity, thus preventing me from making incorrect assumptions and being offensive.

With me so far? Good.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

For a long time, I had trouble accepting this custom. When I was growing up, I would have people ask me (or ask my friends) “are you a boy or a girl?” as an insult. I was never particularly androgynous, even at my most pubescently awkward stages. Yes, I admit, I often wore men’s jeans, and by the end of 8th grade I had a short haircut. But my figure was never terribly angular, in the typically masculine way. So that means that “are you a boy or a girl?” really meant, “you’re a very ugly girl.” And I didn’t enjoy that.

Additionally, asking someone for their preferred pronoun made me uncomfortable because I was raised to understand that even if you aren’t trying to be mean, asking someone “are you a boy or a girl?” is rude. And the reason that it’s rude is because you’re telling this person that you can’t tell his/her/zir/their gender just by looking. And, here’s the payoff, not being able to judge a person’s gender by sight is a bad thing. Thus, you don’t ask.

Well, I’ve reached a point in my life where I understand that gender is not a binary, that people don’t have to fit into an either-or world, and that even if a person wants to live in a concrete male or female gender identity, it doesn’t have to present itself through typical masculine/feminine visuals. What that means is that to look at a person and not be able to judge gender right away is not a negative reflection on that person. When I see someone and I can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, neither or both, it doesn’t mean that person is failing at his/her/zir/their gender by being visually ambiguous. And therefore, asking someone about preferred pronouns respects his/her/zir/their personal choice to select a gender identity, and expresses my willingness to accept that identity, no matter what it is.

The important difference, I think, is that I’ve developed the understanding that gender identity is a choice. And by that I am not trying to invoke nature/nurture arguments, but simply to say that it doesn’t matter what a person looks like, or what kind of genitalia that person has: whatever identity a person discloses to me, that’s the truth.

Edit: I was looking so hard for this image when I wrote this post last night, but wasn’t able to get my hands on it. This has been the best visual aid for gender identification that I’ve ever come across. No, I didn’t create it, and unfortunately I don’t know who did or I’d be happy to give appropriate credit.270873_168099213351707_1010752796_n


4 thoughts on “Preferred Pronouns – Asking a Hard Question

  1. I hadn’t realised how complicated it could be: thanks for that. I can’t help but wonder if saying that choice of pronoun is important is really self-defeating? Opting out of your allotted pigeon-hole makes sense, but doing so by saying pigeon-holes are everything does not. Surely the point is to undermine the pigeon-holes? Also, is there some incumbent responsibility to make it all navigable for we non-homophobe straights?

    • The choice of pronoun has to be important, because we all have to communicate via language. And it’s true, some people might find it liberating to adopt a universal pronoun for all people, but I believe that allowing a person to choose their personal pronouns is a way of communicating that I’ve accepted their gender identity. As far as making it navigable, I think that’s what I just did. Ask. I don’t think it can get more straightforward than just asking people for their preferences and following them.

  2. Very interesting: I had never seen the word zir before this post. My sense of this is that all behavior is not pigeon holeing. People do what they know, and the world you describe here is new and growing stronger as we speak. In France, a man my age would tip his hat to you. When I was a kid, we were told always to pass a woman on the street on the street side, to protect her from the mud and shit thrown up from the street. That was what respect behaved like. Sometime around the 70s or 80s, it became the norm to pass a woman on the building side of the street, so as not to seem to want to pin her in away from the street. I love how pronouns and behaviors change, but believe we always need to see the heart behind the behavior. This is one of the reasons why I call students, “sweetie,” “darling,” “bubba,” “dude,” “guy.” This all has been earmarked as “offensive,” but I want the people with whom I interact to look for what’s behind the codes. As always, I love your posts here.

    • I guess “seeing the heart behind the behavior” is exactly why I like to examine what we consider to be polite vs rude. I consider myself a polite person, but if the ideology motivating what is currently considered the polite thing to do is born from ignorance or wrongheadedness, then I’m happy to reject it, even at the risk of being considered rude.

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