On the Pronoun Spectrum


I arrived in St Louis yesterday. I grew up here, then I left, with little desire to return. My mother’s house seemed surprisingly tiny, and surprisingly dingy. There are more cracks in the ceilings, more scuffs on the walls, stains on the carpets, more clutter and cat hair. The cabinet doors lean sloppily on hinges whose loads have become, over time, more than they were meant to support.

Ben, a dear friend, accompanied me. Ben is cisgender and an amazing ally. Ben sat in the passenger seat for seven or eight hours from his east Tennessee house while I drove here, where I plan to stay temporarily but indefinitely, until my financial circumstances change for the better. My family and I tend not to get along, but we say we love each other. This sort of behavior makes me wonder what other people mean when they talk about love. I am pretty sure this part of my family uses that word to speak of reluctant but blood-bound obligation, something like duty or honor. I pull into the driveway with my shields up.

After the introductory pleasantries are exchanged and my mother and brother don the rosy exteriors they always wear for the first few hours of me being in town, we unload the car and talk. My mother tells Ben about her work and the brain age game she plays, how her brain is younger than mine. There is laughing. I stare out the windows and at the carpet a lot. Ben quietly mentions needing to get back on the road, not immediately, but soon. My brother catches us on our way out, and I ask him about the news I’ve been hearing about some new stadium construction deal the local government made under shady circumstances. He tells me what he knows, and points out that he knows something I don’t, and that I should get used to it.

Ben and I go to the gas station, then I drive him around some neighborhoods I know, to give him a sense of where I’m from (as much a sense as one can get from house fronts and street names and landscaping and relative amounts of Xmas junk in the yards), but mostly to get out of the house–my armpits are drenched.

In the car, Ben asks me how I’m feeling. I think for a bit, and then I make a sarcastic comment about the level of self-absorption in my family and where I get it from. Ben laughs lightly, the kind of laugh that agrees but only to a degree, a laugh that says, “well, yeah, ok, a little.” I know I’m being hyperaware and cynical, and I know I might be seeing threats where they actually don’t exist, but I also know something is making me uneasy.

Then he brings it up. “Your mother thinks she’s being supportive by avoiding any gendered language entirely, and your brother doesn’t seem to care about your pronouns or name at all.”

Today, my mother slips up a few times, but she corrects herself without me saying anything. My brother gets my pronouns wrong a few times and doesn’t bother to correct himself, and he uses the wrong name a few times, but he also uses the right name a few times, and gets my pronouns right a few times, too. My mom said “Yes ma’am” to me when we walked in to the grocery store, and then called me “Sir” for the rest of the night.

So I’ve been thinking about pronouns and gendered language a lot today.

Pronoun update: I’m pretty sure I have a pronoun spectrum and that it looks like this:

Gender: Male————–Female———————Nongender

Because when people refer to me by these pronouns:

Pronoun:He/His———–She/Her—————–Ze/Hir or Ze/Zir

they register like this:

Nope—————————-Awesome———Doing it Right

and feel like this:
Are You Listening ————Kay We’re Cool—-Everyone is Dancing!

:(———————————–:)—————–XD Yay!

In sentence form: when referring to me, female pronouns are totes cool and awesome and thanks and go you!, but when people refer to me with nongender pronouns, sometimes (but not always) it feels even better.

And I’m interested in that sometimes. I want to explore that here.

Intellectually, I try to speak and act and live in ways that resist the gender binary. I want to resist dyadism, resist the sexism and misogyny those beliefs about gender inspire, resist how the idea of there existing two and only two discrete genders erases trans people from language and history and culture and possibility and generally the world while creating confusion and fear and mystification and nonacceptance and hostility around us and violence–real, physical, broken-bones violence–against us.

Intellectually, I recognize that there are many ways to gender (verb) things and people, and that most gendering events rely on assumptions people make based on the-person-being-gendered’s physical appearance (secondary sex characteristics, usually).

Intellectually, given how different cultures gender people based on different cues, and given how nobody can see but a fraction of our anatomies yet we still assign genders, and given that there are documented and recurrent exceptions to all the “rules” and patterns we gender each other by, it’s clear that gender is something humans create and impose upon each other, not some immutable property of nature.

Intellectually, if we can choose to gender someone, we can also choose to not gender someone.

Intellectually, I understand that since I have started my gender transition, people have had an easier time referring to me by female pronouns than by nongender pronouns (and Christmas is coming up, so I am trying to decide how many oversights or forgetfulnesses or disregards or intentional mispronounings I will let slide before remind folks of my pronoun preference. Currently, I think the best answer would be as many as possible until it hurts).

I have been asking for people to refer to me by female pronouns, and I will continue asking people to do that.


But there is always the slightest bit of discomfort that I get when I am referred to by female pronouns. Part of me doesn’t feel 100% comfortable being called female. I am not sure why. I think, well, I haven’t had a female upbringing, I don’t pass, I don’t have a completely female biology, surely there are more feminine people than I, etc. Then I ask, well, what IS a “female” upbringing? or a “female” biology? Don’t some cisgender women not pass? Don’t cisgender women sometimes catch cultural flak for not adhering to normative ideas of femininity? Aren’t there feminine men and feminine women and masculine men and masculine women? Aren’t there people with both feminine and masculine characteristics, and nongendered ones (like watching lots of TV or disliking jogging or wanting to be an astronaut)? So where’s the discomfort coming from?

Truth be told, when I ask people refer to me by nongender pronouns, I feel I am asking too much. The words are not in common usage, and pronoun use is often an instinctual thing, and I am asking them to put themselves in situations where they might be othered for speaking weird (ze, or hir, for instance). I also feel like that’s a good thing, that exposure is good, that exposure to nongendered ideas and nongendered language is great and necessary and a sign of progress and a learning opportunity.

When people refer to me by female pronouns, it often feels like victory. It feels like belonging. It feels like “These people get it, they get me, they get all the complicated stuff I’ve been saying and they want to help and they accept me as I have declared myself.” Female pronouns from friends are small but significant interpersonal triumphs of shared understanding and intellectual connection.

Getting female pronouns from strangers in public feels like victory, but different. Often, it means I am passing. When I wear a certain pair of bright blue dangly earrings a friend made for me (thanks, Lacey!), I get ma’amed and “you ladies” and “miss” waaaaaay more than I do when I am not wearing them, so I often wear them when I am going to unfamiliar places. Other times, it just means I am safe here. Especially if I haven’t shaved in a few days and keep clearing my throat and am wearing baggy clothes and am generally not passing. When I get ma’amed in public, then, it means, among other things, “You pass” and/or “I know and I am going to help and you are safe here.”

There is also the issue of my role as the person being referred to. I don’t want to be constantly correcting people. I don’t want people to feel like they have to watch their tongues around me. I don’t want to make people feel on edge by simply being in the room. I don’t want my being trans to cause any more confusion or stress or anxiety to people than it already does. And I don’t want to be the language police.I also know that if people do feel any of these things as a consequence of my gender, that is really not my problem. I am not responsible for other people’s transphobia, though I do get to choose how I manage its impact on me.

This is tricky business. I would rather live in a world where my presence in public and my presence in language do not function to reinforce binary notions of gender. I would rather speak a language that has plenty of room in it–and hence, in the culture–for nongendered ways to refer to human beings, or to refer to people without specifying gender each time you refer to them (and pronouns are exactly where this occurs).Intellectually, I want people to refer to me with nongender pronouns like Ze and Hir or Zir, because that is in line with my political and cultural values. Emotionally, I get more pleasant feels from female pronouns. What is a girl to ask for? Why do I have to ask in the first place?5.
I will say this. It would appear my pronoun preference is influenced by context. In public, female pronouns are on the far right of the pronoun spectrum (YAY!), and nongender pronouns are in the OK Zone (Cool). Out of public, nongender pronouns are far right, and female ones slide closer to the middle.Maybe this sounds overcomplicated, but it’s how I’ve experienced pronouns, and I want to honor my experience. I never thought about this stuff when I was closeted. Now that I’m out and managing the many ways gender influences my everything, I notice.

I suppose I could also say this: if you want to refer to me in a respectful way, just don’t refer to me by male pronouns, or by “it.” Any other pronoun is perfectly acceptable and signals camaraderie.

Onward, gender comrades.


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