“Welcome! Let’s go around the circle and introduce ourselves by saying our name, our preferred pronouns, and the oddest thing you’ve ever eaten.”
For anyone who has introduced themselves within a queer-friendly environment, this is a pretty common experience. Which is great! Pronouns can be an important part of our identities, especially as trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC)* folks.
I was recently at a retreat where we went around introducing ourselves in this way. Though I was really glad for the multiple opportunities to share my pronouns, this experience got me thinking again about my continuing journey with pronouns, and some critiques I have of the process.
1. “Preferred pronouns”
My pronouns are my pronouns. They are not an optional thing for people who know which pronouns I use. Since I’m early in transitioning to they/them pronouns, I’ve sometimes said things like, “Oh, I don’t really mind if people use she/her pronouns so long as they also use my preferred pronouns.” I’m not great at correcting people and still sometimes accidentally refer to myself using the language I was assigned at birth.
But in reality, I do mind, and when people catch themselves and use the correct language, I feel wonderful. My pronouns aren’t a preference like my love of cookie-dough ice cream or reddish hues. They are my pronouns, and the use of she/her pronouns and traditionally “female” language is incorrect and makes me squirm. When asking people to share their pronouns, do just that. Don’t use language which implies that respecting peoples’ pronouns is optional.
2. “Male” and “female” pronouns
At this retreat, people often introduced themselves saying “I use male pronouns,” or “I use female pronouns.” This language implies that gender identity and pronouns are equivalent. They are related, but not everyone who identifies as a certain gender uses the same pronouns.
There are enbies who use she/her or he/him pronouns. Some people identify within the binary, but use some form of gender-neutral pronouns, either alone or in conjunction with she/her or he/him pronouns. People of any gender identity may use one or multiple sets of pronouns. Sure, it takes a bit longer to say, but detaching pronouns from being masculine or feminine helps those of us for whom our gender identity does not “match” our pronouns.
3. Pronouns aren’t comfortable for everyone
Mandatory declaration of pronouns assumes that I am cis and should therefore state my pronouns as an ally, or that I am comfortably TGNC. However, this excludes a lot of people and makes things really uncomfortable when you’re first coming out. Not saying your pronouns can make you look like a bigot; saying your pronouns can mean you intentionally misgender yourself or out yourself prematurely.
I hated the pronoun question a few months ago, and had many an uncomfortable moment. I didn’t even know what my pronouns were! How was I supposed to say them? Sometimes I launched into a stumbling explanation of my confusion. Other times, I just said “she/her” and squirmed inside. Even now, there are many spaces where being asked to share my pronouns would make me supremely uncomfortable. I am not ready to come out to everyone at church, yet would hate to be forced to misgender myself out loud. Even in “safe spaces,” we can’t assume that people feel certain about their pronouns or safe enough to share.
This said, pronouns are supremely important for many people, and acknowledging them is a must. This article isn’t perfect (let’s get away from saying that someone’s appearance can match their pronouns), but I really appreciate the suggestion to acknowledge and invite people to share as they prefer. This will, I’m sure, still result in awkward feelings for new and questioning TGNC folk, but hopefully not feeling an obligation to share can help.
Acknowledging pronouns can be a super important means of affirming our identities and creating safe space, but it can also be the opposite experience for many people. Being aware of our language and assumptions when discussing pronouns is crucial to helping to create safer spaces for all.
*TGNC includes MTF and FTM, as well as genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, gender-f*ck, gender-bender, two-spirit, intersex, and anyone else who does not identify as strictly cis-gender or the gender they were assigned at birth. People under the TGNC umbrella may not identify with this language (for example, two-spirit Indigenous people who may or may not identify with settler language). Erasure of identities within the non-cis umbrella is a good topic for another post, but I’ve selected this as a more inclusive term. As always, I’m open to feedback from other TGNC folk!
The song Will you come and follow me, by John L. Bell, has a verse that really resonates with me in my coming out journey. Our discomfort with pronouns often has to do with uncertainty and hidden selves. You can see the whole song here and listen to it here.
Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?