In the eventuality that the website formerly known as “twitter” is no longer archivable or citable, I am archiving (with permission) linguist Leah Velleman’s very good tweets (from Mar 29, 2021) about pronoun sharing (some bolding added). Some updates and commentary / a brief interview with Leah follows :)
unpopular opinion: working for trans rights means getting us legal protections working for trans inclusion means getting us more influence, status, and power. making everyone at your office put their pronouns on their nametag is neither of those.
it is, in fact, an accommodation for cis people. it lets cis people pretend to be better at etiquette than they are. trans people already know how to negotiate complicated situations where people’s pronouns aren’t clear. many cis people don’t, so they need this accommodation.
that’s fine. cis people should get accommodations to help with the things that some of them are bad with and it is polite to give those accommodations to all of them rather than publicly singling out the ones who need them most.
but good lord, if you claim you’re interested in trans rights? you have bitten off something far, far bigger than nametags, and you aren’t showing any sign of being able to chew it.
(like, i’m not even opposed to the nametags. sometimes trans people solve the pronoun problem with nametags. but if it doesn’t count as A ViCtOrY fOr TrAnS RiGhTs when we give ourselves nametags, it doesn’t count as one when we let you have some too, does it?)
Kirby: So Leah! Your good tweets, this is one of two threads where I’m government-assigning you guest blog post, and I’m curious how these read back to you now that we’re both off that hellsite?
Leah: I think I stand by them! Like, there’s nuance that I didn’t get into, that I might have if I’d planned it as a blog post, but I still agree with it
Kirby: Ooh, what’s some of the nuance we missed out on — do you want to expand on any of it now?
Leah: Oh jeez. I guess the big one is, “The Trans Community” isn’t monolithic, and lots of little subcommunities have their own customs for dealing with pronouns — including, I’m sure, some where the custom is to all wear pronoun pins or write them on nametags or whatever. So I’m only speaking for me and my little subcommunity’s customs. In a way, though, it doesn’t even matter, because members of any community are experts on that community’s customs. So whatever trans subcommunity we’re talking about, we should expect cis outsiders to need help and accommodations when dealing with that community.
Kirby: Yes, absolutely! That sort of resonates with something where I notice myself introducing my pronouns in all-trans or mostly-trans spaces, but they’re formal trans spaces, like, when I’m a professor teaching a class or chairing a committee. So I wonder if you think some of the feeling of in-group/out-group dynamics is a little tied to formal and informal settings, or have you noticed any of that kind of pattern
Leah: Yeah. Or honestly the trans space I was in most recently where Everyone Gives Their Pronouns was a mental health recovery program — which I guess in a way is still formal.
Kirby: Right, there’s that assumption that there are certain rules and we don’t necessarily all know each other outside of this setting.
Leah: Yeah, exactly, a support group and a class are both situations where a lot of people are strangers, and where you’re not supposed to interrupt each other or have side conversations, so they kind of break the “just ask their friends” and “be open to correction” norms
Kirby: And the side conversations are crucial to what I think of as the House Party Setting, where I just wait for someone else to use a pronoun or two instead of asking outright. So maybe some of this is about how social norms are directing who gets to talk to who, and when and where.
Leah: Yeah, that sounds right
Kirby: Damn it sounds like we need some linguists to do some sort of research or something on the social interaction part of language use or something… Well, thank you for taking the time to join us — this was really fantastic! Before we wrap up, is there anything you want to add?
Leah: Uh, not really? But thanks, this was fun!
Kirby: Thank you! And we look forward to having you on again in our next guest post where I forcibly archive that one tweet thread about “distal they” that we all keep citing in our ling papers :P
Some ending thoughts from Kirby!
- This is actually a twitter thread from Leah’s old locked twitter account, which means I can’t archive it in the wayback machine or anything; but it’s posted (obv) with permission, and the only edit I made was to bold some stuff
- Please don’t use this post to litigate whether pronoun-introducing or nametags are good. They’re fine. But, like, actually improving trans lives means we need healthcare and housing and protection from police violence and shit.
- As a linguist who studies pronouns, I think that the most important takeaway from this insight is that pronouns (and language bits more generally) are more often symptoms of social inequalities, not causes. We would do well to remember this.
You might also like some of my other posts, such as:
- this one about how to email people who are getting your pronouns wrong
- this very short older post about the problems with asking everyone to say their pronouns
- this post about how to train your brain to get better at just noticing pronouns
- this post about how sometimes conversations about pronouns are really not about pronouns at all