the president of pronouns gives you permission to just kind of try stuff out
I asked on twitter a while back:
Cis people, have you ever tried out different pronouns besides your current primary ones? I got a lot of responses like this:
-> I want to, but I'm not ready for the conversations that it would bring up.
-> I started to try, but then backed out of it.
-> I haven't done it on purpose but sometimes people use different pronouns for me randomly and I like it.
-> I say __/they but people mostly revert to the (primary, cis-compliant) one, so I don't know what it really feels like.
-> I tried, but no one used them.
-> I want to use 'they' but I think it would be a misuse of my cis privilege to ask for or insist on it.
-> I want to, but I don't think I'm allowed to, I think it would be taking something from a community I'm not really a part of.
Good news to these people:
You Just Can.
In answer to "I'm worried if I insist on / ask for different pronouns, I'm appropriating from the trans community"
No You're Not. We're not going to run out of theys at the pronoun store. You're not stealing a they from some poor nonbinary every time someone uses it for you. You're not faking being trans, or pretending to be something you're not. If someone does ask you directly about your identity, realize that 1.) that's a personal question, and you have a right not to answer, and 2.) if you do share the answer, it is a chance for closeness and learning.
If you are very certain you are a cis person, and you go into a room full of cis people and say "I use they/them pronouns, please refer to me by these pronouns only" then 1.) you are aligning yourself on the team that hates transphobes, cool and thanks, and 2.) all these cis people get a chance to practice they/them pronouns some more. Win/win.
In answer to "I did ask, and nobody used them."
This is not a you thing, not completely, but you can work towards fixing it. If you are a cis person who goes into a room full of cis people and says "I use they/them pronouns" and they all proceed to ignore your wishes and call you the pronoun they think is most aligned with your assigned sex at birth, that tells you two things:
1. these people are for sure misgendering trans people
2. these people do not respect your autonomy and right to self-determination.
1 may feel easier to approach than 2. 1 may feel general and political, and safer because it's not STRICTLY speaking about you. You can rest assured at the end of the day that you'll do your best as a cis ally, and maybe you'll eventually change some of their minds or at least make it so they don't feel as comfortable being publicly nasty about it.
2 is harder because it is about you. You have to deal with the fact that someone with whom you have a previously-fine relationship has a line in the sand, beyond which they don't think you get to be in charge of your own life. You will be forced to do the kind of crap that trans people have to do: either decide to shrink yourself down, erase your values and boundaries, and build a mask to keep you safe; or try to fight them on it. Be prepared for them to claim it's a grammar issue, and then you'll start noticing they totally use singular they for specific referents (just not when a person ASKS for it). Be prepared for them to tell you you're being unreasonable, or you have to give them more time to practice. Start wondering what they mean when they need more time to practice. Are they practicing? When? Be prepared to start making calculations about when it's safe to correct them. Can you correct them in front of your students? Can you correct them in front of your boss? Start noticing that this person also disrespects your boundaries in other ways, or maybe they're perpetually zoned out and are doing this to everyone around them. Start watching how they treat their grad students. It's rough! You learned so much about someone, and it was safer not to know. It was easier when it was just an abstract political thing.
Did you really want to be this person's friend, though? Were they ever really going to know you, the genuine core of you? If they can't be empathetic and generous on this one measly little thing, can you trust them to have your back on a higher stakes issue that inconveniences them?
It’s troubling, but maybe you can learn some important truths about some of your relationships. Wouldn’t you rather start fostering relationships with people who do respect your boundaries and autonomy?
In answer to (relatedly) “I want to, but I’m not ready for the type of reactions I’m afraid I’ll get”
Maybe you’ve thought about that stuff above, or maybe you took a couple baby steps and found that you got some of that stuff above. Maybe you’re not in a safe enough place in your life where you can really withstand the grief of learning who does and doesn’t respect your personhood. I promise I get it! That doesn’t mean you have to squash yourself into a box that doesn’t fit, or just feels dusty and meaningless. You can move towards the joy of pronouns in safe ways, before or instead of taking big public risks. Here are some ideas:
- Write a story about yourself using your desired pronouns. Maybe draw a funny little comic where animal characters all become your friends and use those pronouns for you. Your character can try out a lot of different stuff, and it can be totally between you and yourself. You never have to share it if you don’t want to.
- Evaluate what relationships you have that do seem really safe and secure -- notice who in your life is really good at respecting your boundaries and autonomy. Ask them to try using those pronouns for you.
- Make a pseudononymous account online somewhere that’s just for fun. Maybe join a MMORPG or make a tumblr or join the knitting forums or reddit or something, where your screenname can be like SPICY____MANGO10585432 and you can use your desired pronouns there. You can try out really wild ones and see if you like it. Make friends based on shared interests, and let yourself feel how it feels for these real people (strangers, but real people!) to use your pronouns.
If you’ve read down this far, here’s the important takeaways I want you to get:
- You’re not bad or oppressing anyone for wanting to try different pronouns. You’re not stealing trans valor. We’re not going to run out of pronouns. It’s really REALLY okay.
- If you do try different pronouns, you may learn some stuff about your social relationships that might be affirming or it might be upsetting. You’re not wrong for being upset. You get to decide how to respond to what you learn about people.
- There are ways you can try different pronouns out without threatening your safety. You don’t have to quash your fear, or berate yourself for being afraid. You can find safe ways to approach it in a way that feels good.
- The goal of any of this is to chase good feelings, and notice bad feelings with a curious mindset. Trying stuff out to see how it feels means you should pay attention to how it feels, and ask what that feeling tells you.
Finally, as the president of pronouns, let me officially give you permission:
- You may try out they/them
- You may try out he or she
- You may try out fae/faer or ey/em or zie/hir
- Or any others. You will notice the linguistic constraints yourself, you don’t need me to tell you that trisyllabic pronouns might be difficult.
- You can try them and decide you don’t like it, and go back to what you were doing before
- You can try them and then try different ones. You can try as many sets as you like (within the cognitive abilities of your compatriots, if they’re participating - it’s hard but possible to switch within a single conversation, for example
- You can try something for a long long time before deciding. You can try something for two seconds before deciding. It’s allowed
- You can talk about your feelings with others. You don’t have to process this in secret.
- You don’t have to be cis if you don’t want to.
- You don’t have to be trans if you don’t want to.
- You don’t have to know for sure.
- The answer is allowed to change.