We need to talk about pronouns, and how we’ve let a tiny part of speech become this toxic cesspool that prevents us from talking to one another.
This is the second part of a three-part series on pronouns. Alotta Thoughts #13 – We’ve gone Pronoun Mad (Pronouns Part 1) took a look at a flyer from my daughter’s school which gives children horrible advice to never assume someone’s pronouns, even based on their name or clothing, and to always use gender neutral pronouns if you are not sure what is preferred because apparently we are all totally okay being called a they/them.
Our pronoun craze hurts everyone, even transgender individuals.
We are literally talking about a part of speech. Fundamentally, this is a grammar debate. Now don’t get me wrong. I love grammar and have been a regular subscriber to Grammar Girl for many years. But these are pronouns. They shouldn’t and wouldn’t matter, if not for the inconvenient fact that in English our most common pronouns, he and she, happen to be gendered.
I say inconvenient, because most of the time gender isn’t even related to what we are trying to communicate, it just so happens that when referring to a person in a sentence like ‘he kicked the ball’, gender is part of what’s communicated. It’s dumb, but it’s how English works so we are kind of stuck with it.
But why has this come to matter so much for transgender individuals?
As mentioned in Alotta Thoughts #13 – We’ve gone Pronoun Mad (Pronouns Part 1), when someone experiences gender dysphoria and undergoes transition, they are looking to be identified as their affirmed gender rather than their biological sex. Pronoun usage either powerfully re-enforces or detracts from that affirmation. And finding your affirmation from pronouns is not a good or healthy thing.
I can relate to how it feels to not receive the pronouns that you wish to receive. When I first transitioned, I received she/her from everyone in my friendship circles. These were kind and loving people who wanted to support me in my transition. That being said, they would slip up and call me he/him from time to time. Why? Because my voice was low, because I am tall and have some masculine facial features, and because in many cases they had known me as Jason for many years prior and were suddenly expected to switch to identifying me with a new set of pronouns. That’s not easy to do!
When I’d receive, he/him, I’d be devastated. For a long while I blamed others for this. I’d blame their ‘unwillingness’ to care about me enough to ‘get my pronouns right’.
When I would receive pronouns I didn’t want it would rip me apart. I would feel it for days. And I wouldn’t want to be around the well-meaning person who ‘misgendered’ me because I felt uncomfortable knowing that they didn’t view me as truly female.
About a year into my transition, I realized that this wasn’t about other people at all. I was doing this to myself. In order to deal with my dysphoria, I had adopted an illusion and was pretending that I was something that I wasn’t: female. I would enter interactions with others pretending that they saw me this way as well. When someone would use he/him, regardless of their intention, it would suddenly force me to face the reality that others didn’t see me as I was choosing to see myself.
Back then when I would receive pronouns I didn’t want it would rip me apart. I would feel it for days. And I wouldn’t want to be around the well-meaning person who ‘misgendered’ me because I felt uncomfortable knowing that they didn’t view me as truly female.
The solution to this spiral, as it turned out, fell upon me completely by accident. A few years ago I had an opportunity to work with a wonderful life and career coach and we spent a lot of time focused on authenticity. I went in thinking that I had a problem being authentic with others but throughout the year of coaching realized I had a much bigger problem being authentic with myself.
Through authenticity, I came to accept that I am biologically male. And when I say accept, that doesn’t mean that I like it, it just means I don’t live in denial of it anymore.
Looking back, where I was at reminds me of friends from high school who thought they were amazing singers when they were actually sub-par at best. They’d constantly be crushed when the subtle actions of others didn’t affirm them as having the voice they imagined they had. For those of you who were theatre kids, you probably know a person just like that!
Now, I hesitate to deliver this message, because I know there’s an audience who will gleefully take the argument above as license to intentionally use pronouns someone doesn’t want, shove them in their face, and say they are doing it to ‘help a trans person find reality’.
I get this on most of my videos when some clever anonymous account crafts an intentionally awkward sentence to pack in as many pronouns as possible.
I sincerely believe that transgender individuals are better off if they can come to accept that their transition does not change their biological reality, but this is not an easy thing to face. Please remember that dysphoria is intense and there’s a lot going on here. If you genuinely want to help a transgender person to accept their biological reality that’s going to be done through friendship, love and genuine conversations. It’s not going to happen through humiliation.
Doing this to me doesn’t do anything because I acknowledge I’m biologically male, and more importantly, it just makes you look like an asshole. But even if we consider someone else who hasn’t come to accept their reality, intentionally directed the pronouns they don’t wish to receive is not going to be effective in helping them accept their biological reality. You’re a bit of a jerk if you enjoy using words that cause genuine hurt to people just because you can.
I sincerely believe that transgender people are better off if they can come to accept that their transition does not change their biological reality, but this is not an easy thing to face. Please remember that dysphoria is intense and there’s a lot going on here. If you genuinely want to help a transgender person to accept their biological reality that’s going to be done through friendship, love, genuine conversations, and in my case a lot of books. It’s not going to happen through humiliation. Techniques like this is what this side of the divide is doing to cause even more pushback against your cause.
I think it’s important to approach this topic with an element of humility. There are many people—I’d argue most of us—who believe a whole bunch of things that are detached from reality. Humans believe fictitious narratives about our families, our religions, our countries, and the celebrities that we follow. Even more personally, are we not all guilty of holding delusions about ourselves—delusions we create in order to place ourselves as the heroes and champions of our own narrative? Perhaps recognizing that this individual struggles with their gender and showing a little charity towards transgender people would help to temper the tense climate that currently exists on all sides of this toxic debate.
One last thought before I end this video. The final installment of this series will take a deeper dive into the dangers of compelled speech, which is where we currently stand with pronouns usage. I do not accept that anyone should be compelled towards speech of any kind, affirming pronouns included.
But, in practice, almost everyone in my life uses she/her to refer to me, including many individuals whom don’t accept me as a women. This isn’t compelled—I’ve never asked for any pronouns—but it’s something that my friends and acquaintances almost invariably chose to do on their own accord because they recognize that sometimes we do things to be nice to other humans. This isn’t revolutionary—it’s called friendship and it’s what we do with others in a community. It’s beautiful when this happens organically—when the trans person doesn’t demand anything and the speaker decides that they want to do what they know will be appreciated. It’s simple, it’s nuanced, and it works. If everyone just wanted to communicate with the best of intentions like this then I wouldn’t need to make so many videos.