After contributor Drew Cordes expressed some insecurity about personal pronoun usage on Facebook, Bilerico Project Benevolent Overlord Bil Browning voiced some opinions - as well as some confusion. Drew and Bil then moved the conversation to private message for a conversation about preferred gender pronouns, genderqueerness, and divisions in trans ideology. Be aware: If judgy, dismissive comments about gender/pronouns are going to make you feel angry/like shit, you might want to skip this piece. By the end, everyone ends up a little more tolerant and sensitive and koombaya, though. Also, general disclaimer: These are two people's opinions, not canonical decrees.
Drew: I'm a little uneasy with pronouns lately. I'm starting to gravitate toward "they/them/theirs," but I'm still uncertain. They kinda all feel wrong. But "they/them/their(s)" might feel the least wrong.
Bil: Just please don't go the ze/hir route. That's just so stupid. There I said it. Ze/hir are so othering. They say to someone else: "I'm different than you." Stick to he/her. Since a large part of being transgender is claiming your gender, claim the damn pronouns, too, as your birthright. [Drew & Bil wish to point out that Bil is trying to be supportive of Drew-as-female here, encouraging Drew to claim justified ownership of "she/her," unaware that Drew no longer identifies as female.] As for queer folk who fall within the spectrum, but don't want to fully embrace one or the other singly -- allow people to choose what they want to say, or gently correct them to the one you prefer. It seems like folks would have much more success by putting themselves with other people instead of making any differences larger.
Drew: Bil, if I didn't know better, I'd say it sounds like you're saying people should assimilate if they want to expect respectful treatment ... If people mess up my gender, I always correct them politely (if I choose to correct them at all), but to nullify someone's deeply personal wishes to choose a pronoun like ze/hir just because you find it stupid and too othering ... well ... that's a less than tolerant perspective ...
Bil: First - I'll readily admit I'm not trans, so I could be mucking this all up. In fact, there's a good chance I did and will. But chalk it up to engagement. Second - I don't think it's necessarily intolerant. It's only my opinion and - as I said - the important part of this is that whatever you choose to use is what I'm going to say. I will affirm your choice of pronoun no matter what - including hir/ze/whatnot. I just think it's a dumb way to handle it, and I tried to explain why.
Drew: Um, thanks? I mean, your opinion is yours, but that's one you might want to keep to yourself around trans people and in public forums. Issues of identity are intensely personal and very rooted in social experiences, sometimes some pretty unpleasant ones. So, when someone who exists completely outside of the community and social space in question bluntly opines on the validity of your deepest sense of self ... well, you should expect some hurt feelings. Try applying this to another minority: "If you want me to use 'Chicano,' instead of 'Latino' for you, that's fine. I just think it's dumb and makes me see you as more different." Sounds pretty horrible, yes? You say you'd use whatever pronoun I'd like, even if it's one that's "dumb." Well, you'd be complying with my request, yes, but you wouldn't be respecting me as a person, at least, I wouldn't feel very respected. The entire purpose of social justice is that we can be seen as different, even radically so, and still be respected and treated as equals. No one should have to choose between their difference/uniqueness and respect.
Bil: You know that I'm not intending anything horrible or anti-trans or whatnot, I'm assuming? I know that I have the reputation already of being absolutely trans-wrong-wrong-wrong. But I want to discuss this.
Drew: I know you have no intention of hurting feelings, yes. I think this is usually how offensive comments happen - ignorance, lack of exposure, having no personal connection, or not having thought deeply about certain subjects before. One has to remember though, that good or neutral intentions do not excuse offensive speech/actions. We all have good intentions after all, even Westboro Baptist Church. Lots of people have prejudice against alternative pronouns. Even some trans folks roll their eyes at ze/hir.
Bil: Yeah - I just don't get it at all.
Drew: The thing is, and I'm stating the obvious here, there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun in mainstream English usage. So, the options are either repurpose they/them, or create some. Some people find they/them just as awkward as you find ze/hir, so they opt for the latter. And hopefully, in doing so, familiarity and usage of ze/hir will spread. If it did catch on and become more common I might feel different about using it.
Bil: Yeah. I get that. But I feel like that's putting the cart before the horse. Right now, we're still trying to get people to accept trans folks as equal human beings worthy of respect and dignity. And in that respect, showing you're "just like everyone else" is needed. People perceive trans folks as different from other "natural" human beings - that goes even deeper into human psyche than even sexual orientation. You're not just "choosing" who you have sex with (which got turned into "who you love" by the movement), you're choosing what many people perceive to be as one of the most basic "God-given" conditions. And in that respect, I feel like choosing "his or her" is the best choice. To bring it to something they realize and know.
Drew: I disagree very strongly that I should be try to be "just like everyone else." I refuse to accept assimilation as the price of tolerance. If I have to be just like you to gain rights and respect, that's a problem. That's bigotry. (The "you" in that statement representing the establishment; not "you" as in you, Bil.)
Bil: I see what you mean about not needing to be just like everyone else to be worthy of respect and rights. I'm not talking about anything like legalities or technicalities. I'm focusing on connecting with the larger cis world.
Drew: The larger cis world needs more education and awareness about tolerance, other cultures, and social justice. They shouldn't be persuaded that "we're all the same." Because we're not.
Bil: Okay, so here's a question. You previously identified as a gay man. Why did you feel like you needed to physically and medically transition?
Drew: This is a very basic trans question, and one I can only answer for you with other questions, which will probably frustrate you: How do you know that you don't need to change your own body? Why did you feel you needed to love boys instead of girls?
Bil: Okay, let me rephrase that then. Before you transitioned, you felt like something was wrong with your body, correct? It didn't reflect who you really were -- the "male" form versus the "female" form.
Drew: Not "wrong," necessarily, but let's avoid semantics and hair-splitting and just say: To some degree, yes.
Bil: Okay. So it seems to me as if you are very definitively saying to the world: "I am not a man. I've gone to all these lengths to become and grow into who I truly am." So why not claim the correct gender pronoun? This is my opinion solely, of course, but isn't that part of the point? Recognition of your correct gender?
Drew: Claiming "the correct" gender pronoun is what I'm trying to do. For some, ze/hir are the correct pronouns.
Bil: You are a woman. You are entitled to be called "her." You should be. Anything less, like ze/hir, would be insulting and othering. You're not something in between; you're a woman.
Drew: I am not a woman. I do not identify as a woman anymore. I identify as trans and genderqueer.
Bil: Oh? Fascinating. Could you tell me what that means to you please?
Drew: For me it means I'm both and neither man/woman, and many things in between.
Bil: I'll admit - I'm little wiggy on the genderqueer thing. I'm supportive of doing whatever, but I just don't understand it at all. I've never wrapped my head around it - and I've never asked for fear of the consequences. [Bil laughs]
Bil: But why? I mean, why don't you identify as a woman?
Drew: Because it doesn't feel right
Bil: I don't understand why it doesn't.
Drew: Same reason identifying as a woman doesn't feel right to you. It just doesn't. This is the just the basic difference between cis and trans -- you're not going to ever fully "get it" because you're not trans and you don't feel the disconnect like we do. But you can be aware of it and sensitive to it.
Bil: I think I'm just trying to say that using one of the already established gender pronouns is easier for people to understand, acknowledge, and move past.
Drew: Oh, no doubt. Of course it's easier. That doesn't make them better, though. And that doesn't make it more valid or more worthy of respect/tolerance.
Bil: I don't think it makes it more worthy of respect/tolerance. I think it just makes things advance the cause faster by giving people something to relate to.
Drew: It would be faster, but it would leave behind those who don't "fit."
Bil: Another question - say, for example, Bob says he's really a woman and transitions to Betty. Isn't the "trans" space only the in-between stage? After transitioning, isn't she just Betty the woman?
Drew: Whether Betty identifies as a "trans woman," a "woman with a trans history," or just as a "woman," is entirely up to Betty.
Bil: But aren't all of those choices "woman?"
Drew: There are many different ways to be a woman, and different people have very strong ties to their own experience of it. Some think of transness as like a birth defect -- once it's "corrected" with meds and surgery, then it's fixed and they're no longer trans. I personally do not feel that way about my transness, and never have. But some people feel strongly that that captures their experience with gender, so I have to respect their feelings.
Bil: I'd agree with that to some degree, but I think comparing it to a birth defect is just an attempt to denigrate those who they see as unwilling to complete the process and assimilate entirely. This makes those who haven't fully transitioned (or choose not to) still "wrong" or "uncorrected." A trans person who "had a birth defect" is the same as a kid "afflicted with homosexuality." It's language with the intent to other and denigrate. It's meant to harm the community.
Drew: Yeah, this is one of the divisive issues in our community. Or then again, maybe it isn't, since these folks don't consider themselves part of the "trans community" - not that that stops them from engaging in the discourse, which is an interesting double-bind, but that's another tangent. The "birth defect" folks, sometimes known as the Harry Benjamin Syndrome folks, resent being labeled as trans. After treatment and surgery, in their minds, they're just women and men now, and they don't want to be lumped in with trans-identifying folks. I'm generalizing and using language others might not here, of course, to illustrate the divide more clearly.
Bil: Of course. How do you feel about it? Once trans always trans? Or a stage you put behind you?
Drew: I'm not in that crowd. When I did ID as a woman, it was as a trans woman. I didn't want to deny my past as a guy; it was still valid for me. However, I've ceased to feel that "woman" resonates with who I am, and I had to go through the process of living as one to realize that. So I transitioned to female, yes, but I do not identify as female or as a woman anymore. And that's my choice -- equally valid as that of an HBSer who wants to be seen as a woman or man and NOT trans. Some people think of "trans" as something you always are. Some think of it as temporary or in the past. For me, I've always been trans and always will be.
Bil: When you use pronouns like "ze/hir," though, aren't you allowing others to see you as constantly in that in-between stage? The not-yet-complete area? Because that's the area where I see most people getting confused. They can accept three basics, in my opinion: male, female, and en route. People tend to give intersex folks a medical "pass" for being in-between, and I think the general public is increasingly willing to accept someone in-between as transitioning to change themselves for the better. However, I think there's an innate prejudice against someone perceived to be "going nowhere."
Drew: I think that's the point for many folks -- existing outside the gender binary and forcing people to deal with the reality that, yes, people do live this way. And butting up against language, policy, culture, etc., is an essential part of the trans justice struggle. It's harder for people to wrap their heads around folks who are third-gender, two-spirit, genderqueer, genderfluid, etc., but tough shit, they're going to have to anyway, because we're not going anywhere.
Final thoughts from Drew: After sitting with things for a bit, I did decide to use singular they/them/their(s) pronouns for myself. It's not perfect, but it is the option that causes me the least amount of discomfort while reflecting my genderqueer identity. Feel free to share your thoughts about genderqueerness and nonbinary pronoun options in the comments section.