Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Don't make me use a pronoun

A friend of mine recently got very sick and he needed to be admitted to hospital. I went to visit him yesterday. I spent some time looking for him and finding the right room, and a friendly receptionist said to me, “Yes, she's down the hall and to the right.” I'm guessing I might have looked confused for a moment, because then she added: “The person you're... Your person is down the hall.” And off I went, thinking, yeah, my friend has an ambiguous name, it could be male or female.
It took me until this morning in the shower (where I'm daily confronted with my own incongruous biological sex) to realize what that was all about: my friend is transgender, transsexual, full-op, and has been for a number of years. But in his medical records, he is forever a F. Which I guess makes sense in that context. In fact, I'm also guessing that they have him down as FTM, because of the way the receptionist looking at his record corrected herself.
I've heard a lot of grief from the trans community about being referred to by the wrong pronoun (i.e. the one they don't personally identify as). It's considered rude, disrespectful and invalidating. To a trans person, using the wrong pronoun about them is like saying: “No matter how hard you try to appear and act as (gender x), we will never accept you as that, because WE know what you really are, and you, you are just confused about your own identity.”
But, having been on the other side of this divide and raised in a cis/heteronormative society, I want to say a few words in defense of people who do use “wrong” pronouns. I would have done so myself just a few years ago. And I would guess that for most people, it's not that we are trying to be intentionally rude. I think it's more that we are trying our best NOT to be rude in what we experience as a very awkward situation. Let me explain.
Those of us raised in heteronormative environments (and at the time of this writing, I think that's still most of us) grow up adopting a number of beliefs which, if we never take the time to examine them (again, true for most people), lie in us unconsciously and govern how we behave and interact. Some of those beliefs are: There are two genders in the world: male and female. What gender you are depends on the genitals you are born with. That gender is for life. It is important to display obvious gender characteristics of your assigned gender: that makes you attractive and esteemed in our society. The only contexts heteronormative culture has for people who do not conform to reinforcing gender norms in their appearance and behavior, are those considered in some way deviant, marginal, to be ridiculed or pitied: the bearded lady in the freak show, the old spinster, the tomboy, the dyke, the woman with a flat chest, the sissy boy, the faggot, the eunuch, the man with the small penis. In other words, these people have somehow “failed” at being their proper gender, and that is considered something shameful.
Now imagine a person who subconsciously holds those beliefs, who has never had much reason to call them into question, suddenly having to interact with a transgender individual. Another rule we have as a society is that we try to be nice to each other (or at least to strangers!) :) This heteronormative person now finds themselves in an impossible dilemma: if they use the pronoun which the trans person considers the right one (but the heteronormative person considers the “wrong” one based on genitals), in the mind of the heteronormative person, they are essentially saying to the trans person: “You are pitiful; you are so bad at being your gender that I am using the other pronoun; you are a freak; you are someone I ridicule and not someone I can be an equal with.” Now, they can't afford to appear this rude to someone, so they go with the pronoun that matches the genitals, but probably squirming inside not knowing what to do, because at the same time the trans person is in their face about NOT being the gender they were just referred to as.
I think the solution is simply to make space for some conscious consideration of how to act. I'm inclined to say something like: “You know, he actually WANTS to appear male, and PREFERS to be called 'he'.” I have a feeling many people would appreciate some instruction, where they are too embarrassed to ask.


  1. This is a very interesting analysis - I am sure this explains a lot on how people gender me. What I still don't understand is the *insistence* in gendering someone, especially when they are ambiguously gendered, and especially when they don't have to. As in your story, the nurse could have said "that person is in room X" and avoid referring to him as "she." My favorite example is when ordering food - they can say "what would you like to eat?" but instead they have to say "what would you like to eat SIR/MA'AM" as if that title were obligatory.

  2. This makes total sense to me! I admit that I don't have a lot of knowledge in this area, but I think I'd be in a position similar to the nurse's - I wouldn't know which pronoun to use at first either. I think someone should only take offense to the use of the wrong pronoun if it persists after being corrected.

    Also, it is ingrained in us to use the pronouns "he" and "she" - trying to change that (at least at this point), is futile. We have been taught that to call a person by a gender-neutral pronoun (it), dehumanizes that person. To a lesser extent, so does saying something like "that person" or some such. Unfortunately, our culture has evolved so that gender-language (and just male/female) assigns more humanity to a person, whereas gender-neutral language removes it to some degree.

    Further, (to address the sir/ma'am comment) establishments want their clients/customers/patients/etc to feel welcome, honored, or some other state that will make them associate a positive feeling with said establishment, so they'll come back. (Thus the sir/ma'am thing).

    Just some thoughts. :)