Pronoun trouble

Bugs and Elmer are © and ® Warner Brothers.

Bugs and Elmer are © and ® Warner Brothers.

Unlike Bugs Bunny, I have never been terribly good at drag. Part of the problem is simply a lack of practice, to be honest. Contrary to the stereotypes that some people still hold onto, not every gay many wants to be a a woman or do drag. Another part is I’m hairier than a hobbit. The vast majority of my adult life I’ve been bearded, (and I literally don’t have much practice at shaving my own face, either).

When I was a kid people used to talk about men who had five o’clock shadow: their beards were so dense or fast growing that after shaving in the morning before going to work, by late afternoon they had a noticeable “shadow” of stubble on their face. My dad had something like 10:00am shadow, and by the time I was in my early twenties I had it, too.

Even when I have silly expressions, in person I'm almost always called "sir."

Even when I’m being silly, in person I’m almost always called “sir.”

Despite that, I am no stranger to being mis-gendered. Back in the days when people used phones to (verbally)  talk to other people in distant locations (I think it was the early Triassic), I was constantly being addressed as “ma’am” on the phone. Never mind that when I was still regularly singing that I can hit an E-flat below the bass clef and was usually stuck in the bass section (because choruses never have enough basses), I clearly talk in my upper register. It isn’t something I consciously do. In fact, because the “way” I talk was frequently the excuse for a lot of the bullying I experienced in school (and teachers and administrators were always mentioning to my parents that I’d surely get along better in school if I could just stop talking like “that”) I went through quite a long phase of trying to talk in my lower register.

And it was irritating, to say the least, to have customer service people and other strangers on the phone call my “ma’am” or “miss.” So I can barely imagine how infuriating and demeaning it must feel for trans* people when others call them the wrong pronoun.

Especially when it is being done on purpose. It’s rude and disrespectful. And it infuriates me that there are people who claim that they don’t understand why it is rude. The very same people would get upset if someone refused to address them by their preferred name, right? I’ve known many grown men whose legal name is Thomas who absolutely despise being called “Tommy” for instance. So why is it so hard to wrap your head around preferred pronouns?

Of course, just like those people who would call me “ma’am” on the phone weren’t being intentionally rude, sometimes we use the wrong pronoun because we don’t know or we forget. When a person who is trans*, agender, or gender-fluid is a good friend or close colleague or family member, it’s easy to remember their pronouns. But when it’s at best a casual acquaintance or one of a bunch of strangers you’ve just met, it’s a lot harder.

There are also pronouns that are difficult. A trans woman acquaintance who prefers she/her/hers is fairly easy to remember. A genderqueer casual acquaintance who prefers they/them/theirs is a teensy bit more awkward for some of us. And then there’s the one trans* person who preferred to be called it. That word just has so much emotional baggage for me—bigots of many stripes I’ve had to endure loved calling anyone who was gay, lesbian, in any way gender non-conforming, or otherwise not conforming to their ideas of being “it.” I’ve known racists who referred to anyone non-white and with an accent “it.” I’ve known people bigots of other kinds who call atheists “it” for goodness sake! The point is that I carry a lot of emotional baggage with that word, and can’t use it myself without feeling that I’m dehumanizing someone. 

Which is not a justification for intentionally using a non-preferred pronoun. When you can’t remember or have some other difficulty with someone’s preferred pronoun, it is perfectly okay to just call them by their name. It isn’t that difficult to phrase things without pronouns. And it’s not a bad habit to get into with everyone you interact with, because the other kind of pronoun problem still occurs with everyone. If you use people’s names, everyone is less likely to be confused, in any case.

If you don’t remember someone’s name, well, there are ways to fix this. “Hi! I know we were introduced earlier, but I’m always getting names mixed up. I’m Gene, nice to meet you!” Admit to being less than perfect, and show that you’re making an effort to get to know them.

It really can be that simple!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

3 responses to “Pronoun trouble”

  1. Sheryl says :

    I found it surprising when you told me that I’ve probably not challenged gender norms, considering how often I — to this day — get asked “Boy or girl?” I learned to answer that question politely without taking offense. There are plenty of other incorrect assumptions people make when seeing me.

    That said, that is when people are asking out of genuine confusion. Unlike some, I **usually** have not had to deal with people choosing to dismiss my gender.

    Dismissing me **because** of my gender… well, that is not very often, but… sometimes… But that is different discussion altogether.

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