Sunday, January 1, 2012

pronouns are not a preference

i've been thinking about a trend within queer and trans-aware circles of asking someone hir pronoun preference. Although i do think it incredibly respectful to ask someone's pronouns, the language of "preference" here is intensely problematic. There is nothing preferred about my pronouns.

My pronouns are "she/her/hers," or if i give you explicit permission, "it." That's all. There's nothing preferred about these pronouns. They're simply the way(s) in which my gender can be accurately and respectfully referred to within the grammatical space of pronoun usage.

The all too frequent way of posing the question, "What pronouns do you prefer?" or "What are your preferred pronouns?," carries an agonizingly problematic social weight. Defining someone else's pronouns as "preference" preserves the privilege of the person making the reference to use the pronouns of their choosing. It reifies the capacity of the speaker to gender the referent.

Unfortunately, people in our society are not often allowed to self-determine their gender. Typically gender is assigned at birth, and enforced rigidly, even violently. This trend is made more starkly apparent in the stories and experiences of queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folk. Our genders are consistently questioned, or harassed, or belittled, or simply disbelieved. The trend of gender as being something that is done to a person, rather than by a person, is indicative of the nature of gendered oppression in our culture.

What's more, to consider a queer or trans persons' pronouns as preferential distinguishes them as inherently different than the normative framework in which cis pronouns operate. This differentiation creates separate linguistic planes; planar separation here is intrinsically linked to an existent gendered hierarchy.

Admittedly, i expect this to be my experience when i’m interacting with relatively unaware non-queer folk. It’s a sad fact of life given our current society. Now, this is not to say that this cannot change or that we shouldn’t work toward an increase in awareness and gender sensitivity in our culture. But, the world won’t be perfect when i wake up in the morning.

What’s more troubling to me is that the issue is carried into queer circles. Frankly, i hold these people to a higher standard. There’s an increased exposure, and it follows that certain hierarchical trends shouldn’t continue. But they so often do.

This language of preference is one way in which that process takes place. Imagine asking about someone’s preference regarding something non-gendered. Say, for example, you’re going out to pick up pizza and you ask, “What topping do you prefer?” Say then, that the person responds “olives,” and then the pizza place doesn’t have olives. Not to be too presumptuous, but you’d probably bring back a non-olive pizza. This may be accompanied by a tacit apology or deflection, but at the end of the day, it would most likely be ok to not have olives on the pizza. This is true because that’s a preference.

Gender doesn’t operate in this way. My sense of self is not your option. By asking someone what pronoun they prefer, what’s being implied is “I will try to respect your identity but I may fuck up.” There’s a sort of deflection here. Allowing one self to conceive of acknowledging a pronoun as anything less than absolutely necessary is completely disrespectful to a person’s identity. Someone else’s identity is no one’s option save hir own. Period. To not own the responsibility of respecting a person’s pronoun is an oppressive operation of privilege, and needs to be checked if we’re ever to gain a liberated sense of gender.

So, what are we left with? How does one express respect? Why not simply ask, “What are your pronouns?,” or “What pronouns do you use?” These methods both acknowledge the fact that someone else’s pronouns are not truly known until they’re explicitly stated. This is good, because it checks the possibility of assumption. What’s more, in these phrasings, the burden is appropriately placed. The person’s pronouns are cast as theirs, as necessary.

This is a point where I am thankful for English grammar, and this is a rarity, because “pronouns” is plural in the above phrasing. This can refer to a single set of pronouns (ex. Ze/hir/hirs), because a pronoun set contains multiple pronouns. It also allows for a person to claim more than one set of pronouns; it allows for a complication of identity at the discretion of the person answering the question.

After the above question is answered, and the responsibility placed where it belongs, it’s necessary to respect said answer. i can’t count the number of times i’ve heard queer folk say something to the effect of “I just 'they' everyone because it’s safer.” i’ve experienced this myself, and it feels so incredibly disrespectful. It either means that a queer person has willfully disregarded hir capacity and responsibility to inquire about how to respect, or has ignored the fact that a pronoun has already been made explicit. In either case, the importance of self-determination is cast aside as unimportant.

Don’t get me wrong, i’m all for using neutral pronouns when they are appropriate. However, these can be as ignorant of one’s gender as using an incorrect binary pronoun. When someone calls me “they,” they aren’t acknowledging either my femininity or my sense of self as a queerly gendered creature.

Sadly, queer space is often the only space in which i even stand a chance of not being rendered significantly invisible. This trend of universalizing “they” relinquishes the responsibility to accurately refer to someone and makes queer space unwelcoming and un-affirming in the same way that non-queer space is.

So let’s get it right. Let’s get it right in our community, and then let’s spread it. Queer folk are under constant fire from the outside world, we shouldn’t face the same problems within our own circles. What’s more, we’re constantly expanding our sphere of influence merely by existing. Whether we want to or not, we’re setting precedents for the future of gender in our world. Let’s not continue the old, patriarchal framework in which gender is not defined by the Subject. Let’s shift this dynamic in our community now so that we can then expand self-determination in broader culture as well. But, disregarding politics, let’s work to respect each other for the sake of respect itself.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I will always prefer "which pronouns do you use?" ;)

    I like the pizza metaphor, though I would add: if the answer is "oh, anything without fish - I'm allergic", it would be rude to get them a pizza with extra anchovis. Most people get that (though not all). But what if you say "oh, anything without meat - I'm a vegetarian"? Then some people would maybe decide that being vegetarian is a "choice" you've made, and that they don't have to pay respect to that. Even if you would explain to them how sick you can get if you eat meat for the first time in years, they would still bring you that salami pizza just to prove their point. Because to them, eating meat is "normal" and they decide they know your needs better than you do.

    That's the problem with "preference", as with all kinds of "tolerance" (instead of respect). If people ask me what pronouns I "prefer" I usually start a monologue about how I feel about gender-neutral versus male pronouns, just to make people aware of the word "prefer"...

  2. Hello Ellie,

    I really identify with your post about pronouns. Here in Wisconsin (and I think in other places, too?) a lot of people tend to shorten it and ask "What are your PGPs?"

    Usually when people ask this, the first "P" stands for preferred, as you write about and which is extremely problematic.

    I think if we're going to use the term "PGPs" the first "P" should stand for personal, because pronouns are personal to everyone. I also feel like this shifts the perceived meaning from a "preference/option" to a sense of self/identity. I usually ask people to remember the first P as personal now.

    What do you think?


    P.S. I do support your assertion of using “What are your pronouns?” or “What pronouns do you use?”

    I am just also curious about what you might think of shifting from "preferred" to "personal."

  3. onefly on Twitter @flyhasflownJanuary 19, 2012 at 9:47 AM

    Do you have any advice to offer to family of trans? I raised a child who is now an adult and has now declared a different gender in certain circles.
    (1) This adult offspring has not asked me to refer using the new gender or pronouns, but now tells friends I am ignoring the change I have not been asked to recognize.
    (2) I only know of said transitioning through reading twitter posts that are not locked. Said offspring accuses me of stalking if I read these posts, but same offspring accuses me of disrespect if I don't respect information that I wouldn't have any other way.
    (3) I don't know how to discuss past life. For example, using different names, if I said "my son Jonny used to..." Is that to be considered offensive f when Jonny was little Jonny was my son but now wants me to relate history that Jonny was my daughter?

    I'm really in a difficult place wanting to demonstrate love and acceptance. I also want my offspring to try to accept where I am, not hold my past against me, but also not expect me to be further along than where I am.

    Any suggestions?

  4. Onefly,

    I'd suggest asking your child what you should do. Direct communication is the best method. Just remember, it might take some time and it might change later. All you can do is be open and affirming and keep lines of communication open.


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