This essay was originally published on November 27 2018.

The first time someone asked me my pronoun was about a decade ago at a meeting of directors of LGBTQ centers from colleges and universities in the Northeast. Sitting around a table for our first session, we were invited to share our names, pronouns, and the school we represented. I immediately felt my heart beat faster. The room was a mixture of people I had known for many years and others I was just meeting for the first time. As one of the few, potentially the only, visibly gender nonconforming people at the table, this question seemed aimed at me. The people I had known a long time came to attention when it was my turn. They wanted to know… well, what exactly was it that they wanted to know?

There are numerous things to be discovered by finding out someone’s pronoun. At its most utilitarian, it is a literal question: tell me what pronoun to call you when I speak of you in the third person. Two intertwined forces inspire this question. Viewed pessimistically, the question seems to ask, how do I not offend you? Viewed optimistically, it asks instead, how do I refer to you respectfully? This question is deceptively simple, the possible answers vary ever so slightly — the difference between he and she is just one letter; they is simply “he” bracketed by “t” and “y.” But great conclusions are drawn from the answer. It is less about she, he or they than it is about the significance of the answer: an ability to determine whether the speaker is transgender or cisgender.

While the question was a narrow one about language, the answer had great implications. Was I trans? Given what I knew about transgender identity at the time and what I knew about myself, I did not identify as transgender. I was also very comfortable being referred to using the gendered pronoun she. I still am for two reasons: being referred to as such my whole life and a feeling that it has no bearing on my gender. My gender — a lifetime of non-conformity, masculinity, butchness, and transness — is neither validated nor undone by a one syllable word.

As a female-bodied masculine-presenting person, there was no good answer. Whatever I said would force me into a box — a new box. Though I successfully resisted the gender norms of family, church, and society for over 30 years, my chosen family — the LGBTQ community — was asking me to make an impossible decision. My pronoun was “she.” But saying it felt that I was consenting to a denial of my gender nonconformity and masculinity. My gender, something I then described as butch, was not legible as transgressive in this new gendered order. Saying “she” implied that I was cisgender and not trans, which I resented. Saying “she” implied that I was unaware, out of touch, or in denial of my gender. The exercise meant to create space and affirmation for transgender and gender-nonconforming people like me made me feel terrible and invisible.

The origins of this practice are important and noteworthy. Misgendering transgender people through pronouns is widespread and mean. People do it all the time — intentionally and inadvertently. People who are friends, allies, queer, and strangers use these one-syllable words to bully, invalidate, and erase transgender people. Making a big deal about affirming what we used to call preferred names and pronouns was a basic staple of transgender organizing and consciousness raising. Responding to the demands of transgender students and under the leadership of longtime LGBTQ professionals, higher education led the way in instituting systems and policies to enable gender affirming naming and pronouns. The rhetorical exercise of having everyone declare their gender pronouns — not just trans people — was a valuable exercise in visibility and solidarity.

The practicality of the gesture of compulsory pronoun reporting has run its course. This practice does more harm than good, on several fronts. For so many young people who might be questioning or discovering their gender, it requires them to make a declaration, whether or not they are ready, or want to. For people with clarity about their gender identities, certain situations may not feel comfortable or safe for any number of reasons. For transgender and gender nonconforming people like me who use pronouns that are consistent with our assigned sex, it serves to erase the significance of gender in our life, leading people to lump us into the “cisgender” pile. Some people are probably comfortable with this. I am not. When a young transgender student just out of high school called me cisgender, I was shocked. How could anyone — even just by looking at me — ever come to the conclusion that I was cisgender?

I have always been a gender warrior and a gender outlaw. The earliest evidence I have of this are a few pictures dating to when I was about five or six. Wearing a frilly white dress as a flower girl for my cousin’s wedding, I refused to smile for the camera. In all of the wedding pictures of me, I am making the worst face I possibly could to express my upset about the dress. Sometime that same year, I smiled a broad toothless smile while posing for a photo shoot for my dance recital. I joyfully showed off my matching satin vest and bow tie while clutching onto a top hat, knees slightly bent in comfortable white pants. I agreed to dance my part in the duet with my partner once I was allowed to be the boy.

Courtesy of Author

I now have a deeper understanding of the category of transgender and am happy to identify or be identified as such. As a social constructionist, I understand this development as a process shaped by external forces around me and not as an expression of some inner truth that has been until this moment suppressed. With the social, cultural, and political rise of a new gendered binary — that of transgender and cisgender — it is clear that I am transgender. Many aspects of the transgender community and identity are wonderfully affirming and comfortable for me. I have found my place, even though the most common social ritual of transgender inclusion erases me. Most people overseeing such rituals are not trans themselves.

Rituals of transgender inclusion have amplified binary thinking unwittingly by centering on pronouns. This has given rise to two related developments. First, an increase in the invocation of “they” as a pronoun, in some cases seemingly so as to avoid being designated as cisgender. If people find comfort, joy, and recognition for themselves by claiming “they,” that is awesome. We are winning the battle in making space for those of us who live beyond the gender binary. The second development is the use of the category cisgender to describe broad swaths of people without knowledge of their self-identification. Cisgender advances the notion that gender for everyone else is fixed, knowable, and normative. By using cisgender as a normative category, we deny the permeability, temporality, and messiness of gender for everyone. Asserting the idea that only trans people are on a gender journey and only trans people face gender struggles is the implication of the category cisgender. It divorces our gender struggle from those of other gendered beings. By doing so, we are losing the war against the gender binary.

*****

When someone tells you what pronoun to use in reference to them, there is only one response: use it. It does not matter whether or not you understand their gender or approve of this request. I have made this point hundreds of times over the years, often trying to convince faculty members to make their classes welcoming environments for transgender students. I argue endless battles with well-educated people who think their own grammar school lessons from 40 or 50 years ago preclude them from referring to individual students as “they.” I will fight this battle over gendered language and pronouns every day of the week for any and every transgender person.

That said, it is time that rituals of transgender inclusion move away from pronouns. First, the pronoun “issue” is anxiety-provoking for many people, including some trans people as well as our best friends and allies. I have seen this repeatedly in higher education. Students embrace an expansive vocabulary for describing their sexual and gender identities that can be illegible even to LGBTQ faculty and staff of a different generation. LGBTQ students experience a certain degree of acceptance, but many faculty and staff keep them at arm’s length because they are afraid they will say something wrong. While faculty need to be more proactive in learning about LGBTQ communities and our language, our classrooms should not be defined by “gotcha” moments that leave no room for learning from our mistakes, together.

I cannot even count how many people have expressed anxiety over misgendering me. They feel bad. I feel worse. All of this hinges on the use of a pronoun. People who I think of as friends and colleagues, who I talk to every week or month then suddenly say “Oh, I’m sorry, did I use the wrong pronoun?” This gesture is well-intended. They do not want to offend me. But it is such a vacuous, disheartening experience for me every time. In that moment, whatever trust, friendship, or intimacy I felt is thrown into doubt. Why do they not know that I would correct them if they spoke of me inaccurately? Why did I assume they were comfortable with me and my gender when they obviously are not? In times like these, I miss the rituals of an earlier era when polite people — especially in the workplace — did not talk of such things.

But the real reason we need to rethink the place of pronouns in public life is even more significant: the advancement of transgender rights. What a distraction the pronoun go-round has become. I have sat through countless meetings in all kinds of spaces facilitated by well-intended people, often gay, sometimes straight, seldom trans, who righteously assert compulsory pronoun identification on everyone in the room and then never speak another word about transgender issues, rights, or people. It is as if this achievement — making space for pronouns — is the beginning and the end of the needs of transgender people. College students report doing this in meetings of all kinds and not really understanding why they do it. No one is doing anything to educate themselves or each other about the widespread discrimination and violence faced by transgender people, but by golly, every person will have a chance to state their pronoun! Now, if only people actually listened when said pronoun is declared — and remembered it — and used it every time in reference to that person. Then we would be getting somewhere, but that never happens. People cannot hear what you said or they forget it or mix it up with someone else’s anyway. What a thoroughly misguided good intention.

Trans people are used to advocating for ourselves in the face of great misunderstanding and hostility. Telling people our pronoun — when needed — is nothing compared to navigating educational, carceral, government and public spaces that enforce outdated gender binaries. We fight for access to healthcare — an industry long a source of violence — and try to make it work for us. Anti-transgender violence, especially against transgender women of color, persists at alarming rates. Transgender people experience high rates of suicide, homelessness, and unemployment. These issues of accessing the basic necessities for human survival are the important issues of transgender justice.

The next time you start a meeting and are tempted to go around the room asking everyone to report their pronoun, consider a better use of that time. Create an opportunity for people to say something substantive about their lives, including but not limited to gender. Provide some information that will actually advance the cause of transgender justice. Stop contributing to a performance of transgender inclusion that makes you feel good while doing little to actually advance the cause of transgender rights.

Jen Manion is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College and author of the forthcoming Born in the Wrong Time: Female Husbands and the Transgender Past (Cambridge University Press, 2020)

19 thoughts on “The Performance of Transgender Inclusion

  1. this perfectly articulates how I’ve felt about (what feels like) mandatory pronoun self designation in queer&trans circles – and the well-meaning others who have adopted it. Thanks so much!

  2. thank you so much for this. no more mandatory pronoun pronouncement, please, folks! or trying to put us all in trans vs cis binary categories when, in fact, some of us don’t fit neatly in either (such as a lot of butch women)

  3. thank you for writing this. it is about several difficult subjects that too many people write/speak as if they have a clear and obvious answers, when they just don’t.

  4. What an awesome article! My own comments on it outgrew the format of a facebook repost, so would definitely also be too much for a comments section. But I’m gonna workshop it with some folks locally and try to work it up into a follow-up blog post in its own right. If you’re interested, I’d be honored to have you weigh in on it at some point.

  5. I totally disagree with this article on so many levels as a GQ/GNC person. Pronouns are important for us transgender folx, especially youth in the academic setting. Even more so for those who are nonbinary as we are often misgendered based on looks. Ones transness isn’t defined by pronouns but for many, it is important to be seen and affirmed by our pronouns. And if you don’t want to out yourself when pronouns are asked, you simple can just not respond or use your assigned at birth gender. We still live in a cisnormativity society so it is imperative we, as Gender Outlaws, still buck the norms by reminding folx that our pronouns are important for many of us. We are far from being at a place where we can say it is irrelevant. If it isn’t important to you, that is your perogative. But this isn’t the truth for all of us.

    1. i think she says several times that pronouns are REALLY important. i think she’s arguing against *compulsory* pronoun go-arounds, and expressing a particular experience of disorientation that i think is important to hear.
      i’m not at ALL arguing with you…i’m just saying that i think she, too, (though i don’t know her) would agree with every single thing you said, and disagree with a reading of her piece that interpreted it as saying that pronouns aren’t important.

    2. I agree. If pronouns are important, then discussing them is too. Relegating gender interrogations to only Trans/GQ/GNC people isn’t helpful — it’s isolating. And we’re isolated enough already.

  6. As a gender-expansive/genderqueer student affairs graduate student who has been nothing but misgendered through the misuse of my pronouns throughout my entire program, I find this essay incredibly disturbing. We cannot say “we’re past pronouns” when folks cannot even get them right in the first place.

    The acknowledgment of pronouns is important because we exist in a heteronormative/cisnormative environment. Our student exist in these heavily gendered environments and when we ask for pronouns and use them appropriately we create an environment that may be the ONLY validation they receive that day.

    If you ask transgender and gender-expansive students what they need and want out of their academic and co-curricular spaces it is validation through pronouns and name policies.

    I say all of this with the acknowledgement that every time I disclose my pronouns in a group setting it “outs” me. That in and of it self could be harmful for trans students. That is why it is imperative to apply pronouns to a group setting but allow space for folks to approach you individually if necessary. Also, you should acknowledge that people use different pronouns in different spaces.

    I definitely did not choose my pronouns to prove my “lack of cisgenderism” or transness. After reading this essay I feel like you took my identity and erased it as a tool to unpack your own internalized sexism.What kind of “gender warrior” does that make you besides coming off as just another trans exclusionary feminist?

    1. hey, sorry you are feeling erased here. my personal experience of reading this was that it resonated so strongly with me that it almost felt like my own words. so perhaps i’m having trouble getting distance from it and understanding your critique, but your characterization of the message of the piece as “we’re past pronouns” REALLY doesn’t match my reading. in fact, the author emphasizes the importance of pronouns several times. what she’s saying is that COMPULSORY pronoun go-arounds are painful and anxiety-inducing for people like her–and like me. i completely agree with pretty much everything you say aside from the difference in our readings… like, validation through pronouns and name policies is ESSENTIAL and non-negotiable in higher ed. i think the author would agree with all of that too–like, your point about using different pronouns in different spaces is kind of EXACTLY what i think is at the heart of her point: pronouns can be messy and are not this key to a precise understanding of someone’s lived experience. you (cis folks, not actual you) have to be able to move to the next level of support here, and embrace all that complexity, to do EXTRA work to understand and support trans/non-binary folks and their full experiences. that means shifting pronouns to accommodate someone’s shifting identity or to ensure their safety. it means using male pronouns for someone who asks for it even if they don’t conform to your sense of what someone using these pronouns should look like or do. it means prioritizing student safety and dignity in the face of the challenges of bureaucracy and technology.
      a lot of people of close to my age (i’m 37) are sharing this article, and i think there is a really generational particularity to it…i identified as ‘butch’ in high school, used terms like ‘bio-boy’ in college, drove across the country to join camp trans and protest the mich fest policy, argued passionately with the second-wave-era women’s studies professors who had ignited my activism and then disappointed me with their failure to be allies to trans people or understand the ways in which our work was continuing, not surrendering to, the battle for gender freedom. i’m trying to say that i feel on a real cusp with all this… i feel like the journey i’ve been on intellectually and politically has really mirrored my internal journey. “gender non-conforming” and “non-binary”–these are terms that feel comfortable for me, and the fact that they are now MAINSTREAM INTELLIGIBLE is frankly mind-blowing. but for 20-years-ago me, ‘butch’ was SUPER important. using female pronouns was really important in the face of the proscriptive narratives i was up against at the time–not because i actually felt like a woman, but because i didn’t believe there WAS one defined way to feel like a woman and insisting on the pronoun that didn’t match people’s reading of me felt like a way to register my objection–to require that THEY experience some of the dissonance that i felt. i don’t feel like my identity changed. i’ve always been gnc and non-binary–the rest of the world just didn’t have language for that. now they are starting to (thanks not only to my work but that of this AMAZING new generation taking the reins). but i spent so long insisting that the pronouns people used for me reflected absolutely nothing essential about me. the pronoun i use is not consistent with my gender. it never was. so what resonated with me was the experience of being framed as “cisgender” when i say i use “she” just because they read me as having a vagina. it’s a little mind-boggling. and i’ll throw in that in my experience, it’s not other trans/gnc folks who do this–mostly cis straight folks, sometimes cis gay folks. so i sometimes ask for “they” in these situations, not because it is organically important to me, but because i worry about how i’ll be interpreted, and it is always an incredibly anxious and fraught moment. these are the moments i think this person is speaking to. this is different from a claim that everyone who uses they does so for this reasons.

      one more quick thing–in addition to generational particularities, there are surely regional particularities to these experiences. though i have never met the author, i was for several years a staff member at the institution where she teaches, and assume we live in the same region. there are some places where, i think, the pronoun go-around is still a deeply informative educational experience for some folks. but there, like in many liberal pockets of the northeast, there can be a sanctimonious performativity at play, especially when requests from trans/gnc folks for further steps to safeguard their dignity are blatantly ignored.

      but across all generations and regions, using the right pronouns is mandatory, and “they” is a thoroughly valid and meaningful option. in my reading, this piece explicitly supports these tenets.

    2. I agree. I think it’s clear the author is projecting their own fears, insecurities, and assumptions on others. It’s important to make a public effort to treat people respectfully. I transitioned 17 years ago, and getting people to change pronouns took time. They got it wrong, but I knew anyone making an effort was on my side, even though they screwed up.

      It’s not a “gotcha” moment to tell someone your pronoun, even when they get it wrong. It’s something trans people have to deal with, as well as those around them. That wouldn’t change if you had a room full of people announce their preferences or not. At worst you’re giving other people the opportunity to address troublemakers without your direct involvement — a true victory in my book. I wish I had more people doing that when I transitioned.

      And on top of that, it may seem uncomfortable for people to be asked their pronoun and to have to think about such things, but it’s also uncomfortable for trans people to be the one singled out for that question. By asking that question of everyone, you’re providing people with an experience they wouldn’t normally have to face, and you’re asking them something they may not have even asked themselves. Actually having to go through that can be as instructive as any lecture.

      It’s also really easy to challenge the assumption that answering someone’s questions about your pronouns is compulsory — say something. Say you aren’t comfortable. Try to explain why if you want.

  7. The over-focus on pronouns has contributed to erasing the fact that cis queer femmes are also gender transgressors and do not perform gender as proscribed by patriarchy. Every time I say “she” as a cisqueer woman, it feels diminishing. But I won’t shift to “they,” and erase myself further.

  8. Thank you for this. As someone who used to identify as a butch/GNC woman and later came out as a trans man, I’ve been in so many situations (mostly in well-meaning and/or LGBT spaces) where I’ve felt very singled out or uncomfortable with mandatory stating of pronouns. I remember that when I was questioning my gender, saying “they” felt like outing myself before I was ready and saying “she” felt like erasing a part of myself I didn’t really understand yet but still didn’t want people to assume didn’t exist. Now when people ask for my pronouns it still bothers me because I doubt they would ask someone they aren’t reading as trans for whatever reason. I can’t agree more with the part about transgender and cisgender being a new kind of binary. There’s no way to know that every person using “she” who is assigned female at birth (or vice versa) is cisgender, and assuming you understand someone’s gender from the pronouns they use is not helping trans people or trans rights at all.

  9. “I prefer not to answer.” Congrats, it’s not compulsory anymore, you have avoided having to say anything, and you’ve instantly made the point that the issue can be complex or at least very personal.

    The real issue here is that the author is projecting their own insecurity on others when they discuss pronouns or ask for their pronouns. Making assumptions about other people’s feelings and motivations is a recipe for projection.

    If you’re already presenting as visibly gender queer/non conforming, and someone asks you about your pronoun preference, are they really saying that they are not comfortable with you? Or is that your fear? They could just be wanting to treat you with respect. The same is true for asking in a group setting.

    Is it reality the case that others discussing pronouns are doing so just to make themselves feel good? Or is that just what we may fear? While I would certainly agree more needs to be done than simply dealing with pronouns, it’s far better than nothing to have people who care enough to ask and respect the answer — especially in a world full of people intentionally misgendering transgender people or worse in order to deny their identity.

    And I totally get that it can be difficult for someone to out themselves when they are just starting to question their identity or transition, but in group settings where that is going to be discussed (like a support group) it’s quite common for reporting to be voluntary — not compulsory. You tell people what you’re comfortable telling.

    I think it has also escaped notice that asking everyone for their gender preferences does the opposite of singling transgender or non conforming people out. Everyone that was asked now has the experience of being asked, which they would not have otherwise had. And any transgender people in the group are now treated the same as everyone else. And quite frankly, we need more of that, not less. When we’re singled out, it can feel as if they’ve set us apart.

    After we have been othered and mistreated for so long, it can be very difficult to tell what other people’s true intentions may be. It’s especially important that we are addressing our own fears and noticing our own tendencies to project them on others, especially since there are supportive people out there, and unless we trust their intentions, we’ll be stuck in a never ending cycle of questioning our allies rather than working on the real problems trans people face.

  10. I feel she centered her
    own experiences and insecurities (however validly felt) and stretched to
    extrapolate those experiences to the trans community in general. And I think
    she missed the point of pgp go-arounds. I was talking to a teacher at a school
    I run workshops in the other day. I bring coloring pages to all my groups, and
    when I’m doing sexual health groups, I bring genital coloring pages. She said,
    at first she was really shocked and even embarrassed by the coloring pages, but
    after a few weeks of bringing those coloring pages, and decorating the
    classrooms with the finished pieces, genitals and body parts became a normal
    part of the communities periphery. PGP go-arounds are an intentional way of
    normalizing the idea that our assumptions of people are not reliable at best,
    and harmful at worst.

    PGP go-arounds also give permission to people who may never have
    felt they had permission to assert themselves in a new light. When I run my
    groups, I always ask for peoples names, and whatever pronouns they want the
    group to use for the next hour (or however long I’m with them). That also
    explicitly asserts the idea that pronouns are not stagnant, they can change,
    and you have permission to try something new out. You are allowed to explore
    yourself in the space I am holding, and that ultimately is what pgp go-arounds
    are about.

    In terms of the issue of safety, there are always going to be places
    where people who experience erasure feel unsafe. And trans/GNC/NB people may
    very well not feel safe enough to share the pronouns that feel good for them in
    a space where a pgp go-around is happening. That may never go away, and people
    always have the option to code switch for safety. It’s a skill we all know, and
    skill we all utilize when we need it. But entering a space where pgps aren’t even
    acknowledged feels far more detrimental, especially if you then have to out
    yourself as having different pronouns than the way people perceive you as.
    There is safety and solidarity in a common practice.

    Jen’s experiences that she asserts as ubiquitous also deny the
    idea that gender is not something that be determined by your pronouns. Pronouns
    are how you want to be referred to as. Gender identity can be an entirely
    different experience. For some people those experiences are the same, and for
    some they are vastly different. Manion’s insistence that pronouns in fact
    alienate the cisgender community with discomfort is the very reason that pgp
    go-arounds are so vital. Working through the discomfort, normalizing mistakes
    that are then corrected with effort, is an imperative step to creating space
    where people’s full selves are welcome. The advancement of transgender rights
    does not rest on pgp go-arounds. But it is certainly buoyed by it. Especially
    for the work that we do, particularly with young kids. When you start
    normalizing the idea that gender does not exist necessarily through
    presentation, interest preferences, names, OR pronouns, but instead exists as
    an identity, both internally and externally, that everyone has the right to
    explore, you raise a generation to people who will question their assumptions,
    and glean deeper understanding of why those assumptions live within them in the
    first place.

    1. SO. Needless to say, Dean Spade’s article resonated much more with
      me. http://www.deanspade.net/2018/12/01/we-still-need-pronoun-go-rounds/?fbclid=IwAR1H_KsX1fLzvNZOLNvNnfTi43BibWyhv_7PWRyB0t7qA7aKpD149RVTgsQ
      No, “It cannot take care of all of the complex problems of judgement, identity,
      and anxiety that exist around out complex lives and political movements. It is
      merely an attempt to create a practice of not assuming we what someone goes by
      just by looking at them.” He’s right when he says “it signals a culture of
      respect” because an effort is being made to acknowledge that erasure of a
      specific group of people happens, and this practice is actively working to
      combat that. No it’s not perfect, and no, that can’t be where it ends. But
      halting the practice all together gives permission to people to never think
      about their privilege, to never question their assumptions, and to move through
      the world in ways that continue to erase people, either intentionally, or inadvertently.

    2. I’m late to the party but this article very much seems to come from my own head. I agree with all the points made by other commenters about the values in asking for pronouns, but the compulsory nature of this is not needed. What’s wrong with asking “And please share your preferred pronouns if you wish”? I participated in a workshop that seemingly required participation in this level of sharing in introductions. I say “seemingly” because the facilitator jumped in, after several people introduced themselves and chose not to provide this info, with a “reminder” to provide our preferred pronouns. “Seemingly required” too, because I don’t know what would have happened had I said I prefer not to answer. This was a group I was not comfortable sharing this with but a module of an expensive workshop so I couldn’t really walk out the virtual door. Having already heard the “reminder” given to others, I just gave my presenting pronoun and left feeling more uncomfortable and untrue to myself. I understand the idea behind putting that unease and discomfort in the room for conforming folk to get a sense of what other groups may feel; I understand opening the doors for people to feel comfortable sharing if they want to. But why inadvertently risk adding anxiety to a person’s day/life with the forced nature of this in go-arounds?

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