The Problem of Pronouns
I am critical of everything — from commercials, to school curriculum, to language. I can find problems with just about anything and I’ve yet to decide if this is a good or a bad thing. I think the world is full of problems and I’ve become good at pointing them out and calling them by their real names. However, I’ve been hesitant to write this piece, despite its bubbling inside me for quite some time.
My problem with pronouns begins at the moment where we rely on the exchange of pronouns, as if they are sufficient. As if they are sufficient enough to ensure respect, sufficient enough to capture the expansive essence of our queerness, sufficient enough to do anything in the literal, productive sense.
I’ve been in both physical and online spaces where cis people asked for my pronouns and, more often than not, they still go on to misgender me. What’s the use in asking me to share my pronouns if they aren’t going to be respected? It seems that often cis people and cis spaces ask for the exchange of pronouns as an empty gesture towards inclusion.
Personally, I find it tired and dissatisfying. Even during the rare occasions that cis people in cis dominated spaces try to change their language, they complain the entire time. They claim that using my correct pronouns is too hard, or too tiring to remember. Which causes me to wonder whether they’re actually shifting their thinking, or only temporarily shifting their language. I have no desire to be appeased by cis people, that does nothing for me.
My problem with pronouns is that they are used most often when others are speaking about me, not when speaking to me. I want to be referred to in a way that affirms who I am, but more than that I want to be seen and treated in a way that affirms who I am.
Those in cis spaces seem to ask for our pronouns not to make us comfortable or to make us feel seen, but to virtue signal. Asking for pronouns is the latest means for companies and people to promote themselves as being diverse and inclusive. However, queer people’s lived experience reminds us of how useless these attempts are. Companies are simply working to market to queer audiences, not engage with us as people with needs, desires, rights, or political power.
My problem with the current emphasis on pronouns, is that the stress on the individual doesn’t improve the oppressive conditions in which queer and trans people live, struggle, resist, and die.
Yes, every person deserves the dignity and autonomy to name themselves and be respected in the process, but there’s more to it than that. People need safety, employment, and housing. Cis people’s faux solidarity acted out through requesting pronouns does not lead me to believe their next step is fighting transphobia, engaging in mutual aid, rebelling against cisnormativity, or the like.
The emphasis on the individual obscures our activism’s vision of a collective and a sense of a collective goal. It is this individualism that has brought us to the social and political moment we currently find ourselves in. Elliot Page graces the cover of TIME magazine only 7 years after Laverne Cox’s TIME Magazine cover — some trans people are being seen, some even celebrated, while others spend months and even years crowdfunding for living and transition expenses. Some fight for increased visibility, while trans teens in the UK are being denied healthcare and trans teens in the US are facing legislated discrimination in schools and sports.
My problem with pronouns is that they are but the beginning of the battle.
My problem with pronouns is that I have yet to find an effective means of properly informing everybody of what mine are. Not every person in my life is on social media, and not every person on social media is going to consult my bio before speaking about me.
I have yet to find a way to insert my pronouns into everyday interactions. Cashiers and restaurant servers might not need to know my pronouns, but they aggressively gender me enough to make me want to assert myself. I stop myself every time, hesitant to burden people as they simply try to do their jobs, and frustrated that doing so is seen as a burden in the first place.
I don’t want to have to educate acquaintances or people I meet casually, say at parties or online events, but they too operate with very binary gendered assumptions. Most of my friends know and respect my pronouns, and even if they slip up I often remind them that what’s important is that they see me for who I am.
My problem with pronouns is that their correct use does not ensure that people see me. My problem with pronouns is that their correct use does not ensure people understand me. Maybe my true problem with pronouns is that I am expecting them to ensure people see and understand me.
Queerness is not meant to be understood. Queerness is meant to defy definition, a moving target of sorts.
My problem with pronouns is that they ultimately try to contain what can not be defined. The depth and complexity of my queerness can not be contained within words like “they,” “she,” or “him.” My problem with pronouns is that I have yet to find a set that truly fit and feel like me. My problem with pronouns is that my identity, my being, is too big and expansive to be condensed into simple English words, and I’m tired of colonialism shaping my words and my identity.
My problem with pronouns is that I don’t have knowledge of my true language. My problem with pronouns is that there isn’t a set for everybody in every language. My problem with pronouns is that they make it seem like my spirit can be contained and understood using words. My problem with pronouns is that they can not be applied to the movement and fluidity of spirit.
My problem with pronouns is that they’re assumed to be able to capture something knowable about who I am. My spirit is queer and there are no use for pronouns in the spirit world. My problem with pronouns is that I am trying to make human a concept beyond language. Nonetheless, I can’t deny the fact that in this dimension, humanity needs language for connection and communication. In this dimension, I can’t find others like me without first declaring myself using this human language.
Language may be the basis upon which we build our connections but it by no means does the work of ensuring everybody is connected or cared for. I don’t have to have a problem with pronouns if they are not our final gathering place, if we go beyond their exchange.
My name is Jam, I use they/them pronouns and I’m fighting for a world in which our activism goes beyond naming ourselves and simple platitudes. My name is Jam, I use they/them pronouns and I demand a world where every space requires an exchange or pronouns, the respect of pronouns and affirmation of every aspect of who I am.